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Why did Vanderbilt improve in 2016? The depth chart might provide the answer

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Do you remember any players who missed significant time to injury? There weren’t many.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

If you want an easy stat to tell you a lot about the Vanderbilt Commodores’ 2016 football team and why things might have improved over the last two years, here’s a quick and dirty answer. Look at the number of true freshmen who have seen action in each of the last three seasons.

2014: 10 (of 23 total)

2015: 11 (of 17)

2016: 5 (of 21)

Got that? Just five true freshmen saw playing time in 2016, and the identities of those five — Kalija Lipscomb, Joejuan Williams, Bailey McElwain, Sam Loy, and Donaven Tennyson -- tells you even more. In that group, you have Vanderbilt’s third-leading receiver (Lipscomb), a rotational cornerback who made 15 total tackles on the season, the starting fullback, the starting punter... and, well, Tennyson, who might be one of the fastest players on the team (even if he didn’t see much action.) In 2014 and 2015, true freshmen were seeing game action because they had to — regardless of whether they were actually ready to play.

That wasn’t the case in 2016. This year, if you were ready to play, you played. If you weren’t ready, you redshirted. And even if you might have been ready, you probably still redshirted because Vanderbilt had better players ahead of you on the depth chart.

And even better, those players were probably healthy. Offensive lineman Andrew Jelks and quarterback Shawn Stankavage suffered season-ending injuries early in fall camp, and Nigel Bowden suffered what turned out to be a career-ending injury in September. But other than that? Name another Vanderbilt player who missed a significant amount of time to injury. Hell, other than Ralph Webb, name one Vanderbilt player who was even hobbled by an injury.

You probably can’t, and that’s because there weren’t many. On the offensive line, left guard Delando Crooks was injured in September, but redshirt freshman Ean Pfeifer proved more than capable as his replacement. The other four starters — Will Holden at left tackle, Barrett Gouger at center, Bruno Reagan at right guard, and Justin Skule at right tackle — stayed healthy and started all 12 games.

That might have had something to do with why starting quarterback Kyle Shurmur stayed healthy and managed to start all 12 games. In the receiving corps, C.J. Duncan, Trent Sherfield, Jared Pinkney, Caleb Scott, Nathan Marcus, and Sam Dobbs appeared in all 12 games; Lipscomb and Darrius Sims played in 11. Webb and fellow running backs Khari Blasingame and Dallas Rivers played in all 12 games.

The six defensive linemen on the two-deep for the season opener were Jonathan Wynn, Adam Butler, Torey Agee, Nifae Lealao, Nehemiah Mitchell, and Dare Odeyingbo. Per the stat sheet, Wynn appeared in 11 games and Mitchell appeared in 10; the other four appeared in all 12 games. Three of the four starting linebackers in the season opener — Zach Cunningham, Landon Stokes, and Oren Burks — played in all 12 games, as did Ja’Karri Thomas, who stepped in after Bowden got hurt and finished as the team’s sixth-leading tackler. Starting cornerbacks Tre Herndon and Taurean Ferguson appeared in all 12 games. So did safeties Arnold Tarpley and LaDarius Wiley; Ryan White, the team’s third-leading tackler, played in 11 games.

We still don’t know if Vanderbilt has the depth to compete in the Southeastern Conference — but for the most part, we didn’t really have to test that theory in 2016. (And where we did — namely, on the offensive line — the backups wound up doing just fine.) We can call it luck or we can credit the strength and conditioning staff, but whatever you want, Vanderbilt stayed healthy in 2016; and as other SEC teams started dropping like flies, Vanderbilt’s first stringers got to beat up on them down the stretch.