The core weakness of a lot of Vanderbilt teams in the modern era has been its offense. It's a problem that not even James Franklin could fix consistently. When Derek Mason arrived as head coach, it seemed like he dealt with one train wreck after another.
Two starting running backs left the program when Jerron Seymour go to Eastern Illinois and Brian Kimbrow went to Middle Tennessee State. If that wasn't enough, four-star wide receiver Jordan Cunningham transferred to North Carolina. In a short period of time Mason watched three of his main offensive weapons leave campus.
Now Johnny McCrary is gone too, and this team's cache of four-star offensive recruits is running awfully now. However, Andy Ludwig's second year as offensive coordinator and a new shift to the spread offense may make that a moot point. Let's take a closer look at the Commodores for 2016.
South Carolina has 13, Florida has 14, Kentucky has 14, Georgia has 13, Tennessee has 13, and Vanderbilt has 11 (will be 14 in the fall). Have you figured out what I'm talking about yet? It's the number of linemen on scholarship at each SEC East school.
That number (14) means a lot, because it is the first time Mason has had the lineman to run the offense he would like to run. Vanderbilt is finally going to have the numbers to be nearly three deep across the line! When is the last time you thought you would say that? Mason executed his game plan and did something Coach Franklin quite frankly did not; he went and got some big bodies for our offensive line.
That plan is ready to pay off as Vanderbilt goes into the year ready to swing the hammer at the big boys. Offensive Line Coach Cameron Norcross is now on the sideline to guide last season;s the worst offensive line in the SEC. That might seem a little harsh, but it is not their fault. Bad coaching, injuries, and youth really troubled the Dores last year with this group. Now we can expect to see some growth from this group moving forward. Do I think the offensive line has the talent to drive the offense? I'll say this much...this offensive line is the best line Coach Mason has had in his time here, and is better than some of the lines that drove Vanderbilt to back to back 10 win seasons.
This is the main reason we won't be seeing much spread from Vanderbilt. The tight ends they have now are scary good. Last year we got a taste of DeAndre Woods, who showed great ball skills as a former wide receiver playing tight end. His blocking was improving before a leg injury stole his season but he for sure found a way to make an impact catching the ball.
I don't expect anything different in 2016. I think our tight ends are the best thing we have in the passing game right now, and having that security blanket will help our young quarterback(s) lead the offense in a productive manner. The new comer to look out for is Jared Pinkney, a guy who was tabbed as a wide receiver but was way too big to not consider putting him as a tight end. At 6'5 and now 250 pounds there is no doubt Pinkney posses the skills to potential put Vanderbilt on the map as Tight End U.
Is it a little soon to say that? Probably. But with both Pinkney and Woods converting from wide receiver to tight end Vanderbilt has the ability to stretch the field with our tight ends. Don't be shocked if they both contribute 35+ catches next season.
For the spring, I expect Pinkney to step up more. Woods is working his way back from the more taxing injury, so he will be on limited reps. The other tight ends, and especially Pinkney, will be used early and often. Don't sleep on Sam Dobbs, Sean Dowling, and Nathan Marcus either. They're widely considered more blocking tight ends but each has shown solid hands throughout the spring.
This is a group with a ton to prove; fortunately, they get CJ Duncan back from a leg injury that kept him sidelined all of last season. His injury took away a promising redshirt sophomore season where Duncan looked to capitalize off a true freshman 28-catch performance in what was a downright ugly offensive effort in Dorrell's only season as an offensive coordinator.
Meanwhile, Latevius Rayford will lead an underwhelming group with a lot to prove since he is the only senior at the position. Despite his experience, he is likely more of a secondary option than a primary option. All eyes right now are going to be on Caleb Scott and Trent Sherfield, who had 24 receptions and 51 receptions, respectively, in 2015. The big question is whether Sherfield grow as a wide receiver in the spring. Can he become that dynamic downfield threat we have been waiting to see from this smashmouth offense?
