2015 CFB Preview – Vanderbilt

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That’s what happens when you play good teams in the working definition of a building block year.

By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

At the very least in the disaster or a 2014 season, Vanderbilt won three games. That might not seem like much, but it wasn’t all that long ago – 2009 and 2010 – when the program was coming off back-to-back two-win seasons. But coming off a 9-4 2013, the first season under head coach Derek Mason looks on the surface like a massive clunker.

There was no offense – scoring 17 points or fewer eight times – and the defense did what it could, but there are two important parts in what happened. First, it was a total gut job with a ridiculous 14 underclassmen starters thrown to the wolves by the new coaching staff, and second, unlike the 2013 team, the 2014 team actually had to play someone with a pulse.

No matter how the sausage is made, back-to-back 9-4 seasons under James Franklin was cause for celebration at a school not known for having any sort of success. However, there was one really nice win over Georgia in 2013 – even when it’s destroyed by injury – and a whole bunch of no-big-whoop wins.

It’s always a big deal to beat Florida, but 2013 Florida sucked, as did Tennessee, Kentucky and Wake Forest. In all, two years ago, Vandy beat one FBS team that finished with a winning record, and then got by Houston – yippee – in the bowl game.

In 2012, Vanderbilt played four really good teams and lost to all four. How many of the wins came against FBS teams with losing records? All of them except for one win over an Ole Miss team that went 7-6 before winning the bowl game over NC State.

But again, as Bill Parcells famously said, you are what your record is. Last season, Vanderbilt beat all three really mediocre teams on the slate and lost just one game to a team that finished up a loser – 5-7 Kentucky. The 2012 and 2013 teams wouldn’t have beaten 2014 Ole Miss. Or Georgia. Or Florida (no, they wouldn’t), Or Missouri. Or Mississippi State. Those Franklin teams at absolute best would’ve been 6-6 and he wouldn’t be hailed as a rising superstar ready to take over Penn State.

Mason walked into an impossible situation, but the SEC is still the SEC, and Vanderbilt is still Vanderbilt. The goal is to keep building up the talent and depth, keep beating the teams that are supposed to be beaten, and hopefully catch someone like 2013 Georgia napping and hurt at just the right time.

Nine starters are back on offense and ten are back on D. The special teams has some weapons, the overall depth is starting to take shape, and Mason is doing what a new coach is supposed to do. And that’s the positive part about Vanderbilt – everyone wants to win right away, but after years of horrible football, it’s okay to take some time to do it right.

Is Mason putting the pieces together to win the SEC East in 2017? Maybe not, but the team should be far more competitive and far better.

What You Need To Know About The Offense: Totally miserable last season, the Vanderbilt offense couldn’t settle its quarterback situation, couldn’t get any production out of the line, and couldn’t put points on the board on a regular basis. The Commodores scored 17 points or fewer eight times and finished 122nd in the nation in total offense. There’s hope for a big improvement with nine returning starters including all the key skill players of last year, a good running back rotation, and more stability at quarterback – potentially – with Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck. If the more experienced line doesn’t improve, then the offense will keep on struggling.

What You Need To Know About The Defense: Nine starters are back on a defense that tried to do what it could to overcome a horrible offense. 13 of the top 14 tacklers return, and nine of them were underclassmen. The linebacking corps has the potential to be strong in the 3-4 alignment, only losing Kyle Woestmann on the outside. The front three has good bulk, but the line has to be stronger against the power teams while letting the linebackers take care of things in the backfield. The secondary gets everyone back from a very, very young group that had too many problems making big plays, but there’s enough returning talent to expect more production.

What to watch for on offense: There’s going to be more production. There has to be. The Commodores suffered the double-whammy of trying to figure out the new parts to the puzzle while going against some of the nation’s top defenses in Ole Miss, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Temple – yes, Temple. The coaching staff tried out four different quarterbacks looking for some sort of production while the line was never able to get into a groove. The quarterback situation is far more settled now with just two options – Wade Freebeck and Johnny McCrary – instead of four, but the biggest difference should be an improved line with experience meaning everything. With four returning starters up front, expect more overall consistency from the O.

What to watch for on defense: The linebacking corps has the potential to be terrific. This is where the youth movement of last year might pay off in a big way. The two leading tacklers – Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham – were freshman, and then-sophomore Stephen Weatherly was the defense’s most active performer. The depth was young, too, and now there should be a good rotation for the 3-4 to work behind a big front three. As this group goes, so goes the defense – it’ll be stronger.

