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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Offseason 2017

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The games are not far off, so it was time for a little homework.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days
Head Coach Derek Mason really shined at SEC Media Days.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Shockingly, the solar eclipse has passed and no major catastrophes have befallen us. The universe finally found something more damaging to look at without protection than Vanderbilt football. Beer (or liquor) goggles are typically sufficient to not suffer serious damage when watching Vanderbilt football, but people had to be very careful and avoid counterfeits to safely view the eclipse. Hopefully, our football season can be just as spectacular as the eclipse.

All of us have survived the doldrums of summer and their dearth of football. Snippets of information did leak out from spring practices, transfers, and arrivals. A bowl game may have even occurred since the last assessment of what lessons there are to be learned about West End’s Commodores. Nefarious forces may even be trying to move the team away from West End. The highlights of all that information should be highlighted, so we can all enter this Fall 2017 semester with the same basis of information.

Lessons We Are Learning

Derek Mason may actually be learning how to be a cromulent head coach. Courtesy of SEC Network’s preview for Vanderbilt, the 2016 squad pulled off some important firsts in the maturation of our coach and program. Derek Mason notched his first road SEC win at Georgia on the path to the first .500 regular season under HCDM. In a Vanderbilt first, the program was finally able to beat a ranked Volunteer squad after 38 unsuccessful tries. The records of 3-9, 4-8, and 6-7 match what the product on the field has looked like with the progress probably being even more pronounced than the record since the competition has gotten stronger every year. Mason really seems to think folks should “Fear the V,” and a big part of that has been Mason’s growth as a head coach. His personal improvement needs to continue because the bowl game showed that he still has his own lessons to learn.

Kyle Shurmur is still growing, but the progress is encouraging. The final games of last season, excluding the bowl, showed us a new-and-improved Shurmur, culminating in 416 yards passing while completing 21 of 34 attempts. His performance was good enough for a 86.0 QBR (which uses a 0-to-100 scale) with Adjusted QBR bumping the score to 89.0. His play against the Vols was elite. His play against WKU early in the season (83.0/79.5) along with Auburn (69.7/84.6) and Ole Miss (71.9/76.1) serve to show that other flashes of very good play were not just imagined or based upon taking advantage of bad defenses. Over the course of the season, Shurmur turned in a 42.8 QBR with Adjusted QBR bumping to him an almost perfectly average 49.3. If you compare that to the 2015 numbers, he improved from 12.2 and 17.3 scores respectively, so he was 3.5 times better on raw performance while 2.8 times better based on quality of defense. Starting his junior season, this team is unquestionably Kyle Shurmur’s team. He is going to need to keep improving though. The reports out of fall camp are very positive, but the reports out of fall camp are ALWAYS positive. Hopefully, Shurmur can make a positive statement week one to set the tone for the season.

Lessons We Know Well

Ralph Webb is a truly elite college RB. It seemed very likely that he would leave for the NFL after his third year as the workhorse back in Nashville. The SEC has long been defined by great defense and great running backs. Ralph Webb sits at 20th on the all-time rushing yards leaders. He needs 653 yards, half of his production from last year, to become the 8th SEC player to ever reach the 4,000-yard mark for a career on the ground. He holds the Vanderbilt records for rushing yards in a career AND for production on the ground for a player in each year of eligibility with his junior yardage being the highest total in Vanderbilt history. If Webb repeats his last season’s yardage, he will be 2nd all-time on the SEC yardage list, too, but Nick Chubb could make him settle for 3rd even with an outstanding senior campaign. Oh, and by the way, Webb did not fumble during the 2016 season while actually forcing a fumble on special teams for a personal +1 turnover margin. In simple terms, Ralph Webb is an incredible asset for Vandy. Barring injury, Webb will yet again be the most reliable part of the Vanderbilt offense that may still be growing in the passing game.

The administration is completely tone-deaf. We have beaten this topic to death, but it bears repeating. Amid all the very tangible progress under Derek Mason, discussions of a new stadium or stadium upgrades had swirled. It was thought that positive results on the field could lead to a financial commitment from the administration. That speculation was painfully off-base because Chancellor Zeppos and Vice Chancellor David Williams III have apparently decided that playing football at a 30,000 (or maybe 35,000) seat stadium at the Fairgrounds is better than sprucing up the current Vanderbilt stadium or building a new stadium on-campus. It should be noted that the largest Vanderbilt athletics donor, John Ingram, is on the board trying to earn Nashville an MLS franchise and would presumably be sinking a lot of financial power into that venture to an extent that slows his giving to Vanderbilt. But Chris Lee from VandySports.com feels very strongly that Ingram tried everything in his power to go with a renovation or new on-campus stadium option before becoming part of the MLS group. The administration has thus decided, or at least strongly indicated a desire, to double down on their mistake here by being the secondary tenant in an off-campus soccer-specific stadium. Even as the biggest soccer fan on this site (most likely), I am beyond furious. Let us return to happier topics…

Lessons We Will Study Further

Will the offensive line maintain a pretty high standard of performance? Last year’s offensive line let Ralph Webb average 0.9 yards more per carry while Vanderbilt ball carriers as a whole got 0.6 more YPC than the year prior. Those averages of 5.1 and 4.3 are not outstanding, but they are effective. Shurmur, meanwhile, was sacked at basically the same rate per dropback, but the venerable eye test showed that he could be more comfortable and get set in the pocket, which aids his growth as a passer. Continued offensive improvement will depend on whether OL Coach Cameron Norcross can replace Will Holden at LT and Barret Gouger at C effectively.

How good is the depth on offense for this team? For someone who follows this team closely, depth seems like a strength. The backfield has every piece back from last year along with RS Freshman Jamauri Wakefield earning rave reviews constantly. Beyond that, Vanderbilt returns 95.8% of its receptions and 96.3% of its receiving yardage from last year. The only skill player of note that will not return is the graduated Darrius Sims whose roles as jet sweep artist, return specialist (even if he was kept in check last year), and occasional RB should be easily filled by other options.

How will the defense fare without Zach Cunningham? For every superlative about Ralph Webb, some defensive equivalent rings true for Cunningham. He was a menace for every team on Vanderbilt’s schedule last year and earned his spot in the 2nd round of the NFL draft. (Ed. note: he earned a spot in the first round, actually, but wasn’t drafted there.) Oren Burks is sliding to ILB to try and replicate Cunningham’s mix of athleticism, instincts, and tackling to some degree, but players like Josh Smith, Emmanuel Smith, Caleb Peart, Charles Wright, and others will have to step up. The good news is that the inside linebackers are under the tutelage of former Vanderbilt and SEC standout Chris Marve, so they should be ready to play. The outside linebackers should have plenty of motivation after not standing out very much last year, outside of Burks who is no longer with that position group.

Will the season start on a strong note for the first time under Derek Mason? The Temple game in 2014 was an abject disaster, while WKU and South Carolina offered less pathetic but still heartbreaking openers for 2015 and 2016. Starting the season at MTSU provides an opportunity for the offense to face a defense that is thought to have some weaknesses, but the Blue Raiders’ offense still has its fair share of firepower starting with QB Brent Stockstill and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. A very scary middle part of the schedule means that a stumble now could add pressure to already tight games down the stretch. An opening night win would let everyone get the good vibes going before hosting Alabama A&M, Kansas State, and Alabama in successive weeks before going to Gainesville then having UGA visit with revenge on their minds. A 2-0 start before getting into that grind after A&M may be the buoy that keeps heads above water if we cannot steal a win during that time. A 1-1 start makes a bowl that much harder to achieve, even without the ramifications of losing to MTSU, no matter how good they are.