In 2017, Vanderbilt ranked 128th (of 130 FBS teams) in special teams S&P+. Kicker Tommy Openshaw was 3-for-7 on field goals, punter Sam Loy was inexplicably turned into a rugby-style punter, and the return game was nothing special.
Unsurprisingly, special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk was sacked after that disaster. In is former Cleveland Browns special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga. In addition, Openshaw graduated, and Loy elected to transfer after the season. Basically, Vanderbilt’s special teams unit in 2018 is getting a complete overhaul — which, well, when you were that bad the year before, is probably not a negative.
When Javan Rice committed last year and then enrolled in the spring, the assumption was that he would take over placekicking duties from Openshaw as a true freshman. After all, Rice was ranked as a top-10 kicker and is the only scholarship kicker on the roster.
But Rice is getting more competition than expected from junior walk-on Ryley Guay, a part-time kickoff specialist the past two years who has a booming leg. Guay reportedly has range out to 50 yards on field goals and could claim the starting placekicking job. It’s unknown if Vanderbilt will split up the placekicking and kickoff duties, though if Guay is handling field goals and extra points, there’s no particular reason to burn a redshirt year for Rice.
Graduate transfer Parker Thome was an All-Ivy League punter at Columbia last year, averaging 42.9 yards per punt with a 38.6 net punting average. In all likelihood, Thome will be Vanderbilt’s punter this season. But with only one season of eligibility remaining, Vanderbilt has a big question mark about what will happen at the position in 2019 and beyond. Harrison Smith, who was an All-State punter at Brentwood Academy, is on the roster as an invited walk-on and might figure into the equation after this season, though it seems a near certainty that he’ll redshirt.
The Long Snappers
Redshirt sophomore Tommy Schiager, a walk-on from Portland, Oregon, who started his Vanderbilt career as a fullback, handled long snapping duties at the end of last season after Scott Sypniewski was lost for the year. I didn’t hear any complaints about Schiager’s snaps, so he’s the odds-on favorite to handle snapping duties this year. An open question will be whether Vanderbilt will split up snapping duties on punts and field goals/extra points; if so, freshman walk-on Zach Drevno, the son of former Michigan offensive coordinator and current USC running backs coach Tim Drevno, could be a factor here.
The Return Game
Last season, Kalija Lipscomb handled punt returns and Jamauri Wakefield handled kick returns. Lipscomb, for all his strengths as a receiver, was exceedingly not dangerous as a punt returner — he averaged 5.9 yards per return with a long of 18 and no touchdowns. Wakefield was a bit better, averaging 23.8 yards on 22 returns with a long of 45.
It’s not clear who will handle returns this year. This seems like something that would be tailor-made for true freshman Cam Johnson, but we really have no idea.