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2017 AoG Reader Q&A: MTSU Aftermath

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Addressing your questions from the MTSU game.

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

OK, wow. Y’all had a lot of questions, and we couldn’t answer all of them, unfortunately. As we said last week, we’re gonna try to do this as a weekly, so there’s plenty of other chances to get a question answered!

Are we in trouble in terms of field goal kicking? Missing a 30 yard field goal is not confidence inspiring ..

VandyTigerPhD: I don’t think so. Missed kicks happen at any distance and in general the kickoffs were much cleaner. I’d be more concerned if he had completely bungled something more fundamental.

Tom Stephenson: Ugh, no. Openshaw is fine and in fact his kickoffs looked much better on Saturday than they did last season.

VandyImport: It bothers me a lot less when kicking is mostly about PATs rather than FGs. If our offense can sustain drives and finish in the end zone, I don’t think it’s an issue. If we miss three or four FGs against A&M, I will find reason to be concerned, both at the misses and at the fact the attempts were necessary.

What should we expect from the O-line this season? They looked overwhelmed by MTSU, and while I understand they're a decent team, they aren't SEC caliber.

VandyTigerPhD: It’s true, the MTSU DL is not an SEC caliber defensive line, and it’s not wholly unreasonable to be concerned about what a SEC DL might do to us. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a good place to watch a replay so I have to go purely on memory here. I didn’t see enough for me to be concerned (yet) about discipline or missed assignments or some sort of bare fundamental. Yeah, mistakes happened, and they’re going to happen. Fortunately it was MTSU and week one, and we do have some new guys. It is one of the blessings of having two (two and a half?) games to get situated. How we play against KSU is going to be our first “real test”. Overall though, MTSU played the right game. We were miserable most of the year on passing. Loading the box and daring us to throw, especially under pressure was the right decision. UPDATE: Seems like Mason wasn’t thrilled with the OL either.

Tom Stephenson: I think in the long run, the offensive line will be all right. You had two new starters (Jared Southers and Devin Cochran) and two more guys playing new positions on the line (Justin Skule and Bruno Reagan.) There were a couple of other factors, too. For one thing, Bailey McElwain missed the game, and Jared Pinkney missed the second half, and losing those guys hurt the blitz pickup. That’s an issue when the defense is basically bringing the house on every play; at a certain point, if the defense is bringing six guys and you only have five guys blocking, someone is going to get free.

VandyImport: I’m choosing to look on the bright side and say that the Blue Horse sold out on the run, and that once teams have to account for the passing game and the guys shake the jitters we’ll be okay. I realize that my entire Vanderbilt career literally consisted of trying to extrapolate data from small-n samples, but that’s why I have a masters and not a PhD.

Was there anything missing from this game you expected to see? Play-calls, players, anything? I was there in person and couldn't listen to any commentary or stats.

VandyTigerPhD: I thought we’d see a much heavier rushing game. Last year our backs ran all over MTSU and things haven’t changed enough for me to expect a totally different approach. However, what I didn’t know was how much improved Shurmur was. He looked more confident than he did against Tennessee, a clear sign of offseason improvement. Not just that, but he and the receivers were keyed in. They knew when to look for the ball, they knew where it was going. It was everything that was missing in VU passing attacks in previous seasons.

Tom Stephenson: Bailey McElwain did not play, as I mentioned above. I also thought we’d have seen Deuce Wallace with a four-touchdown lead, but alas, we did not.

With McElwain out, I thought we’d have seen more of Khari Blasingame and Jamauri Wakefield; but the former only got five carries and the latter got none.

VandyImport: I can’t much speak to this as I was fighting off heat exhaustion (pro tip: absinthe is not hydrating) but I got everything I expected to see, namely: the last two regular season games were not a fluke and Shurmur has turned the corner, along with the second-order effects that come from that.

The unthinkable happens, and we earn a 10 win season. How long will Derek Mason be sticking around West End? Will he remain a Commodore, or be a future bald snake-oil salesman coaching at ~~Penn State~~ Baylor?

