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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Fall Camp

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The speculation is almost over, and we will soon have real football to be excited about...or drink to forget.

Vanderbilt v Middle Tennessee
Jared Pinkney put an MTSU on the train tracks last year, but he needs to steamroll more than just a Blue Raider this year.
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Fall Camp has really been tough. The Commodores have been working hard. Derek Mason has been taking advantage of time freed up by no longer being dual HC/DC to really focus on important details such as Shurmur wearing his mouthpiece properly instead of keeping it tucked into his helmet. Andy Ludwig, in his 4th year at one place for the first time since 2005-2008, has been scheming up the Sneaky Pete II. Jason Tarver ditched the Tiny Tim crutch act from the spring and finally decided to put his stamp on the defense. Meanwhile, the flood of information rushing to fans to has us all feeling a quiet confidence about this team we know so much about entering the first game.

Oh, wait, that last part is not true. The rest of it is TOTALLY 100% accurate though. Information has been scarce and very speculative. Vanderbilt does lack the horde of supposed insiders who are at every second of practice the coaches open to them then sneak around trying to glean any tidbit the coaches are trying to keep under wraps. As such, the main source of information is from official outlets, and anyone who knows anything about sports in general knows coaches play things close to the vest (which vests normally mean good thing for Mason!). The scarcity of new information makes my task more difficult though, so this edition of Lessons in Vanderbilt Football will be a bit different. We are not learning anything at the moment, so that segment is going to be scrapped while further study will be MUCH longer. What we know well is also a short list that will be abbreviated since this info is already established and have been points of emphasis all offseason.

Lessons We Know Well

Kyle Shurmur is a legitimately top-tier NCAA and Power 5 QB. Throwing more TDs in a season than anyone else to play on West End, which has actually had a handful or more of explosive offenses helmed by signal-callers like Whit Taylor (former record holder) and Jay Cutler. The one place Shurmur can improve on his turnovers, but the 10 INTs thrown last year is a bit misleading since 7 of them came in 2 games against Kentucky and Missouri. Whether Shurmur was trying to do too much in an attempt to get to 6 wins in November or if he just had two bad games is something we will never know, but he went from 9 TDs and 10 INTs in 2016 to 26 TDs and 10 INTs in 2017. He almost certainly will not have quite that jump this year, but he could definitely clean things up enough to make a key difference.

Kalija Lipscomb may be the only known commodity at WR, which will be touched on in a minute, but he is a pretty good option to be returning. He made 37 catches for 610 yards. Lipscomb does not necessarily have elite speed, but he has shown a propensity for catches downfield. Vanderbilt fans know Lipscomb is a good to very good receiver. By the way, Kalija is only a junior. A step forward into the great or elite tier may be the biggest benefit the younger receivers could get. Defenses keying on him will open up other areas of the field, and success this season will rely heavily on other guys making plays there until defenses shift back away from Kalija or the other guys do enough damage to win the game. Either result would be just fine with Ludwig, Mason, and everyone else in McGugin.

Lessons We Will Study Further

How does the defense change? This question has to come to the forefront. Whatever the offense is, our head coach is still Derek Mason. His teams will be judged on their defense since that is his expertise. That expertise led him to take over the Defensive Coordinator personally after a very poor opening season in 2014. Two very good years followed before the bottom fell out in 2017. The reasons for that fall out could be the departure of players like Adam Butler and Zach Cunningham or the loss of key assistant and long-time Mason colleague Osia Lewis to cancer treatment or any number of other things. Mason has put Jason Tarver in the driver’s seat. These two are familiar, but every coach is a little different in how they call plays. Tarver needs to make improvements even if the scheme itself does not change much.

Can the defensive line hold their own at all against SEC teams? Only the pitifully inept offense in Knoxville was held in check by Vanderbilt’s defensive line. Most other teams simply road-graded our guys in the trenches. The replacements are young and mostly unknown. Dare Odeyingbo is really the only returning starter and only guy cemented in his spot on the depth chart at one DE spot. Meanwhile, his sophomore brother Dayo has an OR designation with Ivy League grad transfer Louis Vecchio at the other DE spot. Both of them tip the scales at 270 pounds and are similar in height with height as the younger Odeyingbo has a 1” advantage at 6’6”. Dayo has shown flashes of great athleticism in limited action, including batting then intercepting a pass against Alabama A&M. The interior of the line has 3 guys between 290, 295, and 300 pounds in Cameron Tidd, Drew Birchmeier, and Josiah Sa’o. All 3 are redshirt sophomores with Tidd and Birchmeier giving the famed OR designation to start. These guys are the foundation of the defense and will likely have as much impact as anyone on how things change, up to an including Tarver.

