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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Early Fall Camp

The time has come for Vanderbilt football’s fall camp to start and fans are eager for news, yet nothing of substance has come out.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Day
Coach Mason is REALLY in a “Let’s Ride!” mood.
Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

I sincerely thought about copying and pasting the introduction from last year’s Fall Camp edition. Many of the same things ring true. Information has been even tougher to come by early in camp than in years past. The quarterback battle seems to be the most likely culprit for why the media has gotten such limited access. Chris Lee said on his podcast that they had only seen about 12 live snaps through 3 or 4 days. Basically, we have nothing new to talk about today.

Not having anything new does not mean we are dead in the water. The first game is just over 3 weeks away. More things may leak out as we approach the first game. Today, the best thing to do is to look at where we as fans start the season. What are the things we should be listening for and hoping to see if information does become available? As such, like last year, the “Lessons We Are Learning” section is doing a vanishing act for now.

Lessons We Know Well

Vanderbilt has at least THREE elite playmakers. Enough has been said about Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Jared Pinkney, and Kalija Lipscomb that spending more time on why they are elite is pointless. It is probably not hyperbole to say this is the best trio in the SEC. If not, they are for sure in the top 3 behind maybe Alabama and … honestly not sure who else has a good argument. Vanderbilt just does not have that entering a season. At least, we never have before THIS season. This offense has the firepower to be one of the best Vandy has seen. We can get to why they could be held back from that later. Unfortunately, these three are just about the only players I feel confident in saying decisively what they are.

Lessons We Will Study Further

What do we have behind “The Big 3” on offense? We all can remember Vanderbilt teams with a couple of high-end players. I still do not think any of them could have matched the starting trio this year, but Jordan Matthews had Chris Boyd (except 2013) and Jonathan Krause (one of my favorite Commodores who I think was really underrated and maybe underutilized). Zac Stacy had Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow. We could go deeper into history, but there have not been many really explosive offenses this side of the 1990s. The good news is that we might have even more depth than Vanderbilt has had in a long time, too. None of Franklin’s teams had more than 2 guys with even more than 250 yards receiving. Last season, CJ Bolar was 3rd on the team with 440 yards. Cam Johnson had 45 yards before his true freshman season ended after 4 games. Amir Abdur-Rahman had 108 yards in 3 games while redshirting. The point is that the WR room just MIGHT have 4 guys capable of making a significant impact.

Meanwhile, the situation at RB is a little more interesting but not devoid of talent. Jamauri Wakefield had 353 yards on 78 carries as the third option last year behind Vaughn and the graduated Khari Blasingame. The wild card is Ja’Veon Marlow who has been touted by Chris Lee as someone who would have started for a lot of past Vanderbilt teams. Marlow also managed to use his VERY limited 5 carries to get 46 yards. In that miniscule sample, he looked like a good combination of power and speed with fluid body movement. Injuries have seemed to be nagging on him through the spring and might still be lingering. A healthy Marlow could make that a very formidable group, too.

How is the offensive line going to perform? The starters seem to be set from what little has come out of camp. Devin Cochran, Saige Young, Grant Miller, Cole Clemens, and Tyler Steen is the reported line being used during the sessions media can see during camp. I really have no idea how they will do. It seems unlikely to be a terrible line, but SEC defensive lines can eat average OLs alive. They could also be a very good group who keeps the quarterback upright to find our plethora of targets while also opening holes for Vaughn and whatever else happens with the running game.

Who is going to be at QB? Everyone is rushing to this question. The reason is obvious. Quarterback is the single most important position. I base that on the fact that a dead average team with a great QB is going to be better than a dead average team with a great player at any other position. Yet it is third on my list. The reason is simple. Riley Neal has proven he can be a very successful QB in FBS football. No, the MAC is not the SEC, but the playing field is level with talent he is facing and on his team. His numbers against Notre Dame from last season were UGLY. Most will take that as a very negative thing, but I watched a fair bit of that game. He looked pretty good in that game when his line was not imitating Swiss cheese and his WRs stopped eating popcorn between plays. He should have a lot more help than that with this Vanderbilt squad. Riley Neal should be a decent game manager (with a little mobility) at worst. If Deuce Wallace beats Neal for the starting spot? Then we should get better than that minimum. Put me down as intrigued but not worried about the QB battle.

