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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Summer Primer

Of course I waited until summer to talk about the Spring Showcase.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Shurmur returns to West End looking to make 11 other teams feel the same pain he has inflicted on Tennessee for the last 2 seasons.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt recently wrapped up its spring practices with a Spring Showcase, which is like a mix between a spring game and typical spring practice. Oh, and by “recently,” I mean that it happened on March 24th. What was supposed to be a wrap-up of spring football has now turned into a summer primer. The only difference is that there will be a couple more pieces of information now that were not available three months ago when the Spring Showcase happened. Any hot takes should also have cooled by now. Maybe. Unfortunately, with the hot takes thrown aside, spring football can leave little information to be gleaned. We will probably all leave with more questions than answers, but the good news is that there will not be a test for just over 2 months. The bad news is that the TV coverage for this event was atrocious. For me, it means I could lie all I want since you all only saw like 10 actual plays. For you, it means you are stuck having to figure out how much you trust my observations.

Lessons We Are Learning

Before the event even started, Vanderbilt fans were reminded that Derek Mason is not afraid of change. Thankfully, most of these changes yield better returns than changing between four quarterbacks in one game. This offseason, Mason handed the Defensive Coordinator controls over to Jason Tarver. Tarver worked with Mason as co-defensive coordinator at Stanford in 2011 before Tarver took over as defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders. He managed to turn a defense that was 29th in yards allowed per game, 26th in yards allowed per play, and 29th in points allowed per game into a decent defense that ranked 18th, 23rd, and 28th in those same categories. The yards allowed per game change looks good, but the other categories did not change much. Unfortunately, his four-year tenure all looked about the same as his first year. My depth of understanding the NFL landscape is not nearly the same as the college football one, but the Raiders do not have a good reputation and have not for a long time. Things have turned upwards in the last couple of seasons, but a tough run with the 2012-14 Raiders should not worry anyone. The encouraging numbers come from his time alongside Mason. In their one season at Stanford, the Cardinal ranked 26th in total defense and 30th in scoring defense. Those rankings were pretty good considering the offensive strength of the Pac-12 at the time.

Tarver was the biggest change, but not the only one. Aaron Moorehead comes over from Texas A&M to coach wide receivers after Cortez Hankton left for the same position at Georgia. Position coaches are hard to evaluate without being able to see how players develop under their tutelage long term, but the Aggies have had a lot of very good wide receivers under Moorehead. Maybe he can get a little more out of a wide receiver corps that is going to see a LOT of change. On special teams, Jeff Genyk was not retained, and Shawn Mennenga was hired from his spot as a Cleveland Browns special teams assistant to fill the role. Filling the new 10th on-field coaching position is former Stanford cornerback and Washington Huskies graduate assistant Terrence Brown, who will work with guys playing the same position he did for Mason from 2010-12. He should know exactly how cornerbacks are asked to play in Mason’s defense, which all reports say is changing very little conceptually under Tarver.

Another noticeable change was in the offense. No, it was not just about not seeing Ralph Webb, Caleb Scott, Trent Sherfield, and CJ Duncan. The offense looked very different formationally. Fewer than 10 plays were run from under scrimmage in the entire scrimmage. The quarterbacks were playing from the shotgun. The pace was also a little bit quicker, but it was less about snapping the ball quickly and more about getting out of the huddle to let Shurmur make reads at the line. Ludwig seems to be giving Shurmur the freedom to audible and adjust to what he sees. The senior QB will be tasked with helping the guys around him be successful.

The defense joins the change train by only having four returning starters in JoeJuan Williams at cornerback, LaDarius Wiley at safety, Dare Odeyingbo at defensive end, and Charles Wright at outside linebacker. There were some interesting notables on that side of the ball. The defensive was definitely the story for all the wrong reasons after a great 3-game start. The Spring Showcase really is no way to judge the whole defense due to how the rules are altered. Tae Daley had the big interception where he took a Deuce Wallace pass 50 yards the other way to theoretically set his team up with good field position. Another name to watch in the secondary is Elijah Hamilton. He had the tough task of going man-to-man with Kalija Lipscomb a lot. Lipscomb got the better of him a number of times, but Hamilton also came up with some big plays. It was a fun battle to watch.