Who becomes the next target(s) that Shurmur trusts amongst the wide receivers? Chris Pierce has been getting described as one thing all camp by Rivals Vanderbilt insider Chris Lee – dependable. Lee went so far as to say that he could not remember a single drop by Pierce through spring ball or fall camp. At 6’4”, Pierce offering a big-bodied, reliable option could be a second big key along with Kalija taking another step forward. True freshmen CJ Bolar and Cam Johnson are listed behind Lipscomb, and Johnson in particular has sparked interest during camp with his athleticism. Graduate student and former walk-on Trey Ellis is actually listed 2nd behind Pierce while Darrius Sims 2.0 aka Donaven Tennyson rounds out the 3-deep listed on the outside. Tennyson has a lot to offer with his athleticism and has made explosive plays, but he needs to start finding a way to force coaches to put him on the field as a junior. The positive is that a lot of options to succeed are there since the depth chart does not even include Alex Stump, Jackson Winrow, Amir Abdur-Rahman. If even 2 or 3 of these guys behind Lipscomb can be useful targets, this offense could be explosive. Oh, and maybe another position group can give these guys a direct hand…

Does Jared Pinkney finally turn a few flashes into a real breakout season? Jared Pinkney had 22 catches for 274 yards in 2016 then 22 catches for 279 yards in 2017. The 6’4” and 255-pound TE has shown that he can be a deep threat, too. A career average reception of 15.6 yards attests to that fact. He needs to find consistency. Pinkney has not struggled with drops. Whether it is not getting open or being kept in to block, Pinkney has only had 5 or more catches once and that was against Missouri last year (6 catches). He also had 119 of his 279 yards for the year in that one game. Pinkney is not an unknown, but he needs to find a way to contribute more. I doubt that Shurmur is just overlooking him all that often if he is open. Maybe TEs (Sam Dobbs too!) could help carry the pass catching load.

Can we run the ball this year? This topic has two pieces. The first is the offensive line. Everybody from last year’s starting 5 is back, and Cole Clemens may actually supplant Saige Young at LG while Egidio DellaRippa will slide out to RG from C as Bruno Reagan transitions from C back to RG. The offensive line was consistently good at keeping Kyle Shurmur upright, yet they failed to open lanes for any of the running backs with any regularity. Quite frankly, they just need to do better. If those lanes are open, the second part should do their part finding them and exploiting them. Khari Blasingame is the fairly well-known bruiser who has supposedly leaned out and gotten more explosive while keeping the power. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, more of a home-run option, and Jamauri Wakefield, who falls between bruiser and home-run option, both managed to be listed as ORs with Blasingame to start at RB though. The hope is that each of them fighting for carries (along with Javeon Marlow and Josh Crawford) will make each of them run aggressively and effectively. Speaking of Crawford, Mason has mentioned him twice, without being prompted. He brought up him as a natural runner in his press conference this week and as a “ho-hum” but effective runner during the call-in show. I was high on Crawford a few years ago and brought him up recently, but Mason’s words got my attention. Whoever it is carrying the ball and wherever guys are along the offensive line, the run game needs to help Shurmur and maybe open more space for the young receivers by pulling safeties and linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage.

Can special teams stop being a problem? Kicker Tommy Openshaw, punter Sam Loy, long snapper Scott Sypniewski, and ST Coordinator Jeff Genyk are all gone. They have been replaced by Ryley Guay, Parker Thome, Tommy Schiager, and Shawn Mennenga. Guay had some kickoff duty last year and went 1-for-1 on PATs. The reports are that he has a great leg and has improved his consistency and accuracy throughout spring and camp. Highly-touted freshman kicker Javan Rice (wearing #39!) is waiting in the wings, but it would be great to have him redshirt due to the gulf that often exists between how consistent high school and college kickers are. Thome is a gift via Columbia due to some stupid Ivy League eligibility rules who averaged 42.9 yards per punt with 10 of 50+ yards and 23 (of 50 total) downed inside the 20 along with 12 forced fair catches. Schiager took over after Sypniewski suffered an injury down the stretch, and there was no apparent fall off in the snap quality. The interesting part is how Mennenga can develop these players because Genyk’s units were less productive each year, turning Openshaw from a steady hand in 2016 to very poor in 2017 along with Loy being forced into a painfully bad rugby style. When so many games are in the “toss-up” category, special teams can make or break a game.

Ultimately, the biggest thing to watch is quite simple: was 2017 a momentary step back or was 2016 the pinnacle of Derek Mason’s tenure at Vanderbilt? It is not secret that I have been supportive of Mason. The reason for that until 2017 was that things got better every year before then. More importantly, the record was not just getting better, but the on-field product was undoubtedly improving. The problem is that 2017 was only one win short of 2016, but the on-field product was not close to 2016. Mason needs to keep the level of player higher than the defense exhibited last season. A 5-7 record really is not a bad year at Vanderbilt. The bar HAS been raised, but falling one win short of a bowl the year after a bowl trip is still within the acceptable range even if it is disappointing. Fielding a defense that gives up historically bad points per game, even accounting for the changes in offensive firepower in the SEC compared to the historical “ground-and-pound” style, is not acceptable for a coach known for his defense. Point blank, if Vanderbilt under Derek Mason makes a history of bad defense with good offense, why not fire Mason and promote Ludwig to see if Andy Ludwig cannot hire a DC who can improve that side of the ball.

Vanderbilt’s football season hinges on a lot of details. Each game will have its own special facets. Trends will almost certainly show up though. Some of them will have to do with things from this first article. Many of them will likely be surprises. Thankfully, next week there will be real football that happened against a real opponent in a real game to discuss instead of hypotheticals and camp conjecture.