Fall practices officially get underway for Vanderbilt football this Thursday, and despite a roster stocked with returning players, second-year head coach Derek Mason still has some big decisions to make with his starting lineup. While breakout candidates like Steven Scheu, Ralph Webb, Andrew Jelks, and Adam Butler are firmly entrenched in their roles, questions remain at cornerback, center, linebacker, and - most importantly - quarterback.
The choices that Mason makes could dictate his success in 2015 - a season that may determine his future viability as a Division I coach. He'll have to glean improvements on both sides of the ball to restore confidence in his ability to lead an SEC program. That won't be especially hard this fall - the Commodores failed to crack the top 100 in most offensive and defensive statistical categories in 2014. There isn't much room to go down from here.
The main focus in August will be on who Mason installs behind center. Vanderbilt poured through four different quarterbacks last season with little success. Two of those passers are back, and the departed Patton Robinette/Stephen Rivers duo has been replaced by redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage and true freshman Kyle Shurmur. While the Commodores certainly have talent at the position, they also lack answers, Can any of these four young quarterbacks bring the Vandy offense back to respectability?
Today, we'll take a closer look at that QB race, along with a couple other positional battles that could define Vanderbilt's 2015 season.
The Candidates (2014 Stats)
Johnny McCrary (78-152, 985 passing yards, nine touchdowns, eight interceptions)
Wade Freebeck (34-72, 376, one TD, five INTs)
Shawn Stankavage (redshirt freshman)
Kyle Shurmur (true freshman)
Has Johnny McCrary figured it out? The redshirt sophomore threw more passes than any other Commodore quarterback last fall, but he struggled against complex SEC defenses and got little help from an inexperienced group of receivers. He passed for 450 yards and six touchdowns against Charleston Southern and Old Dominion but managed just 535 yards and three TDs in five other appearances. He's the incumbent after starting the final five games of 2014, but he's got plenty of prove in order to hang on to that spot.
McCrary's competition looks solid if you're focused on recruiting ratings, but there's not a lot of NCAA tape from which to judge this group. Wade Freebeck had his redshirt burned midway through his freshman season and never looked comfortable in the pocket, stumbling to an 81.8 efficiency rating (Vandy's opponents, for reference, averaged a 140.4 score). Shawn Stankavage looked like the team's best option during this year's spring game, but that's a small sample size for a young player who has yet to sharpen himself against SEC defenses. The buzz coming out of Nashville suggests that he's a bit gimpy this summer, and any blow to his mobility would also have a big impact on his overall efficiency behind center.
That leaves Kyle Shurmur. A strong senior season and solid mechanics made the Pennsylania passer a rising four-star recruit in 2014, and recent precedence shows that Mason isn't adverse to ditching his quarterbacks' redshirts if a solid option doesn't emerge early in the season. Shurmur is the son of Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, so he'll be expected to pick up Andy Ludwig's offensive schemes on the fly. That will be the key to rising up the QB ranks in his first year in Nashville.
The Candidates (2014 Stats)
Taurean Ferguson (30 tackles, two INTs, four passes broken up, six passes defensed)
Tre Herndon (nine tackles)
Tre Bell (19 tackles, two passes broken up, two passed defensed)
Donovan Sheffield (true freshman)
Torren McGaster is entrenched as the starter along one sideline, but the spot across from him is still up for grabs. The Commodores will have a cache of young defensive backs vying for a headlining role under their new defensive coordinator - Derek Mason. Ferguson and Bell basically split their redshirt freshman seasons as starters in 2014, but each suffered their share of growing pains throughout the year. Herndon began that season listed third on the depth chart and rose up to option 1a next to Ferguson by the time Tennessee came to town. All three bring different talents to the CB slot, but none are as well rounded as a tackler and receiver blanket as McGaster is.
That group of sophomores will have to fend off Sheffield, a local product who brings a lot of hype to the city's western border. Sheffield has the talent to be a shutdown corner at the next level, but he'll need to blast through the SEC learning curve in order to get there this fall. Another young defender, sophomore LaDarius Wiley, could also work his way into the lineup. The final depth chart may come down to a simple question for Mason and his staff; do they follow Stanford's lead and press opponents with bigger cornerbacks? Or will shorter, rangier guys like Ferguson and Sheffield earn their spot instead?
The Candidates (2014 Stats)
Landon Stokes (four tackles)
Nehemiah Mitchell (JuCo transfer)
Charles Wright (redshirt freshman)
Like at cornerback, Vanderbilt has a standout veteran holding down one half of their starting OLB combination. Stephen Weatherly is a criminally underrated pass rusher who should wind up being an All-SEC player this fall. Behind him, the Commodores' prospects are a lot less clear. Stokes is the most experienced linebacker of the group, but he made only four tackles last season. He's the product of a Super Bowl winning father (Washington's Fred Stokes), so some of the expectations we're throwing on Shurmur can also be applied to the young linebacker.
His main competition will come from former Sacramento State defensive end Nehemiah Mitchell. Mitchell spent last season playing for the City College of San Francisco and was the second most effective pass rusher on a junior college team. He certainly looks the part at 6'4", 260 lbs, but he needs to prove that he's a true Division I talent when camp opens this week. Charles Wright, a redshirt freshman who spent his first year in Nashville adding weight, could also make his case for a starting spot by turning heads on the practice field.
Finally, there's always the chance that Caleb Azubike slides back to linebacker this fall as well, because a season without an Azubike position change at this point is like a year without a Santa Claus.