2015 Vanderbilt Commodores Football Preview
Head Coach: Derek Mason (second at Vandy and second overall)
2014 Record: 3-9 overall, 0-8 SEC
Bowl Result: None (Last: 2014 BBVA Compass Bowl: Vandy 41 - Houston 24)
Historically, the Commodores have been a bottom feeder in the SEC, but that changed from 2011 to 2013 when James Franklin—who is now the head coach at Penn State—led the Vanderbilt program to unprecedented success with three straight bowl berths, 24 wins (6-7, 9-4, 9-4) and a national ranking in 2013 (#23/24).
However, last season under first-year coach Derek Mason, the results were more like what Commodore fans had grown accustomed to throughout much of their history as Vandy finished 3-9 and was winless in the SEC.
The Commodores—whose three wins came at home against UMASS (34-31), Charleston Southern (21-20) and Old Dominion (42-28)—struggled on both sides of the ball and Mason opted to replace both coordinators after year one.
Offensively, Andy Ludwig—who has nearly two decades of OC experience with stops at the likes of Fresno State, Oregon and Utah—will attempt to identify someone to lead his attack and improve a unit that yielded just 17 points and 288 yards per game a season ago. Besides not moving the ball, the Commodores were unable to protect it either as they were minus 16 in turnover margin (29 giveaways—including 19 interceptions versus 13 takeaways).
Generally, offensive production is contingent on a quality signal-caller and it was certainly “musical quarterbacks” during the 2014 campaign in the Music City.
Vandy started four different signal-callers—Johnny McCrary, Wade Freebeck, Patton Robinette, and Stephen Rivers—in Mason’s debut in Nashville. Rivers, who had a year of eligibility remaining, chose to transfer. Additionally, Robinette chose to “retire” from the game due to a “history of injuries” and focus on studying orthopedics in medical school.
Redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage, who is 6’2” and just shy of 200 pounds, joined the competition this spring.
Of the trio, McCrary—a 6’4”, 224 redshirt sophomore—is certainly the most experienced and has had the most success. McCrary, who started the team’s final five games, completed just over 50 percent of his passes (78-of-152) while throwing for 985 yards and nine touchdowns (compared to eight interceptions). In the Dores’ 42-28 win over ODU, McCrary went 20-for-29 for 281 yards and five touchdowns in a performance that won him SEC Freshman of the Week honors.
Freebeck, who was benched in three of his four starts during the first half of the ’14 season, was intercepted five times while throwing just a single touchdown.
Last year, the Commodores mustered just over 100 yards per game on the ground and didn’t do much to take the pressure off their inexperienced quarterbacks.
However, with redshirt sophomore running back Ralph Webb-who ran for 912 yards in ’14—and four of their five starters along the offensive line returning, there is reason to believe there may be some much-needed improvement in that area.
Wide receivers Latevius Rayford (Jr., 36-350-1) and C.J. Duncan (RS So, 28-441-4) were top targets a season ago. Rayford was second on the team in receptions while Duncan was tied with tight end Steven Scheu—the team’s leader in receptions (39) and receiving yards (525)—with four touchdowns. Duncan averaged a team-best 15.8 yards per catch.
Defensively, Mason elected to part ways with previous coordinator David Kotulski after allowing an SEC-high 33.3 points in 2014.
With Mason making the calls in the season finale’ versus Tennessee, the Commodores surrendered a season-low 262 yards versus the Vols while producing two interceptions and 12 tackles behind the line.
With the departure of only a couple starters and Mason making the calls, don’t be surprised to see significant improvement.
In the kicking game, Vandy possesses some quality pieces.
Junior Darrius Sims, who also serves as a running back, averaged 24.5 yards per kick return and took two back for scores in 2014.
The schedule features a season-opening three-game homestand. Following a season-opening date with CUSA foe Western Kentucky, the Commodores will begin SEC play in week two when Georgia comes to town before facing Austin Peay of the FCS ranks on September 19th.
While that may help Vandy early, it’ll mean playing six of their final nine games on the road. If Mason and the Dores are going to eclipse the three-win total from year one, it’ll likely require them to win at least two—maybe three—of their non-conference games (WKU, Austin Peay, @MTSU, @ Houston) because it’s tough to see them winning more than one or two in league play. Significant improvement may be made and Vandy may be more competitive, but the win total may very well not reflect it.
By Thomas "Bubba" Rosenbaum
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