Roanoke: Vanderbilt football outlook

F.K. Friedman, better known as "Roanoke" in the VandyMania forums, gives his reasons to be both excited and cautious about the upcoming Vanderbilt Commodores football season. Look inside to read this commentary.

1. Lower Expectations – Better Coordinators

Last year, coming off back-to-back nine win seasons and national rankings, expectations were high and the team was young. It was a perfect storm for a first-time head coach to step in amidst high hopes and fail. The failure mushroomed right from the start. When the distraught fan threw down his Vandy gear mid-way through Game 2, it was already clear that the Ole Miss debacle was merely a harbinger of drubbings yet to come. To be fair, a lot of last season’s misery truly was due to inflexible and misguided offensive coaching, and some fairly passive defensive schemes. But, also, some bad luck came into play – if Patton Robinette had not been injured versus South Carolina (on a play where he was barely hit) it could have been a very different season. Whether you call it bad luck, rotten coaching or lousy execution: the product was as frustrating to watch as it was a failure on the field. The 3-9 record was dreadful – and the very narrow escapes against Charleston Southern and UMass masked a genuine dumpster fire.

This season, expectations are low. Too low, if you ask me – which might be good. There is no place to go but up and there is a ton of talent on this team – especially on defense. With Coach Derek Mason taking the defensive reins, himself, the defense appears set to run a more aggressive scheme. Mason also has returned several players to their natural positions. Among others, expect Caleb Azubike to have a great year.

Last year our defense had porous stats – but it was hampered by an offensive game plan that left the D on the field all day long. Our previous offensive regime’s love affair with the downfield, clock-stopping pass meant that we were regularly doomed to lose the time of possession battle. We seemed to specialize in drives of under two minutes. Last year's level of offensive ineptness was too much for our defense to overcome. The off-season recruitment of Andy Ludwig as Offensive Coordinator cheers me mightily – because his track record suggests that he will mold his plan to fit his talent. This may sound like Offense 101 – but it is a major step up from last year. This hire is an upgrade for our offense and our defense.

2. Returning Starters

While we remain one of the youngest teams in the country, we also return 18 starters. The jury may be out on whether this is a good thing for the offense (I think it is) – but the names back on defense are as good as any Vandy defense I can remember in a long time. Adam Butler is a force inside. Calbeb Azubike and Stephen Weatherley are quick, ferocious defenders. Nigel Bowden earned great respect as a freshman last year. Oren Burks and Andrew Williamson are outstanding safeties – and there is talent behind them. Starting corners, Torren McGaster and Taurean Ferguson, return too. They were so good – and their back-ups so deep – that Darrius Sims was sent to the offensive side of the ball mid-season last year.

There is depth, there is speed. There is a new strength coach, James Dobson, who has made an immediate impact. I am excited about this defense – even if we do open against a WKU offense that scored over 34 points in every game last year but one (and over 50 four times).

3. Hope on Offense

Did I mention the arrival of both Offensive Coordinator Andy Ludwig and strength coach James Dobson? Ludwig’s resume is pretty impressive. So is Dobson’s. Ludwig has overseen big-time running attacks and passing attacks at various stops during his coaching tenure. His past two Wisconsin offenses averaged 480 and 469 yards per game. Granted, one might suggest that his pedigree is in jeopardy with our returning talent – but one reason our offense was shaky last season is that we telegraphed almost every play. With just a little play-calling creativity and misdirection (and use of the whole field) we may find that our QB and O-line skills magically improve. Our O-line returns some bona fide talent in Andrew Jelks, Spencer Pulley and Jake Bernstein and, hopefully, with Dobson's help, we will be much tougher along the line of scrimmage in 2015.

Two 2014 Wisconsin games against SEC opponents are instructive as to what we can expect from Coach Ludwig. Versus LSU in the season opener, Ludwig’s runners flattened LSU early – but defensive guru John Chavis stuffed the box after realizing the Badgers’ QB absolutely could not throw. The strategy worked and LSU won. This chess match was not exactly a feather in Ludwig’s cap – but we know he is well aware he cannot be one dimensional against SEC defenses and succeed. (He gets a re-match with Chavis on November 21st.) However, he also took what he was given against Auburn in Wisconsin’s bowl win – and when an SEC foe could not stop the run, Ludwig amassed 400 yards on the ground. When Auburn sold out to stop the run, Ludwig threw. I am guessing our opener versus WKU will provide early insight into a run-until-you-stop-me mentality that was sorely missing last season.

Ludwig is not a magician – but he is smart, practical and has a history of success. That, at least, spells hope to me.