The team will be far better if … the turnovers stop. The 2012 team that finished 9-4 ended the year even in turnover margin. The nine-win team of two years ago was a +7. Considering the youth and with all the changes, expectedly, last year the turnover margin stunk, but going -16 was a killer. Vandy didn’t win the stat in any game, starting out -5 against Temple and closed out -10 over the last five games. The team just isn’t good enough to not be on the right side of mistakes in every game, and to have any hope against the better teams, being at least +2 or better is a must.

The schedule: For a young team that still needs even more time and seasoning, starting out against the high-octane WKU team and following it up with the SEC opener against Georgia isn’t a plus.
– Vandy has to get used to the road, going away from home for three straight games in the middle of the season and five games in a six date stretch. The lone home game oasis is against Missouri.
– Every team in the West is decent, but missing Alabama, Auburn and LSU not a bad thing this year. However, going to Ole Miss will be tough, and the Texas A&M game comes before the regular season ender at Tennessee.
– The non-conference schedule isn’t all that bad, but along with the dangerous game against WKU, road games at Middle Tennessee and Houston aren’t layups. Getting to play Austin Peay eases things a bit.
– WATCH OUT FOR … Houston. The Cougars should be as good as any team in the American Athletic, and it comes after dealing with Missouri and before going to Florida.

Best offensive player: Sophomore RB Ralph Webb. He did what he could as a freshman behind a lousy line and with absolutely no one worrying about the passing attack. Webb was the quick part of the rotation while Dallas Rivers was more of the pounding back. There should be more help all around and more production from the retuning parts – Webb will benefit in a big way on his way to a likely 1,000-yard campaign.

Best defensive player: Junior LB Stephen Weatherly. The do-it-all tone-setter for the young defense, he did a little bit of everything finishing fourth on the team in tackles and leading the way in sacks. Big on the outside, he’ll work around Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham in the interior. The line has to do its part, and the secondary will play a big role against the run, but Weatherly needs to build off his terrific sophomore season and do that again.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Johnny McCrary and/or sophomore QB Wade Freebeck. Patton Robinette realized his brain was too valuable to get beaten up anymore and for some crazy reason chose med school over concussions. Stephen Rivers was the veteran option, but he graduated leaving McCrary and Freebeck as the two options left from a quarterback revolving door. McCrary is the most likely No. 1, but Freebeck will get every shot at the gig in fall camp. No matter what, Vandy’s season depends on steadier play from the position.

The season will be a success if … they win five games. That might seem like a boring goal, but WKU isn’t a sure-thing win, and going to Middle Tennessee and Houston might be rough. This is still the 14th best team in the 14 team league, but if it can beat at least one good conference team, and with wins over the average-to-mediocre, improving by two wins might be possible.

Key game: Sept. 5 vs. WKU. The Commodores aren’t going to win the SEC title, and it’ll take something special to come within ten miles of a bowl game, but that doesn’t mean they can’t come up with a good season. Sometimes a team needs a tone-setter, and after starting out last year getting pantsed by Temple, beating a dangerous, high-powered WKU team early on is a must. With Georgia to follow, and a run of five road games in six dates soon coming up, getting a win right away would be a bigger deal than normal.

2014 Fun Stats:
– Rushing Yards: Opponents 2,205 – Vanderbilt 1,311
– First Quarter Scoring: Opponents 99 – Vanderbilt 31
– Red Zone Scoring: Opponents 48-of-52 (92%) – Opponents 19-of-26 (73%)

Players You Need To Know

1. LB Stephen Weatherly, Jr.
Part linebacker, part defensive end, the 6-5, 250-pound Weatherly did just about everything in his role in the new 3-4 scheme. More of a natural pass rushing end, he figured out his gig in a hurry with tremendous results coming up with a team-leading 4.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss, and 55 tackles. He even managed to come up with a big play on special teams taking punt for a score. Extremely athletic – he saw time at wide receiver in high school – and he has the speed and burst to be even more disruptive behind the line while also serving as a big stopper against the run.

2. LB Nigel Bowden, Soph.
Built for the inside, the 6-1, 245-pound big hitter is an all-star both in the classroom and on the field, coming up with a team-leading 78 tackles to go along with a sack. While he’s not much of a pass rusher, he’s a tackling machine who holds up well against anything that comes his way, coming up with ten tackles against Charleston Southern and 11 the next game against Missouri, but he missed a little time late in the season. If he can stay in one piece, he’ll be a 100-tackle leader of the front seven.

