(Part 13 of a 14-part SEC preview series)
Featuring 18 returning starters (9 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists), the Vanderbilt Commodores seek to snap a string of three straight losing seasons.
Vandy (6-7, 3-5) ended its two-year bowl drought last season, losing to North Carolina State 41-17 in the Independence Bowl.
Fourth-year coach Derek Mason is looking for increased production from an offense which ranked 113th nationally in scoring (23 points per game), 77th in rushing (164.5 yards per game), 100th in passing (191.2 ypg) and 110th in total yardage (355.7 ypg).
Junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur has 18 career starts under his belt, including all 13 of last year's games. He completed 204-of-375 passes for 2,409 yards with 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Vandy returns its top two tailbacks in senior Ralph Webb (250 carries, 1,283 yards, 13 touchdowns; 21 receptions, 166 yards) and junior Khari Blassingame (97-494-10).
The top eight pass-catchers are back, including senior wide receivers C.J. Duncan (44 receptions, 494 yards), Trent Sherfield (34-472-1) and Caleb Scott (24-466) along with Kalija Lipscomb (27-319-2), a sophomore out of New Orleans Jesuit. Senior Nathan Marcus (11-73-1) and sophomore Jared Pinkney (22-274-2) are expected to figure into the passing game at tight end.
On the line, the Commodores are looking to bolster their pass protection after allowing 32 sacks last season.
Sophomore left guard Ean Pfeifer, junior right guard Bruno Reagan and junior right tackle Justin Skule return to the fold. A pair of redshirt freshmen, left tackle Devin Cochran and Sean Auwae-McMoore go into fall practice listed as starters. Dodge City (Kansas) Community College transfer Saige Young could also figure into the equation.
Vandy struggled across the board in the passing game, yielding 244.6 ypg (83rd nationally) and ranking last in the SEC with 15 sacks and 5 interceptions. Still, the Commodores were a respectable 35th in scoring (24 ppg), 57th against the run (163.5 ypg) and 64th against the pass (408.2 ypg).
All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham, the SEC's second-leading tackler, leaves a tremendous void after being drafted 57th overall by the Houston Texans.
Senior Oren Burks (59 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 interception) is being counted on to lead an inexperienced linebacker corps. Junior Josh Smith and senior Emmanuel Smith are expected to join Burks in the starting lineup.
Senior strong safety Ryan White (75 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 forced fumbles), the team's top returning tackler, heads a veteran secondary. Senior nickel back Taurean Ferguson (52 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT), senior cornerback Tre Herndon (41 tackles, 2 INTs) and free safety Arnold Tarpley III (40 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 FF).
Sophomore Joejuan Williams (19 tackles) moves up to the first unit at cornerback.
A trio of seniors — ends Jonathan Wynn (28 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack), Nifae Lealao (22 tackles, 4 TFL, 2.5 sacks) and tackle Jay Woods — are penciled in as the starters up front.
Senior Tommy Openshaw and sophomore Sam Loy form a solid tandem in the kicking game. Openshaw was 15-of-19 on field goals, while going 2-for-2 from 50 yards and beyond. Loy averaged 41.6 yards on 68 punts.
Scott Sypniewski, a graduate transfer from Michigan, was a welcome addition over the summer. Prior to Sypniewski's arrival, the Commodores had zero experience at long snapper.
Lipscomb returned 10 punts for a 14.9-yard norm, including a 71-yarder in the Independence Bowl.
2017 VANDERBILT SCHEDULE
(All Time Central)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 at Middle Tennessee 7 p.m.
Sept. 9 Alabama A&M TBA
Sept. 16 Kansas State 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 Alabama* TBA
Sept. 30 at Florida* TBA
Oct. 7 Georgia* TBA
Oct. 14 at Ole Miss* TBA
Oct. 28 at South Carolina* TBA
Nov. 4 Western Kentucky TBA
Nov. 11 Kentucky* TBA
Nov. 18 Missouri* TBA
Nov. 25 at Tennessee* TBA