AOG contributor and long-time ATVS commenter VandyTigerPHD was good enough to give us some answers.
**INTERVIEWEE NOTE: IT IS AOG “POLICY” THAT ALL ARTICLES BE WRITTEN WITH A THREE DRINK MINIMUM**
1. The Commodores are coming off of the first bowl season in a while. What was the vibe around spring practice?
For the fans, we’re largely still divided on Coach Mason. The best way to describe this is that the shadow of James Franklin still falls upon the Vanderbilt Football program. There are a lot of fans who understandably believe that Franklin showed us that a coach can win 8-10 a year at Vanderbilt and we should expect and demand that of our coaches. It’s not an insignificant part of the fan base. Think of these as our version of the LSU fans that are furious every year they’re not in the playoff hunt. They’re not wrong per se, but often are a bit harder than I’d be.
On the other hand, we have another swath of people that largely see a team that’s consistently getting to bowl games as a good position for a Vanderbilt team to be. This has another danger of getting lethargic over mediocre play and being happy with a team topping out. We have some fans that even go so far with this mindset that they see the SEC leaving the NCAA and going pro (without us) as inevitable and why bother investing to the point where we could get an extra two games a season or so?
Like any shitty sports “journalist” here I’ve set up a scenario here where I can now brag about how both sides have merit and there’s truth in both sides. Virtually all other SEC fans I talk to who know anything about VU will say good things about where our program is. Most fans understand that Vanderbilt is never going to be on the level of LSU and getting to bowl games is a success for a program that won 2 games a season for decades. Still, I’d love it if Vanderbilt got to the level of say a GT or something. A team which does win about 8 a year with the random burst of greatness at 10 or so.
All this is to give a background in how the fans feel about the team so the fans are of mixed expectations here. So the vibe on that front is one of “we don’t know”. Because even those optimistic about this team don’t know where this team is going. Derek Mason has another contract extension, and likely can keep it with a similar performance to 2018, but with a big question mark on our offense’s leadership we don’t know if it is going to be there.
The good takeaway from Spring Game, however, is that it’s pretty clear to me that Neal is going to be the primary QB this year.
2. What does Vandy return and will there be another chance to have a solid squad in 2019?
On defense, our biggest loss was DB Joejuan Williams whom the Pats just took in the early second round. It is a young defense, however, with only two seniors. Two. I’m really hoping linebacker Caleb Peart can take up the role as leader. Because if there’s anything a 3-4 defense like ours needs, it’s solid LBs. It’s essential, but it’s been especially useful for a Vanderbilt team that traditionally doesn’t have the size down front.
On offense, the biggest blessing we have is that two of our biggest receiving threats Kalija Lipscomb (WR) and Jared Pinkney (TE) are returning. Both had the chance to declare and would have likely been taken in a middle-late round. In addition, our big running back playmaker, Keyshawn Vaughn, is coming back. There was some minor contentions between Vaughn and the coaching staff early last season, so I’m happy to see that whatever the issues were it’s worked out there. Games that Vaughn was given the ball consistently were games we won. So on offense, the biggest question is whether our new QB can take up the mantle of Kyle Shurmur.
3. Vandy has to replace a pretty good quarterback in Kyle Shurmur. How much of a concern is that?
At the end of last season, we got a lot of grumbling that is to be expected when you lose a long-time reliable player with Shurmur who has been VU’s starter since halfway into his true Freshman year. So it’s to be expected that there’s going to be a lot of doubts about whomever replaces him. The heir apparent would have been junior (RS) Deuce Wallace, who was suspended for all of last season. There are some question marks around him naturally, but Wallace was supposed to provide a more “balanced” run/pass attack from the QB position as opposed to Shurmur’s pocket passer style.
Over the offseason, however, Vanderbilt got a transfer in Ball State’s Riley Neal. Neal is coming with some fairly impressive stats even for a Ball State schedule, and will be able to play his fifth year of ball due to a medical RS for his JR year. The likely big draw though of Neal is that he’s 6’5” 225 lb and can run the ball (though probably not as well as Wallace).
So we’re facing a QB “competition” and it’s likely not to be resolved until we play a few games. As LSU fans, your readers will know this pain all too well. I remember back in 2010 when a fan called into the coach’s call in show to tell him that he took the photos Jefferson had of Les and he can go ahead and start Lee now. For Vanderbilt, at least the expectations aren’t going to be as high, but there’s a lot of unknowns going into this offense.
On top of all this, we have a new OC. Former QB and TE coach Gerry Gdowski was promoted to the lead after Andy Ludwig was hired for the role at Utah. Regardless of who wins the competition, the OC will be looking to Vanderbilt’s lead receivers in Kalija Lipscomb (WR) and Jared Pinkney (TE) to be reliable bread and butter targets to keep his QB’s confidence up.
4. Derek Mason made his name on defense — what will the Commodores look like on that side of the ball?
I wish I could say. The reality is that defense has been a bit of a roller coaster in this regard. In 2017, we got outscored 346-180, and averaged allowing 40+ points against SEC teams. That improved a good deal last year to 235-208 and allowing ~30 points a game to SEC teams. So not great, but at least in the right direction. More importantly, our defense kept us in games and we arguably could have won one or two more last year. So that feels like a good position to be in. The most frustrating part of this was the seemingly endless amount of third and longs we gave up all year.
On a more technical level, Vanderbilt still largely lives in 3-4 and the like sets. If the linebackers do their jobs covering the gaps and masking blitzes it can work well. As I said, however, Vanderbilt has a very young defense, so I’m a bit worried at how well they’re going to click with a notoriously difficult play style for college teams to master.
5. This is LSU and Vanderbilt’s first matchup since 2010. How are fans viewing this matchup, and what are the expectations for it?
On a football level? I speak on behalf of all of Commodore Nation when I say...
I’m expecting this game to go about as well as our games against UGA do. Which is to say, we’ll likely get stomped, but there’s always the 1/10 chance of a close game. That said, even in the last four match-ups Vanderbilt has had against LSU, we’ve not let y’all score 40, and this team is largely better than those. Also, I’ve seen far too many times where LSU let themselves get beat (or almost beat) by clearly lesser competition to say it’s a 100% loss. More like 90% chance of loss. I’m going to take this opportunity to point out to your readers that I’m considered “an optimistic” one among Vanderbilt fans. Most Vanderbilt fans are probably already gearing up long essays about how we should pull our starters after the first drive to not “demoralize them” or “get them hurt”.
On a minor related note, if you happen to see a guy at the game wearing both black and purple and a head large enough to double as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, feel free to say hi.