Losing C.J. Duncan for the 2015 season was a bad thing for the Vanderbilt Commodores no doubt. The sophomore wide receiver was an emerging weapon for a team in desperate need of playmakers. After all, he did almost single-handedly bail Vandy out from an embarrassing loss to UMass last fall:
Taking Duncan off the field removes a dynamic threat for this team's young quarterbacks. It will likely drain a year of eligibility from a receiver who proved he could be an explosive playmaker last fall. His torn ACL is the first on-field blow for a team that needed every ounce of positivity that they could get.
But it won't sink the Commodores in 2015.
Losing Duncan, for lack of a better term, sucks. He had plenty to prove after fading from the forefront of this team's offense late in 2014. This coaching staff loved his athleticism so much that they gave him more carries as a running back (nine) in this year's spring game than any rusher besides Ralph Webb. He was primed to be Mason's D.J. Moore, only starting on the easy side of the ball.
Despite that, this Vanderbilt team can still improve without 2014's leading WR. Here's why.
1. The Commodores have a cache of talented receivers - young and old - who will vie for Duncan's reps at wideout. Scratching C.J.'s name off the top of the depth chart provides an opportunity for several players to step up. Trent Sherfield led all receivers in the 2015 spring game when he hauled in four receptions for 67 yards - a 16.75 yard per catch average. He's been explosive in fall practices so far and looks like the obvious choice to absorb Duncan's vacated reps. Caleb Scott showed off crisp routes and solid hands as a true freshman last year. He can handle a larger role in this offense. Kris Kentera is a big target who has something to prove as a senior. Same with junior Darrius Sims, who is an explosive touchdown threat who will move to his third position in two years this fall. Chandler Dorrell emerged as a sure-handed receiver who wasn't afraid to take a beating in the middle of the field. The 'Dores also have three freshmen that measure out at 6'3" or taller, led by new arrival and 240-pound beast Jared Pinkney. The battle for Duncan's playing time does not lack participants.
2. Last season, wide receivers were roughly as important as the team's tight ends in the passing attack. In 2014, Vanderbilt's top two tight ends combined for 786 yards and five touchdowns. Their top two receivers, Duncan included, netted 791 yards and five TDs. While Vandy's wideouts should play a larger role with a more stable quarterback situation this fall, there's no doubt that the Commodores' tight ends will carry this offense for stretches in 2015. Steven Scheu will lead the pack, but DeAndre Woods has proven to be a fast-twitch complement to his All-SEC teammate on the other side of the offensive line. Nathan Marcus will give the 'Dores another receiving tight end to round out one of the conference's strongest rotations.
3. Duncan and probable starting quarterback Johnny McCrary had a limited rapport in their freshman seasons. I pointed this out yesterday, but it bears repeating. In games where McCrary threw the bulk of the team's passes, Duncan's receiving yards per game dropped by nearly 20 when compared to his performance with Vandy's three other passers. There could be several reasons for that - the young QB preferred his safety valves in the middle of the field, opposing defenses had zeroed in on Duncan after he emerged as the team's top WR threat - but the fact remains that C.J. was #4 on the receiver chart when McCrary stepped back in the pocket. Another year of practice together may have changed that, but we won't know for sure until 2016.
|Johnny McCrary's 2014 Targets as Primary Passer|
So yes, losing C.J. Duncan is a problem, but it's not going to cripple this offense. Instead, it will provide an opportunity for this team's young playmakers to step up and prove that 2014 was an aberration. Duncan will be missed, but the depth of the Commodore roster shows that we won't be blaming any losses on his season-ending injury this fall.