VandyTigerPhD: Look, my first article on AoG was a long gushing post about James Franklin and how he would never betray us. So I’m not going to say anything of the sort here, but I do think that Mason is nowhere near the opportunist that Franklin was. He’s clearly not duplicitous and given his pedigree, it would fit for him to want to build his own legacy. More than that, he’s truly built his own legacy here from the ground up. If anything really sends him away it’ll be Vanderbilt saying “we don’t care about your 10 wins, we’re playing in a soccer stadium”.

Tom Stephenson: I don’t think there’s any immediate danger of Mason leaving, or at least as long as David Shaw is safely ensconced as Stanford’s head coach. That’s the one job that really worries me.

Now, is there a chance? Sure, because there’s always a chance, and especially if the football team moves off campus. If Vanderbilt wins ten games this season, you’ll definitely hear his name come up in connection with Arizona and/or Arizona State, assuming both of those jobs open (they probably will be.) But I don’t think he would take either of those jobs.

VandyImport: As I said elsewhere, Jimmy Frank (and Gerry Dinardo before him, and honestly Steve Sloan as well) basically established the meme that any Vanderbilt football coach who has the least bit of success two years in a row has his bags packed and out the door. I’d like to think that isn’t the case with CDM, simply because the administration stood by him in a way that not a lot of schools would for a first-time coach who won a whopping seven games in his first two seasons. But things being how they are, the right sort of west coast job could always be a lure for him in a world where the future of Vanderbilt football is in flux re: what level of competitor we want to be and how we are prepared to go about it.

I guess what I’m saying is a paraphrase of what I told my undergrads: SEC football is the art of the possible. If you want dreams to come true, go major in theater.

Is it me or does Tommy Openshaw lead the country in kickoffs out of bounds? I feel like he has one every game and thought it was going to be different this year until he put one out of bounds in the second half against MTSU. What is Vandy's strategy with this?

VandyTigerPhD: Maybe it was because I was drinking in a crowded bar but I don’t remember any kicks out of bounds last night. I do remember a lot of kicks out of bounds last year, but I don’t recall whether they were punts or kicks. Regardless, it’s certainly not intentional though, not on kickoffs. At most they’d be trying to kick to the corner to reduce return possibilities.

Tom Stephenson: Not to get insulting, but I legitimately don’t remember Openshaw having a kickoff out of bounds and I just checked the box score... yep, five kickoffs, five touchbacks. MTSU’s kicker did kick one out of bounds, which is probably what you’re thinking of.

VandyImport: I plead absinthe. (Come on, it should NEVER be 109 American degrees in the Bay Area)

We all knew that Zach Cunningham would have to be replaced by committee and that is exactly what we saw last game with 7 players having 4+ total tackles, 4 players contributing to sacks and 7 players credited with participating in tackles for a loss. What are the chances of one of these players rising head and shoulders above the rest? Not necessarily to Zach Cunningham level but who will become the guy to watch?

VandyTIgerPhD: I still think Oren Burks is the guy to watch in terms of rising up to “above and beyond” status. He’s the guy looked to as the leader, he’s the one who’s got the most talent. As far as what the chances of that happening are? Hard to say, good but not strong?

Tom Stephenson: What we saw from Charles Wright against MTSU... well, wow. That’s my pick for a guy who rises above the rest. Also, I like Dare Odeyingbo to step things up on the defensive line.

VandyImport: My guy Burks notwithstanding, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see several guys at least rise shoulders above the rest if not head. Look at the sack totals - you can expect to hear more about those front guys if they start racking up the QB kills. And if someone becomes a ballhawk in the secondary a la Hayward or Wilson or Hal, you’ll know their name quickly. If we have a bunch of guys you can talk about, that’s a lot more promising to me than just having Oren Burks, All-American and a bunch of “who?” after that.

There was some debate towards the end of the game about whether or not we had reached garbage time that the second stringers should fill. Should we reach a similar situation after week 2 at what point do you think we should give Deuce Wallace and co. some snaps?