Scott will battle both Rayford and Duncan for reps as the three try to provide a secondary passing target for our young signal callers. This group has the most to prove as Vanderbilt hasn't had a scenario where someone on the outside had to be covered since they had Jordan Matthews. Sherfield is the closest to that honor but if the big four (Sherfield, Scott, Rayford, and Duncan) can get 2,000 yards of offense between the four of them, the offense will be much more productive. Look for Rayford, Duncan, and Scott to file into a depth chart pecking order as the season approaches.
This group might be the one I am normally the hardest on and traditionally is the one I expect the most from. Leading the way is Ralph Webb, a guy you know is going to get touches left and right. Last year he had 272 carries and got close to 1,200 yards. Behind him, I expected Dallas Rivers to chip in and be a goal line back -- but he failed to meet those expectations. The sophomore stumbled to fewer than 200 yards on the season and had his role usurped by true freshman Josh Crawford late in the season.
It was hard to lean on those young unproven backs last fall, but the position will be more stable in 2016. Now you've got Jaire George, a redshirt freshman looks cut at 205 pounds. Former linebacker Khari Blasingame also joined the backfield ranks as a fullback.
However, this isn't a very deep group at all. I would have argued that getting a JUCO transfer in this spot might have helped Vanderbilt out quite a bit. I can't tell you who it is, but someone this spring will assert themselves as a firm number two running back. If not, we will see Darrius Sims shift back here as a change of pace back and might just see Dallas Rivers move to linebacker.
Despite those depth issues, I still expect big things from this group. George is healthy and in shape. Crawford has been in a college weight program and had a year to learn the playbook. And finally, Rivers has hopefully had the game slow down for him headed into his junior year. He has the talent to spring for more than 500 yards this fall.
There was an under the radar change that most of us, including myself, didn't notice. Gerry Gdowski has taken over working with the quarterbacks and left Andy Ludwig to work with the tight ends. This isn't a huge surprise; Gdowski had worked with quarterbacks everywhere else he had been before Vanderbilt.
The quarterbacks as a whole have looked a lot different than I expected them to look. On one hand, Kyle Shurmur hasn't absolutely grabbed the job by the horns and taken it. On the other, it is only three months since the season came to an end, which isn't ample time to know if he will take that next step before the fall or not. He will still have five months before fall camp starts to get bigger, to get faster, to get stronger, and to fine tune his game a little bit.
On the flip side, Wade Freebeck had come in like a house on fire and looked really strong at times. I think you'll see Shurmur and Freebeck push each other and make this a two horse race. Shawn Stankavage will look good in spurts while Deuce Wallace might be swimming (he's going to need a redshirt year).
Overall, you can expect to see this group grow. I think Freebeck is understanding more and more his reads, I think Shurmur is growing as a player and his physical tools are developing nicely. I think Stankavage will show you what a mobile quarterback can do when the line breaks down, and I think Wallace will show you signs of what the future can be -- but with him, the question becomes "how quickly can we see it?" Judging by the last week of practice the new offensive layout with Gdowski taking over as the quarterbacks coach and Ludwig calling the plays/working with the tight ends seems to be working well. There's still a long way to go before I'm completely comfortable with the offense, but they have without a doubt made plays.
Projected Depth Chart for the Offense
WR (Z): Trent Sherfield, Latevius Rayford
WR (X): CJ Duncan, Caleb Scott, Trey Ellis
Slot: Darrius Sims, Chandler Dorrell
LT: Andrew Jelks, Bailey Granier
LG: Delando Crooks, Bruno Reagan, Edigo Dellarippa
C: Cole Hardin, Ean Pfeifer
RG: Barrett Gouger, Jared Southers
RT: Will Holden, Justin Skule
TE (Y): DeAndre Woods, Sam Dobbs
TE (H): Jared Pinkney, Nathan Marcus, Sean Dowling
FB: Khari Blasingame
TB: Ralph Webb, Josh Crawford, Dallas Rivers, Jaire George
QB: Kyle Shurmur, Wade Freebeck, Shawn Stankavage, Deuce Wallace