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Vanderbilt season preview: Bowl bid definitely within reach this season

Derek Mason vs. Tennessee 2014
CHRISTOPHER HANEWINCKEL/USA TODAY SPORTS

Third-year coach Derek Mason is raising expectations for Vanderbilt. “It’s not about competing anymore. It’s about winning,” he said at SEC Media Days.

Vanderbilt hasn’t done much of that of late. The Commodores are 7-17 overall and 2-14 in SEC play under Mason. But the defense made big strides last season, which helped Vandy win two league games. This season, it’s about improving an offense that has averaged just 16.2 points and 307.4 yards per game in Mason’s two seasons.

Offense

Ralph Webb

Ralph Webb ran for 1,000 yards last season, and has a good chance to become the school's leading career rusher this season. JIM BROWN/USA TODAY SPORTS

BACKFIELD: After rotating quarterbacks the past two seasons, Mason and second-year offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig made sure the masses knew that Kyle Shurmur would begin the season as the starter. Shurmur started the final five games last season as a true freshman, leading wins over Kentucky and Missouri, and looks to have the skill set to be effective in Ludwig's pro-style offense. Mason has admitted the team was too predictable last season. Added flexibility could benefit RB Ralph Webb, who should be used more as a receiver this season. A junior who has started all 24 games of his career, Webb is just 1,085 yards away from the school's career rushing record. Backups Dallas Rivers and Khari Blasingame add a physical between-the-tackles element. Blasingame moved over from linebacker and was one of the surprises of the spring.

RECEIVERS: This position needs drastic improvement if the offense is going to improve. Two players returning from injury who should make this unit much better are WR C.J. Duncan and TE Jared Pinkney. Duncan had a solid freshman season in 2014, averaging 15.8 yards on 28 receptions and scoring four TDs. He missed last season with a leg injury. Pinkney impressed the staff as a pass-catching tight end during fall camp last year season redshirting due to injury. Pinkney (6 feet 4, 250 pounds), a redshirt freshman, will be a load for defenders down the seam. Ludwig also has a plethora of big, physical tight ends to choose from when he decides to go into two-tight end sets. Trent Sherfield is the leading returning receiver; he had 51 receptions for 659 yards last season, but the bulk of that came in one game (16 receptions for 240 yards against FCS weakling Austin Peay). Senior Latevius Rayford hopes to bounce back from a disappointing season in which he caught just 19 passes one year after catching 36. Junior Caleb Scott had 24 receptions last season. Darrius Sims was an all-purpose back who saw a lot of time at slot receiver last season, so the staff decided to move him to receiver full time. With his speed, he could pose matchup problems for safeties and linebackers.

LINE: The unit took a major hit when Andrew Jelks, who was projected to be the starting left tackle after returning from an ACL tear, was lost for the 2016 season with another knee injury. There's a new line coach in Cameron Norcross, who was hired away from Fresno State. Will Holden and Justin Skule should start at tackle. The center job should go to senior Barrett Gouger, who started at guard last season. But guard is an issue. Bruno Reagan started the final two games at one guard spot last season and seems likely to be a starter this season, but there is little experience other than Reagan.

Defense

LINE: Vanderbilt was a middle-of-the pack SEC defense last season, but that was good enough to rank 28th nationally overall. There is no star up front, but there are experienced players. The Commodores use a 3-4 set, and each of the top six defensive linemen are upperclassmen. It all starts at the nose, with juniors Nifae Lealao and Jay Woods. A former four-star prospect, the 315-pound Lealao needs to hold up better at the point of attack. Junior Adam Butler (6-5, 295) is a returning starter at end, but he also can play tackle. He had three sacks and seven tackles for loss last season. Like Butler, Torey Agee (6-4, 285) can play end and tackle. Jonathan Wynn (6-4, 255) and Nehemiah Mitchell (6-4, 260) are smaller ends but can be disruptive.

Zach Cunningham was one of the best linebackers in the SEC last season, when he had 103 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. JOHN RUSSELL/VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

Zach Cunningham was one of the best linebackers in the SEC last season, when he had 103 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. JOHN RUSSELL/VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

LINEBACKERS: Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham give Vandy one of the best inside linebacker duos in the league – and could end up being one of the best in the nation. Bowden led Vandy with 78 tackles in 2014, but missed most of last year because of concussion issues. Cunningham stepped in and earned first-team All-SEC honors with 103 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. After playing in 11 games last season mainly on special teams, Charles Wright looks ready to be a productive outside linebacker. He was all over the field in the spring game and has the ability to be a solid pass rusher. The other outside linebacker spot looks to be Landon Stokes' for the taking. After starting the final five games last season, Stokes (6-4, 240) lends hope that he can be an effective pass rusher and set the edge against the run. His dad, Fred, played 10 seasons in the NFL as a defensive end.

SECONDARY: The unit needs to create more turnovers, as Vanderbilt had just six interceptions last season. Keep an eye on junior Oren Burks (6-3, 215 pounds), who will play the "star" position this season; it's a hybrid safety/outside 'backer spot. He has the needed physical tools to be an in-the-box force. The corner spots are manned down by Torren McGaster and Tre Herndon, both of whom are physical, athletic and can handle bump-and-run coverage, allowing Mason to employ various blitz packages on opponents. McGaster (6-0, 200) has good size and a chance to vie for all-league honors. Free safety is a potential trouble spot, with veterans Arnold Tarpley, Ryan White and Emmanuel Smith in the mix. Tarpley started the final six games last season at nickelback. White, a junior, played in every game in reserve last season, but he has been a disappointment considering he's a former four-star prospect. Smith, another former four-star recruit, is ready to take on a larger role after playing in every game in reserve as well as at nickel last season.

Special teams

Tommy Openshaw was both the kicker and punter last year, connecting on 12-of-19 field goals while averaging just less than 41 yards per punt. In the hopes of lessening his load, junior Reid Nelson and freshman Sam Loy will battle at punter. Last season, the return teams were mediocre and the punt coverage team was awful, allowing two TDs. The kickoff-coverage unit was good, though. New special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk likely will have Webb and Duncan on kick and punt returns, respectively.

Schedule

There's a big game right away, as Vanderbilt opens the season on September 1 against visiting South Carolina on ESPN. A win could generate some momentum leading up to a visit from Florida on October 1. The other September games are against Middle Tennessee State, Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky; all three certainly appear winnable, meaning Vandy could be 4-0 when the Gators visit. Depending on how they start the season, Mason's squad could be fighting for bowl eligibility by mid-October. While the Commodores get South Carolina at home, they must travel to Kentucky and Missouri, the other perceived "lower division" teams in the SEC East. Getting to a bowl likely is going to require winning at least twice within the division.

Facts and figures

Last season: 4-8 overall, 2-6 in SEC
Past five years, overall: 31-32
Past five years, SEC: 13-27
Past 10 years, overall: 51-73
Past 10 years, SEC: 21-59

RELATED: Vanderbilt's offensive and defensive X-factors for 2016

(You can follow Jimmy Schofield on Twitter @JimmySchofield1)

© 2016, Jimmy Schofield. All rights reserved.

© 2016, gridironnow.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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