VandyTigerPhD: If we’re up four-five scores, and its 4th quarter, by all means try out Deuce Wallace and company. Not before. Even then I’d be going with bread and butter fundamental plays. Isolation runs, quick slants and drags, maybe a draw play. Nothing too crazy because you’re really just wanting to give them the reps and get their confidence up.

Tom Stephenson: Look, we’re playing Alabama A&M this week, a team that lost to UAB 38-7 last week. Unless we decide to screw around and let the Bulldogs keep it within two scores, it’s a matter of “when” and not “if” the backups get in the game. I would expect Shurmur, Webb, and the rest of the starters to play long enough to stay sharp and then the backups will get in the game. Maybe even before halftime. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Shawn Stankavage get some snaps.

VandyImport: Last I heard, point-shaving is a crime and you can go to jail for it, so best make sure everything is in order before calling off the dogs. That said, I’ll be concerned if some of the second-string guys aren’t getting meaningful reps against A&M by the third quarter. But I think UCLA has demonstrated to all of us the perils of switching to glide too soon.

Outside of Kyle still standing at the end of a play, how is an O-line evaluated? Especially in run support what are developments to watch along the O-line?

VandyTigerPhD: Footwork, blocking technique, keying off the right man, awareness, couple of other things. Some of these things requires having knowledge of plays and how they may key off different defenders. It’s something that I’m barely competent at, but I guess I understand better than an average fan. There are times you want to let a man free off the line like a trap run, or a more extreme example would be a screen. Much of line play is decided in the first step and getting leverage on the guy you’re supposed to block. A good place to start would be to learn the difference between power, counter, trap, isolation, misdirection, etc. on the run. From there, you’re bound to get into “technique” — how the DL lines up on the OL, which gets into all sorts of secondary strategy like how the linemen audible assignments.

Tom Stephenson: What he said.

VandyImport: Do they have a nickname? My sole criterion for an O-line is, do they have enough of an impact on the game that you are obligated to recognize them for their work. That’s all I have, given that I grew up in an era where averaging 280lb across the front was eye-popping and mind-boggling instead of “high school.”

As someone with only vague knowledge of Defensive terms myself such as 3-4, 4-3, dime, nickel and so forth, what types does Derek Mason favor and what do they mean? What kinds of sub-packages do we utilize heavily if any?

VandyTigerPhD: Mason certainly prefers a 3-4, but you’re right there’s a ton of packages you can have on top of any well known formation. For example a 3-3-5 nickle is obviously different from the standard 4-2-5. Back when we were filled with hope before Mason started, I wrote a quick primer on a 3-4, which may help expand a little bit here. Maybe I should write a brief overview of defensive formations... but I think that might at least help with some of the basics. As a quick summary, a 3-4 and 4-3 refer to the number of DL-LB on the field. In a case like 3-3-5 you’re saying DL-LB-DB on the field. There’s sub packages on top of THAT which refers to how they line up too e.g., 4-3 under/over which both refer to how the men are lining up. The “46” the import refers to below is an outlier, and got its name from the SS for the Bears when they developed the defense.

VandyImport: This is what I get for growing up in the pre-Madden days. I legit thought the Chicago Bears’ “46” was four down linemen and six linebackers until I was, like, 30. Having come of football-aware age during a 3-4 era in the late 80s and early 90s, I obviously prefer that, but it means you’ve got to have REALLY good talent up front and the ability to gamble with a variety of blitz and rush packages (the iconic example for me is the Red Storm Rising defense on that ‘92 Alabama title team, with two all-Americans at DE and a capable NT getting enough pressure to let the back seven mix and match in exotic ways, and I have no clue how Brother Oliver ran off a cliff as a coach after concocting that.). I suspect that no matter what the base defense is, CDM has assorted schemes and packages that will change the look, especially in a world where everyone is playing nickel-first to cope with the spread-option look.

Is there anyone on the roster this year who will be utilized in a similar fashion to how Darius Sims was last year?

