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At wide receiver, Vanderbilt has Kalija Lipscomb and a lot of questions

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The good news is that newcomers may provide a lot of help here.

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

In 2017, Vanderbilt wide receivers combined to catch 171 passes and 21 touchdowns. The bad news? Departed seniors Trent Sherfield, C.J. Duncan, and Caleb Scott accounted for 120 catches and 12 touchdowns.

In 2018, Vanderbilt’s passing game — at least at wide receiver (Andy Ludwig’s offense tends to lean quite a bit on tight ends in the passing game) — will rely a lot on newcomers and some youngsters who haven’t done much in a year or two in the program to catch Kyle Shurmur’s passes. The Commodores can be pretty confident in one proven commodity in Kalija Lipscomb, but aside from that they’ll be looking for some newcomers or guys coming off a redshirt year to contribute.

The good news: the newcomers might be pretty talented. There are three true freshmen in the mix, one of whom was a four-star recruit, and another newcomer played two years at Ohio State and was also a four-star recruit coming out of high school. On paper, this looks like it will be a boom or bust unit. Either it’s going to be a major problem for the offense or it will be a revelation.

The Proven Commodity

Kalija Lipscomb, junior: Vanderbilt’s returning wide receivers accounted for 51 catches and 9 touchdowns in 2017. Kalija Lipscomb caught 37 passes for 610 yards and 8 touchdowns. Do you have any questions about the other returning wide receivers? Lipscomb got off to a strong start during his freshman year in 2016, though he faded a bit later in the season as other receivers picked up the slack. As a sophomore, he was the closest thing Vanderbilt had to a home run threat in the passing game, leading the team in receiving touchdowns and yards per catch (16.5.) He’s also functioned as the team’s primary punt returner for the last two years; last season, he returned 14 punts for 83 yards.

The Other Returnees

Donaven Tennyson, junior: Watching a player like Tennyson in Vanderbilt’s offense can be frustrating. At 5’10” and 170 pounds and speedy, you would think the offense could make good use of Tennyson in the slot. That’s the theory, anyway, but like Darrius Sims before him, Tennyson has seemed woefully underused. In 2017, Tennyson got just 11 touches all season — eight receptions and three rushing attempts. Those three rushing attempts netted 63 yards, 48 on one carry against Ole Miss; his eight receptions got 116 yards. Basically, when Tennyson got his hands on the ball, he often went a long way with it — so, uh, remind me why this guy touched the ball 11 times all season? Tennyson got his

Trey Ellis, senior: It’s telling that the third-leading returnee from Vanderbilt’s receiving corps — and the only one other than Lipscomb to catch a touchdown pass — is Trey Ellis, a 5’9”, 170-pound walk-on. Ellis’s lone touchdown catch came on a deflection in the Western Kentucky game; on the season, he caught five passes for 70 yards. That said, if he’s playing a major role here, the newcomers are... well, probably less than we thought they’d be.

Jackson Winrow, redshirt sophomore: Coming in, Winrow looked like a guy with good hands and enough speed and size (6’1”, 195) to play a role at some point. But it just hasn’t happened in two years in the program: Winrow redshirted in 2016 and appeared in one game in 2017, catching a single pass for 13 yards against Alabama A&M. With Duncan, Sherfield, and Scott gone, now is the time for him to step up and make an impact.

Chris Pierce, sophomore: One of the more annoying features of Derek Mason’s tenure has been a tendency to use players like Pierce in relatively minor roles as true freshmen. Pierce appeared in nine games last year, and while he didn’t catch a pass (though if I remember correctly, he was the intended target on the deflected ball that Trey Ellis caught for a touchdown), he did make four tackles on special teams. I guess that’s sort of useful, but if Vanderbilt is hurting for a big target (Pierce is 6’4” and 215 pounds) in the passing game in 2021... was that worth it?

James Bostic, redshirt freshman: The son of former Auburn RB James Bostic didn’t appear in a game in 2017, but like Pierce, he has good size at 6’3” and 208 pounds and could work his way into the rotation at wide receiver in 2018.

The Newcomers

Alex Stump, redshirt junior: Stump was rated as a four-star recruit coming out of high school, but got caught in the deluge of talent at Ohio State and barely saw the field. After sitting out 2017, he’ll look to show that his recruiting ratings weren’t a mirage. He’s another guy with good size (6’3”/210) and ball skills.

Cam Johnson, freshman: Local product? Check. Four-star recruit? Check. Tennessee offer? Check. Cam Johnson is the kind of player that in the past, Vanderbilt has almost never actually landed, and that’s before you get into the part where he was high school teammates with Gavin Schoenwald and Darius Garland — who are also, you know, at Vanderbilt. Johnson caught 48 passes for 803 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior at Brentwood Academy, and also had two punt return TDs and won a state championship in track. He’s not the biggest guy at 6’0” and 185 pounds, but it will be a surprise if he doesn’t play a major role as a true freshman. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he’ll be Vanderbilt’s top receiver in 2018.

C.J. Bolar, freshman: Bolar enrolled early and went through spring practice at Vanderbilt, and like Johnson he’ll be looking to make an early impact in the fall. Bolar was a three-star recruit and an All-State player in Mississippi; as a senior in high school, he caught 45 passes for 896 yards and 11 touchdowns. It won’t be a huge surprise if Vanderbilt starts both Bolar and Johnson at receiver.

Amir Abdur-Rahman, freshman: A late addition to the 2018 recruiting class, Abdur-Rahman isn’t as highly regarded as Johnson or Bolar but could end up being a good player as well; at 6’3” and 205 pounds he has ideal size for a receiver. He was a second-team All-State player in Georgia and caught 35 passes for 810 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior at Mays High School in Atlanta.