4. Tight Ends and other big body formations

There are a lot of unknowns on offense this year. One thing that is not unknown is that we have very good tight ends in Steven Scheu and Nathan Marcus. Last season – to give credit to the old regime – we ran beautiful tight end patterns out of run-first formations. This tight end emphasis catapulted Steven Scheu into a genuine NFL prospect. Those big body formations will still be in play this year and new focus on two back sets may help too.

As far as running backs are concerned, Dallas Rivers fits the mold of the big back that has thrived under Ludwig’s system. Ralph Webb broke the freshman yardage record last season. If Webb and Rivers can stay fresh, both have to be excited about the prospect of carrying the ball under Ludwig’s tutelage.

5. The SEC East is Down

This is the lowest ebb the SEC East has seen in a while. Georgia, presumably the cream of this crop, has no proven QB and several other prominent question marks. There is simply no dominant, unflawed team in the East. In the West, everyone is very good – and that means some very good teams will have painful losing records. The East is no picnic – but avoiding Bama, Auburn, LSU, MSU and Arkansas on our dance card is not bad. We lost to the West last year by a cumulative margin of 93-3, and Ole Miss went into auto-pilot in the third quarter.

REASONS TO BE CAUTIOUS ABOUT VANDY’S FOOTBALL SEASON

1. Self-Inflicted Wounds in Scheduling

Vandy’s athletic department settled on only six home games this season. Our opener against C-USA favorite Western Kentucky will be a test of character out of the gate – WKU’s offense, led by QB Brandon Doughty, is scary good. Scheduling road games at both Middle Tennessee and Houston is hard to figure. (Two of our 2015 out-of-conference opponents were bowl winners last year – and MTSU was bowl-eligible, but uninvited.) To make matters weirder, between September 20 and November 13, Vandy plays exactly one home game: on October 24. This young team will need to be road warriors of the highest order. The schedule is much more difficult than last year’s – which will make sudden improvement difficult. At least, we do open with three home games – which hopefully will help our young squad gain its sea-legs.

2. Statistics

Vandy was dead last in the SEC in scoring offense and defense in 2014. Nationally, the offense was 122nd in yardage, 113th in rushing, 105th in passing, and 116th in scoring. Vandy did not win the turnover battle in a single game in 2014. We ended the year a whopping negative 16 in turnovers. It is hard to turn around stats like that in one season.

3. The Lack of Established “Playmakers” on Offense

Last year our main playmaker was a tight end, Steven Scheu. He is back, as is Ralph Webb who starred at RB. Webb, however, hit a wall late in the year – and Jerron Seymour actually averaged significantly more yards per carry (but ended up deep in the doghouse.) Neither Webb nor back-up Dallas Rivers broke many long bursts, but both were pleasant surprises. At wide receiver Latevius Rayford, C.J. Duncan [Editor: now out for the season] and Trent Sherfield all showed promise – but if we are talking about playmakers, it is sobering that we return no wide receiver who had over 450 receiving yards. Scheu, a tight end, led the team in receptions and yardage.

Similarly, quarterback is up in the air. While the job is seemingly Johnny McCrary’s to lose – the junior needs to step up. Wade Freebeck and (currently injured) Shawn Stankavage will offer competition along with significant newcomer Kyle Shurmer. McCrary has all the tools – but suffers from bouts of inaccuracy. These may vanish if the play-calling and O-line manage to protect him a bit better. He did toss 5 TDs in a single game last year with good protection versus ODU.

The point is: with QB unsettled, wide receiver unproven, and running back numbers a bit thin, there are major questions about our offense. Look for Coach Ludwig to find ways to get the ball to Darrius Sims, Trent Sherfield and C.J. Duncan in open space. A number of promising young receivers will have an opportunity for touches, too. Ludwig knows he must develop a passing game to prevent opposing defenses from stuffing the box. And, likely, we will need to establish the run to give the young wide-outs room to breathe.

4. That Word “Unsettled” Again

Let’s face it – if you heard about a team with brand new offensive and defensive coordinators, an unsettled QB race, an offense dealing with its third new scheme in three years and no returning receivers with 40 catches, you would expect that team to flounder. That team happens to be us. Just the same, the new coordinators are upgrades and the talent is there to make this season successful. The truth is, with a solid defense, the offense does not need to be stellar. Simply executing smart and competent ball-control offense could take us far.

5. A Few Depth Issues

The SEC schedule is challenging enough without this tough out-of-conference schedule. Our starters will not likely get many plays off, let alone games off. We are particularly thin at running back and defensive line, just in case you needed something else to worry about. Injuries can devastate any team – but we have a couple of areas of legitimate concern where a key injury could be season-crushing. Most glaring, we return only two rbs who have made meaningful carries in a college game.

Next week – a look at the rest of the conference.

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