The 2017 football season could be a big one for Vanderbilt and it all starts in spring practice.
The Commodores have been on the field for a little over a week now and by all accounts, positive signs are beginning to be shown on West End. Vanderbilt returns a veteran team in 2017 with a few holes to fill. Defense in particular is the side of the ball that needs to find a few play makers and take over for a few guys who not only helped lead the Dores to a bowl game but also will find a future in pro football.
Here are some news & notes from the first stretch of the Commodores 2017 Spring practices.
- Junior Kyle Shurmur is by no questions the starting quarterback and only an injury will derail that from happening. The battle at quarterback is for the backup role and as of now, it's look like it could go to Deuce Wallace. The Sevier County native has been and will be given every opportunity to become the Dores backup quarterback, especially after the departure of Wade Freebeck. Wallace is a bit different compared to Shurmur. He is more mobile and more adept to throwing well while on the run. Wallace hasn't been given the backup just of yet. Shawn Stankavage is healthy for the first time in a while and is actually giving Wallace a run for his money. Wallace may have the upper hand here but Stankavage is just as mobile and has a tough demeanor about himself that you like in a quarterback. Wallace may eventually become the backup guy but feel this battle will go all the way into fall camp.
- The running back position is one of the deepest and most talented groups on Vanderbilt's team and is of course led by the Commodores all-time leading rusher in Ralph Webb. His backup in Khari Blasingame also returns to give the Commodores a solid 1-2 punch in the backfield. Word is that Blasingame looks a little quicker than he did back in the season but still packs a serious blow with his power rushing attack. Depth is being built behind those two and a guy who might see the field sooner than later is Jamauri Wakefield. The red-shirt freshman is finally eligible to play and the 6'1 power back is already displaying his impressive size along with the elusiveness to contribute in the Commodores backfield. Wakefield has impressed thus far and could do enough throughput spring and fall practice to earn a role on the field in the 2017 season.
- Vanderbilt returns three starters on the offensive line and is looking to find replacements for two guys who spent multiple years anchoring the Commodores front life of defense. Depth is being built and that's the biggest thing that needs to happen for any college football team. The Commodores have a talented group of lineman who is being giving a chance this spring to prove themselves and earn a starting role. Red-shirt freshman tackle Devin Cochran is one guy who is having a strong spring campaign thus far and could be finding himself in the starting lineup come fall. He is a talented, big and athletic tackle who screams blindside protector when you see him on the field. Another guy who seems to be making some noise thus far in camp is Jared Southers. The rising sophomore lineman has had to wait his turn behind veterans while also continuing to mature but now could be poised to take the next step in his progression. Southers is battling Cochran to possibly become the Commodores left tackle but he is also putting in good work to possibly even play right tackle as well. There is a thought out there that junior Justin Skule could play on the left side if need be and find someone else to handle right tackle. Southers could play either tackle position and could be better suited to play on that side of the line. Either way, it's a good thing to have guys battling it out to start and have better depth along the line that Vanderbilt has hardly seen before.
- The veteran group of receivers that Vanderbilt returns in 2017 will be big reason's as to why the Commodores have success this season or not. Caleb Scott is someone I feel with breakthrough for a big senior season but he is banged up right now. C.J. Duncan is the vet who is stepping up in spring practice and could have his best season yet in a Commodores uniform. After the 2017 season is over, Vanderbilt will lose the services of Scott, Duncan and Trent Sherfield so they will need some younger guys to begin their ascension into starting status. Jackson Winrow is the guy who has an opportunity this spring to establish himself and eventually become a dependable receiver who takes over a significant role in 2018. His depth this spring and fall will be big for Vanderbilt, so he needs to use this time to continue learning and hopefully find playing time during his red-shirt freshman season.
- The Vanderbilt secondary could be the group that leads the defense in the 2017. The Commodores returns a veteran group in the defensive backfield that is led by seniors Ryan White, Tre Herndon, Arnold Tarpley and Ladarius Wiley. All four of these players will be big for Vandy in 2017 but they will need several guys to not only contribute but become significant players. JoeJuan Williams is the top name to make a big impact in 2017 but two guys who are having strong springs thus far and could play big roles this season are Elijah Hamilton and Zaire Jones. Both red-shirt freshman, Hamilton and Jones are two talented guys who sat out last year but looks poised now to take on bigger roles. Hamilton is has big potential when you look at his body and overall skill set on the field. He could become the 3rd cover corner behind Herndon and Williams and become that next guy Vanderbilt looks to as their future at cornerback. Jones has leadership qualities that is hard to not pay attention to. He is ultra talented and has already displayed in spring practice his nose for the ball and his aggressiveness in tackling. Jones may have to play a backup role in 2017 but he will play and eventually become a star in the Commodores secondary.
- Replacing All-American Zach Cunningham at linebacker was going to be tough no matter how you look at it. He is one of the best of all-time in Nashville but the coaching staff is working hard to find his replacement but also the next guy in line to become a star on the Commodores defense. Middle Tennessee native Josh Smith could be poised for a breakout season in 2017. So far during spring practice, he has been very active and seems to be taking on s new persona as someone ready to bust out into stardom. Smith should become a full time starter in 2017 and has all the talents in the world to become the next great linebacker at Vanderbilt. Jordan Griffin is another guy to watch out for during spring practice and this fall. Griffin has seen spot duty over the past two years but every time he has been on the field, he produces and plays as hard as anybody. He is in prime position to receive a starting role this fall. All depends on his play and how others around him compete for a starting spot.
- Finding a pass rusher is a big key for Vanderbilt this spring, including building continued depth along the defensive line. Vanderbilt will be led on the line by veterans Nifae Lealao, Jay Woods and Jonathan Wynn but they need several youngsters to step and not only provide depth but also contribute. Cameron Tidd is a red-shirt freshman who is making some moves thus far in spring practice. An active, hard working lineman, Tidd plays with a relentless attitude and works very hard on his craft to become the best player he can become. Tidd has the tools and talents to play this fall and even possibly be one of the first guys off the bench in a key backup role. Josiah Sa'o is another red-shirt defensive lineman who is being looked upon this fall to give the interior of the Commodores defensive line depth and maybe even take over for Lealao after his graduation. Vanderbilt needs someone to give Nifae rest during the upcoming season and Sa'o could be the guy to do just that. This spring is big for him in his development. He is already turning a few heads in spring practice thus far and continued improvement during summer workouts and fall camp, could see him on the two deep heading into the season opener vs. MTSU.