#58 Vanderbilt Football 2017 Preview

Vanderbilt Commodores
Overall Rank: #58
#13 SEC
Vanderbilt picked up huge home wins against Ole Miss and Tennessee to end last season with six victories. That took the Commodores to a bowl game after a couple years’ absence. They lost badly to North Carolina State in the Independence Bowl, but it was a good step for the program. Now with 15 starters returning, the goal is to continue that success.
2016 Record: 6-7, 3-5
2016 Bowl: Independence Bowl vs. North Carolina State (L 17-41)
Coach: Derek Mason (13-24 at Vanderbilt, 13-24 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Andy Ludwig
Defensive Coordinator: Derek Mason
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Ralph Webb, RB, 1,283 yards
Passing: Kyle Shurmur, QB, 2,409 yards
Receiving: C.J. Duncan, WR, 494 yards
Tackles: LaDarius Wiley, S, 76
Sacks: Oren Burks, LB, 3.5
Interceptions: Tre Herndon, CB, 2
Other Key Returnees: RB Khari Blasingame, WR Trent Sherfield, WR Caleb Scott, S Ryan White
Key Losses: OL Will Holden, LB Zach Cunningham, DL Adam Butler, LB Ja’karri Thomas, CB Torren McGaster
In those wins over the Rebels and Volunteers, Vanderbilt’s offense looked completely different. They scored 83 points in those two games and the hope is the Commodores can keep that going in 2017. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur struggled early in the campaign, but played well down the stretch and ended the season with 2,409 passing yards and nine touchdowns. The emergence of the wide receivers helped and there is plenty of talent returning at that position. Caleb Scott emerged as a great downfield threat late in 2016 and C.J. Duncan and Trent Sherfield caught 44 and 34 passes, respectively. However, sophomore Kalija Lipscomb could be the best of the bunch when all is said and done. The Commodores also have depth at running back. Ralph Webb rushed for a school record 1,283 yards last season and reached the end zone 13 times. Khari Blasingame had a surprising season and emerged as a superb short yardage back. On the year he rushed for 449 yards and ten touchdowns. As long as the offensive line can find a way to replace center Barrett Gouger and left tackle Will Holden, the Vanderbilt offense will be very dangerous.
Vanderbilt has some work to do on defense with the departure of Zach Cunningham. The linebacker tallied 125 tackles and 16.5 tackles-for-loss. He was an amazing leader on the field and replacing that leadership and production will be nearly impossible. Oren Burks will move to the inside and attempt to replace Cunningham. He recorded 59 tackles, including 3.5 sacks from the hybrid end/linebacker position in Vanderbilt’s 3-4 scheme. There is not a whole lot of experience in the rest of the unit. Junior Josh Smith has plenty of potential, as do a few other linebackers, but nobody has really shown it yet. Depth could be an issue across the line, led by tackle Nifae Lealao. The news is much better in the secondary where senior safeties Ryan White and LaDarius Wiley lead the way. Those two combined to tally 151 tackles. Tre Herndon is another experienced senior at cornerback and the expectations are high for sophomore Joejuan Williams. The 6-3 cornerback started to play a lot more late in the 2016 campaign and he should be ready to step into a full-time starting role.
The Bottom Line:
The defense ranked 122nd in the FBS and last in the SEC in sacks and they must generate more pressure if the defense is going to improve on last year’s performance. The offense will almost certainly be better though and that should be enough to get Vanderbilt back to a bowl game. The non-conference slate contains contests against Middle Tennessee, Alabama A&M, Kansas State and Western Kentucky. That is not the easiest schedule, but all those games are winnable. That would leave just two more wins needed to reach six. The SEC is tough of course, but Vanderbilt is good enough to win at least a couple conference games.
Projected Bowl: Independence Bowl
2016 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 164.5 (77th in nation, 10th in conference)
Passing Offense: 191.2 (100, 11)
Total Offense: 355.7 (110, 12)
Scoring Offense: 23.0 (113, 13)
Rushing Defense: 163.5 (57, 6)
Pass Defense: 244.6 (83, 11)
Total Defense: 408.2 (64, 6)
Scoring Defense: 24.0 (35, 5)
Turnover Margin: 0.31 (38, 5)
Sacks: 1.15 (122, 14)
Sacks Allowed: 2.46 (93, 12)