VandyTigerPhD: Oof. That’s a good question and one that really makes me realize how little I know about some of our depth guys. Really players like Sims often come out of “nowhere” in the sense that they’re often all around athletes that are on the ST unit, but haven’t been good enough at any one position to be on the depth chart. This is probably an unsatisfactory answer, but I just can’t think of a good example of an obvious successor.

VandyImport: Too soon to know. If we have that guy he’ll emerge sooner than later, but I think they’re looking for someone to emerge organically rather than say “we have to develop another Sims” and forcing it. I think we have enough weapons now that there are plenty of candidates.

I was looking around for drop rate stats because I feel like it was something we struggled with early on last year but couldn't find any easily. Where is the best place to find stats like drop rate and do you feel like we have exorcised our stickum demons in that regard?

VandyTigerPhD: I think part of that is that stats aren’t very well kept for college football, believe it or not. For example, you’ll notice that the NCAA historically kept very poor defensive stats. It’s actually up to the press box to report individual defensive efforts to the NCAA. So for official NCAA stats, you could go to a place like this or maybe this. You’ll find quickly though that many stats (like drops) aren’t tracked well. The reason being simply that it’s too much effort to track all the teams on that level. The NCAA website is REALLY good though for historical stats and probably more trustworthy than some.

As for the answer to the second question, I don’t want to answer based only on MTSU. Yes, they looked to be in end-season form Saturday. I didn’t flinch at easy passes expecting drops. They seemed to be in sync with each other, which is part of avoiding drops as well as having “soft hands”.

VandyImport: The completion totals for Shurmur suggest that the guys at the other end are doing their job. Absent actual statistics, I would say the high completion percentage is as close to proof of exorcism as you’ll get. I concur that comfort level is a big part of that and it makes me happy.

I saw none of the MTSU game because CBSSN. What was sustainable? What was not? Did anything that happened in Murfreesboro or around the country change your reasonable prediction for Vandy's season.

VandyTigerPhD: What’s sustainable is using Webb in the slot and really opening up the passing game. It’s pretty clear now why we put a solid RB threat at FB against MTSU. If they sell out entirely to be where Webb is, defenses are going to pay. I think that being able to get quick strikes and opening up those passing lanes is good news for us.

Unsustainable for the moment is Shurmur getting hit as much as he did. Whether it was playcalling or the OL or a mixture of both, he got hit too many times. An SEC defense is going to cause damage to the later portions of the game by hitting him hard every chance they get.

VandyImport: The fact that our offense isn’t Webb-Webb-Webb-punt is HUGE. I have seen Andy Ludwig’s work at close range when he was at Cal, and he had a reputation for lacking creativity beyond “feed it to Jahvid Best and/or Shane Vereen.” So I fully expected him to ride Webb to the exclusion of almost anything else. That Ludwig was willing to mix up the play calling - and that we have the talent around the field to facilitate doing just that - is a positive sign, as it implies that we won’t just go into turtle mode and let #7 handle the ball 30 times a game and hope for the best.

Was the no-wrinkle offense at MTSU the exception—or the rule?

VandyTigerPhD: Let’s not call it no-wrinkle. There were most certainly things we missed, and some things we didn’t. Missing a block or running the wrong route are two things that can happen and sometimes be completely unnoticed unless you’re a coach. To the spirit of your question though, I am hoping it’s the rule. It looks a lot like we did the final stretch of 2016.

VandyImport: You don’t have to be that complex to have a successful offense. Most Air Raid-family offenses only have about twenty plays. When Alabama won 10 games out of nowhere and got to #2 in the country in 1989, I swear Homer Smith’s offense had maybe eight plays, four of which were just mirroring the other four. Ruthless and relentless execution of a simple offense will win you a hell of a lot more games than a wildly complicated system that you can’t carry off. Which is not to say there may not be more complicated stuff in the hip pocket, but for the first couple of games, I am a huge fan of offensive coordinator Milton Berle.