1. Can the offense continue it's ascension?
Vanderbilt started to put a product on the field by season's end, that revered an actual well oiled machine offense but can the Dores bring that offensive explosion back for the 2017 season? That I believe is the biggest question headed into spring practice. Vanderbilt returns the vast majority of their offense, including their starting quarterback, All-SEC starting running back, three veteran receivers, a budding star at tight end and an offensive line mixed with experience and young talent. All the pieces are there for Vanderbilt to have a successful 2017 year on offense. It all starts up front with the line and follows with the continued progression of Kyle Shurmur. The junior signal caller started off slowly in 2017 but by the middle of the year, started to play up to his potential as he shredded defense's with precision passing and timely routes down the field. He gained confidence by year's end but a lot of his good game play came from the protection of the offensive line. The Commodores will have to replace All-SEC 2nd team left tackle Will Holden and sturdy center Barrett Gouger but have three starters returning and several prospects who have provided depth but now will be asked to take on larger roles. The offense will again center around the Commodores all-time leading rusher in Ralph Webb but there are more proven weapons on this team that the senior back won't be leaned upon as much as he has in the past. The 2017 football season could be big for the Commodores but it's only successful if the offense can continue getting better and become a potent scoring force, game in and game out.
2. Who becomes the next Commodores defensive star?
All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham had a memorable season in 2016 but he has taken his talents to the NFL. Vanderbilt must now replace the hopeful 1st round draft pick and it won't be an easy task. The Commodores do return several key standouts from the 2016 #1 ranked red zone defense in the country. Veteran players like Ryan White, Oren Burks, Nifae Lealao, Jonathan Wynn will have to take on more of the load this season but the staff is hopeful that a few young or unproven guys step up to take on bigger roles. Two guys to really watch this spring are junior linebacker Josh Smith and sophomore corner back JoeJuan Williams. Smith is the leading contender to take over Cunnngham's spot at middle linebacker while Williams could position himself this spring to take on the full time role that outgoing starter Torren McGaster is leaving behind. Both local stars have the abilities and talents to become big contributors on defense and their roles could be defined this spring.
3. Who will block the blind side?
Holden became a hero for the Commodores offense in 2016 as he manned the important left tackle position and eventually earned postseason accolades because of his performance. The future NFL lineman has moved on and now Vanderbilt must find his replacement. The Commodores will give multiple players a look at left tackle this spring but the one guy who could be given the best shot to take over is red-shirt freshman Devin Cochran. The Atlanta area native was a highly recruited prospect coming out of high school as a guy who had the potential to play left tackle in the Southeastern Conference and now could have the opportunity to do so. Cochran starred last season on the scout team and has steadily improved as we head into spring practice. He has all the measurables you look for in a starting left tackle. Cochran stands 6'7 almost 300 lbs and has the long arms, athleticism and quick feet to man the left tackle position for many season's to come. Other guys like Justin Skule and Jared Southers could get a look here as well but it should be Cochran's to lose.
4. Can a pass rusher be found?
Vanderbilt has been stellar on defense under the teaching's of head coach Derek Mason but they have yet to establish a consistent pass rush and headed into the spring, you can't think of someone who immediately jumps out as the guy to change things around. The defense overall has done a solid job of coming up with sacks on timely occasions but nothing of any consistency or anything that scares opposing offense's. Vanderbilt's top pass rusher in 2016 has graduated in defensive lineman Adam Butler, so someone will have to take on the lead role on defense and find a way to get after the quarterback. Oren Burks could be used more in 2017 as a pass rusher from the edge. Landon Stokes will be a senior who has shown flashes over the years but has yet to take that next step. He will be asked for more too but guys from the defensive line will need to become better at getting into the backfield as well. Dare Odeyingbo is a guy to watch this spring. He was able to play significant minutes last year as a red-shirt freshman and showed the quickness off the line, fast and active hands and the ability to play in the open field. He along with several others will need to show this spring that they can wreck more havoc in the backfield and do it on a more consistent basis.
5. Can the progression of the program continue to rise?
Each season the cycle of football is important in many ways. Each step from off-season weight programs, spring practice, summer workouts and fall camp all play an important role to the progress of a football program. Vanderbilt is coming off their 1st postseason appearance under the regime of Coach Mason and did by dramatic fashion. The Commodores went 4-2 down the stretch by upsetting Georgia on the road and finished out beating Ole Miss and Tennessee at home. They did lose their bowl game to N.C. State but the momentum they built after beating the Rebels and Vols, got the fan base excited, especially for the way the team played and got themselves into postseason play. Vanderbilt and the coaching staff grew over the season and showed a glimpse of hope for the future. This spring will be big for not only the 2017 season but also the progression and maturity of the program. Can the team continue growing together this spring and harness the success from the 2016 season to become better and begin to contend in the SEC Eastern Division? That's where the coaching staff and fan base want to go but it all begins in step's. Each year has gotten better under Coach Mason. Can 2017 be even better? We shall see!