3. RB Ralph Webb, Soph.
There wasn’t much that went right offensively last season, but Webb came up with a nice freshman season with a team-leading 907 yards and four score to go along with ten catches. The slippery Gainesville, Florida native has elite athleticism, coming to Vandy after earning high school state championships as a long jumper. At 5-10 and 200 pounds he might not be built to handle a big workload, but he’s steady. His two biggest rushing games – 116 yards against UMass and 166 against Old Dominion – came in two of the three wins.

4. TE Steven Scheu, Sr.
The lone Commodore to receive All-SEC recognition, Scheu led the team with 39 catches for 525 yards and four touchdowns spreading out his production over the course of the season. The 6-5, 245-pounder has the right size, good downfield speed, and he’s just enough of a blocker to not be awful. He’s a smart, versatile receiver, but more than that, he’s one of the team’s key leaders. The hope is for the wide receivers to step up and do more, but Scheu will be one of the go-to targets to keep the chains moving.

5. CB Torren McGaster, Jr.
With good 6-0, 196-pound size and excellent hitting ability, he went from being a nice reserve to a good all-around veteran for the secondary. Despite working at corner, he finished third on the team in tackles coming up with 66 – making 46 on his own in the open field – with two interceptions and five broken up passes. He’s more physical than fast, knowing how to get around the ball in run support.

6. OT Andrew Jelks, Jr.
The line needs to be far better, and it should start with the veteran. He started out his career working on the right side but spent last season playing at left tackle – now he has to be more consistent. At 6-6 and 305 pounds, he’s not massive but he has a great frame and is a decent, technical pass protector. He still needs to get a bit bigger with the ability to add at least ten pounds of good weight, but at the moment he’s the team’s best all-around blocker.

7. QB Johnny McCrary, Soph.
Wade Freebeck is deep in the hunt for the starting quarterback job, but he didn’t set the world on fire last season with one touchdown pass and five picks, failing to complete more than half of his passes. The 6-4, 224-pound McCrary was the best option in a bad quarterback situation, but he still struggled. Freshmen tend to do that in the SEC, but he got through it all throwing for 985 yards and nine touchdowns with eight picks. He’s big, has a great arm, and is mobile enough to get out of the picket once in a while. However, after struggling mightily with his accuracy over the final three games, he failed to take the job by the horns.

8. P Colby Cooke, Jr.
The Commodores needed to be bailed out of jams time and again thanks to the lousy offense. Cooke did his part averaging 42.4 yards per kick putting 19 inside the 20 and showing off excellent range. He’s a big 6-3, 220-pound kicker who could be used for kickoffs and long field goals if needed, but he’s turning into an all-star caliber punter.

9. KR Darrius Sims, Jr.
Stepping in as a true freshman, the corner prospect turned into a nice kick returner averaging 23.1 yards per pop highlighted by a 71 yard dash against Tennessee. Last year he became even more dangerous, averaging 24.5 yards per kickoff return including two touchdowns against South Carolina. The 5-9, 182-pounder might be more of a star as a return man than a defensive back – he only made five tackles last season – but he took an interception back for a score against Kentucky. Really quick and with great athleticism, he should see more time in the secondary, but he’s a return man.

10. WR C.J. Duncan, Soph.
While he didn’t get too many chances to show off something big as a freshman, the 5-11, 200-pounder looked like a dangerous weapon to work around for the near future. He has good size and nice deep speed, averaging close to 16 yards per carry making 28 grabs for 441 yards and four scores on the season, highlighted by a seven-catch, 119-yard day against Charleston Southern. Very athletic and very smart, he has the upside to give the passing game more pop.

Head Coach: Derek Mason
2nd year: 3-9
Sept. 5 WKU
Sept. 12 Georgia
Sept. 19 Austin Peay
Sept. 26 at Ole Miss
Oct. 3 at Middle Tennessee
Oct. 17 at South Carolina
Oct. 24 Missouri
Oct. 31 at Houston
Nov. 7 at Florida
Nov. 14 Kentucky
Nov. 21 Texas A&M
Nov. 28 at Tennessee
Ten Best Vandy Players
1. LB Stephen Weatherly, Jr.
2. LB Nigel Bowden, Soph.
3. RB Ralph Webb, Soph.
4. TE Steven Scheu, Sr.
5. CB Torren McGaster, Jr.
6. OT Andrew Jelks, Jr.
7. QB Johnny McCrary, Soph.
8. P Colby Cooke, Jr.
9. KR Darrius Sims, Jr.
10. WR C.J. Duncan, Soph.