We are headed into year four under the regime of Derek Mason and his coaching staff and the future of Vanderbilt football is sitting in a good position, especially after reaching postseason play in 2016 but can the Commodores take the next step and begin competing for the top spot in the SEC East?
That is the goal of any team in Southeastern Conference but for Vanderbilt, it's always been an uphill battle. Expectations are higher on West End after finishing the 2016 regular season at 6-6 and achieving wins over teams like Tennessee, Ole Miss and Georgia. Defense has been the backbone of the Vanderbilt football program ever since Coach Mason arrived on campus but they may have to share the limelight this season as the Commodores offense may be primed for a breakout campaign.
Vanderbilt is having to replace several defensive veteran contributors from last season while still returning a few guys with vast experience. Players like Oren Burks, Ryan White, Nifae Lealao and Tre Herndon will have to lead the way on defense as the new players will be manning spots and playing more snaps than they have had in their careers.
As the defense takes a small transition going into 2017, the Vanderbilt offense is locked and loaded, ready to lead to way come this fall. Two starters from the 2016 season will be replaced but everybody else is back, including the Commodores all time leading rusher in Ralph Webb. The senior to be has paced the Vanderbilt offense for two and half season's now and gives the team a bell cow, veteran runner to lean on, especially when needed.
Having a safety blanket like Webb is big but having a quarterback who has been through the wars of the SEC and started plenty of games on the Division one level is huge. Kyle Shurmur is returning for his 2nd full season as the Commodores starting quarterback and by the end of 2016, he was playing his best football of his short college career. His progression alone will be a big reason if Vanderbilt is competing for an SEC East title but he needs people to throw it to and options he has.
The most talented pass catcher returning could be sophomore tight end Jared Pinkney. The 6'4 athletic receiver showed during his debut season that he has the ability to be a dynamic threat anywhere on the field along the potential to get even better. Pinkney has NFL talents written all over him, so if he can begin to completely harness those abilities, Shurmur will have someone dependable to throw at and a player budding star capabilities.
Shurmur's receiving corp beyond Pinkey is seasoned and focused for a big 2017 season. Three seniors lead the way for Vanderbilt beginning with slot receiver and the Commodores most dynamic wideout in C.J. Duncan. The 5th year player from Alabama is the Commodores most experienced receiver and someone Shurmur looks to on 3rd down. Trent Sherfield and Caleb Scott man the outside for Vanderbilt and both are big play threats from multiple areas on the field. Sherfield has more speed and elusiveness, which gives the offense someone who can turn a ten yard catch into a touchdown, while Scott could be the most athletic and most sure handed receiver on the team. All three guys present different traits at receiver but they all the same thing in common, vast experience playing against SEC defense's.
If having those three senior receivers wasn't enough, sophomore to be Kalija Lipscomb received a lot of experience last year as true freshman and even shined at moments throughout the year. Lipscomb is a tough, physical wideout who shows signs of having great hands and the abilities to make plays after the catch. He could be the most talented overall receiver on the Commodores roster and that's a good sign if he is considered number four on the depth chart.
Nothing on offense will work unless the offensive line does their job and that may be the lone area where Vanderbilt could be weaker than others. The Commodores lost starters in Will Holden and Barrett Gouger at key positions and the Dores coaching staff must find replacements. It does help that Vanderbilt returns three starters up front in Justin Skule, Bruno Reagan and Ean Pfeifer but two new lineman must be added and it won't be simple to find those two guys. Multiple players have the chance to battle in fall camp for starting positions. Some names to keep an eye on include Devin Cochran, Jared Southers, Sean Auwae-McMoore, Cole Hardin, Bailey Granier and Braden Kopp. It will be a transition this fall for the offensive line because not all roles are settled but it's a collective talented group that works hard and will be led by three guys who have been through the trench wars of the SEC.
The Vanderbilt defense might have to add new players to the mix this season but it will still be a talented group that is led by one of the best defensive minds in the country. The defense will always be a staple under Coach Mason but for the 2017 season, the Vanderbilt offense may be top dog on West End.
The parts are there on offense for Vanderbilt to have not only their best season yet under Coach Mason but a breakout year that could place the Commodores in contention for the SEC East title. The defense has been good enough under Coach Mason and looks to still be that way going forward but the combination of offense and defense is exactly what this program and coaching staff has been looking for and this upcoming 2017 season could be the best all around team that Vanderbilt has had yet.