What happens on defense? Joejuan Williams is gone via the 2nd round of the NFL draft thanks to the New England Patriots. Dare Odeyingbo signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay. Ladarius Wiley is still in Music City, but he is trying to make the Titans roster now not holding down a safety spot on West End. The 2018 team’s leading tackler Jordan Griffin somehow did not land even a camp tryout. Others like Louis Vecchio and Donovan Sheffield have also departed. Vanderbilt is among the nation’s lowest in returning production on the defensive side of the ball (119th of 130). The good news is that this group has some of the highest rated recruits in Vanderbilt history along with transfers Eddie Zinn-Turner, Cam Watkins, and Dontye Williams who are cleared to play along with Malik Langham and Derek Green who have transferred in but may not be eligible this season. With so many departures and so little back, Vanderbilt would often expect a big decline. The problem is that the defense was not great last year, allowing an SEC-worst 45.6% conversions on 3rd down and giving up 194.7 yards per game on the ground (94th in the country). With so many new faces and a lot of guys getting their first starting assignment against Georgia, who boasts one of the best offensive lines in the country along with a highly efficient QB in Jake Fromm and a nice stable of backs led by D’Andre Swift, the first game is a tall task. Just slowing the Georgia attack down could portend some progress. The most important thing will be learning from the mistakes that will happen in that game and moving forward effectively.

Can special teams stop being a problem? I left this question alone. It needed to be asked again. The punting was perfectly acceptable at 39.96 net yards per kick which was 21st in FBS. Parker Thome is gone, and the punter position seems open. No one is reporting on the battle at punter and finding data on punters is nearly impossible. New ST Coordinator Devin Fitzsimmons seems comfortable with where those guys are at though and thinks it will work itself out per his post-practice comments on August 6th. The FG kicking was an adventure. Ryley Guay managed to go 13-22 on FGs. That 59.1% success rate ranked him 106th of eligible kickers. Only 110 met the criteria. The yardage breakdown of attempts and misses makes it more troubling. Guay does not just have limited leg strength, so he was shanking long kicks while trying to stretch is range. His leg is plenty powerful enough. In fact, he was 1-1 on attempts outside 50 yards. Conversely, Ryley went 4-7 from 20-29 yards, 4-5 from 30-39, and 4-9 from 40-49. Being 57.1% inside of 30 is unacceptable and can really hurt a team playing with such fine margins like Vanderbilt. The tutelage of Fitzsimmons needs to rectify whatever mechanical or mental issues caused the inefficiency because with even average accuracy his leg could be a weapon. I have seen him doink a 48-yard FG off the upright ¾ up the post. With a leg capable of hitting from 55+, he could have a future if the accuracy catches up. If not, it may be time to see RS FR Javan Rice who was highly touted out of high school. The fact he never saw the field last year is a bit concerning since Guay struggled so mightily, especially on short kicks.

In the return game, Justice Shelton-Mosley has returned 44 punts in his career for 634 yards. Averaging 14.4 yards per return attempt is very useful. Picking up an extra first down for your offense when you get a chance to return one is obviously a benefit. Two of those 44 also went to the house. On kickoffs, he has attempted 30 returns for 739 yards. The average of 24.6 means his attempts average out to the current touchback distance. The NCAA does not calculate yardage based on depth of the end zone either, starting the return yardage at the goal line, so at worst, we should typically get to where a touchback would start us.

All these smaller questions get thrown into the ether as part of the real question fans care about when it comes to their football team. What kind of season are we going to have? Some crucial things are up in the air, such as the OL and most of the defense. The kicking game has robbed us of wins in the past. Mason and his staff seem more comfortable than ever, and the head coach seems almost as confident as his first season. Then, Vanderbilt fans witnessed one of the most painful seasons to date in a loooong history of gridiron struggles. Falling flat on his face could see Mason’s job in jeopardy, even after an offseason extension, but AD Malcom Turner seems to be very interested in helping his coaches succeed at levels seen only by baseball, women’s tennis, and women’s bowling. A national championship in football is almost certainly a pipe dream, but a new commitment to athletics could see Vanderbilt become a team like South Carolina who can threaten the top of the division once in a while and might even find themselves in Atlanta once or twice. Hopefully, Mason’s confidence proves to be well-founded to give Turner the confidence in his head football coach to go forward with those improvements.