Lessons We Know Well

Last season at this time, the feelings about Kyle Shurmur were good. It was a strange feeling to have confidence in the starting quarterback, but those feelings were based upon improvement to end 2016, not a full season of playing well. In 2017, Shurmur had some ups and downs, but he finished 51st in ESPN’s Total QBR (66th in Raw QBR which ignores the strength of the opposing defense). Those numbers were huge improvements from 90th in Total QBR and 105th in Raw QBR for 2016. Shurmur also smashed the Vanderbilt single-season passing TDs record with 26 scores through air. Whit Taylor’s mark set in 1982 was 22. Shurmur also needs 2,963 yards and 20 passing TDs to tie Jay Cutler’s career marks for the Commodores. A big key to Vanderbilt being successful is also limiting turnovers. Kyle did a fantastic job of that for most of the season, but he ultimately matched his 2016 total of 10 interceptions in 2017 thanks to throwing 4 against Kentucky and 3 against Missouri. If he can avoid any turnover-laden performances and get that number down around 5 then Shurmur’s ability behind center should give us a chance to win almost every game. Moreover, the statisticians at ESPN said that Shurmur was one of only four quarterbacks with one or fewer interceptions on attempts in the red zone. The only two concerns, and one is pretty prominent, are the loss of so many receivers along with a potential curse since I touted Ralph Webb very heavily in this spot last season.

Lessons We Will Study Further

Where does the running game go? Ralph Webb is gone now, and the rushing attack was not very useful with him last year. Webb was clearly hobbled for long stretches though, as was Khari Blasingame. The addition of Ke’Shawn Vaughn should be a spark, but Blasingame and Jamauri Wakefield need to step up as well. Some nice plays in this Showcase exhibited positives for each player, but not being full contact prevents any real evaluation.

Can the offensive line find more consistency? They did a mostly acceptable job of keeping Kyle Shurmur upright last season. The struggles were in opening holes for the running game. The problem was that in the few games that the running backs found some room to maneuver, the opposing pass rushers also found routes to Shurmur. The entirety of the OL returns, so Coach Norcross needs to shore up the individual weaknesses along with finding what combination of linemen will give the offense the best chance to get rolling. Neither Shurmur or any of the running backs can take us anywhere if the line does not help them out. These guys do not need to make a massive leap forward. A little more consistency in pass protection while being a tick or two better for the ground game will make a world of difference.

Who will step up and make plays on the receiving end of Kyle Shurmur’s throws? No quarterback can succeed without some guys making catches. We have seen how drops can really derail an offense and put a quarterback under undue pressure, which leads to him making mistakes. I think Kyle Shurmur has proven himself more capable of handling the ebbs and flows than Johnny McCrary was in 2015, but McCrary, for all his flaws, had some of his biggest mistakes immediately following drops. Kalija Lipscomb hovered around 50 yards per game, but Vanderbilt will need more games like his 128-yard performance against South Carolina. Other options like Ohio State transfer Alex Stump, Donaven Tennyson, Chris Pierce, Jackson Winrow, Jared Pinkney, and even Vaughn out of the backfield will need to step up to help prevent constant double coverage for Lipscomb or to make teams pay when they do double him. These guys seemed to struggle to get open at times during the Showcase, so they will have my attention as we get into the season.

Will the defense get back on track? The first 3 games of last year were stellar. Then the defense disappeared for 8 games before showing up in Knoxville. The exact cause of the huge fall off from dominance to disaster is probably a lot of smaller factors that snowballed into a series of brutal displays. The tackling was woeful. Coverages fell apart at the worst times. Other issues abounded. Mason put them under pressure by admittedly telling the officials to make calls that did not go their way. They responded well. Stats were not recorded, but there were some notable plays, such as from Hamilton as mentioned above.

Can we all survive until September 1st? Or is this hard wait actually just the calm before the storm? The amount of change is a bit scary. Some things definitely needed to change though. Even before we get to the first game, let’s realize that things can change mid-season. In 2016, we were ¾ of the way through the season and very doom-and-gloom before finishing on fire. Then 2017 started really well before turning ugly until we hung 40 points on the 3rd straight head coach in Knoxville. Yes, interims count.