Vanderbilt leaning on defense in tough SEC-only schedule
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Derek Mason has plenty of experience back on his Vanderbilt defense. Better yet, the coach believes his Commodores are fast, talented and deep enough to have an impact in the Southeastern Conference.
The Commodores are going to need that playing a 10-game slate all against SEC teams.
“We’re closer now than we’ve ever been to having enough guys who can win one on one, and that’s what football is about,” Mason said. “It’s a team game. Everybody has to do their job, but you need someone to win one on one, and I think that’s where the recruiting and development we’ve gotten better, gotten a little deeper.”
Vanderbilt is coming off a disappointing 3-9 season where the Commodores cycled through quarterbacks and failed to take advantage of a trio of top offensive returnees that went onto the NFL. Mason changed both coordinators not long after the season ended, hiring a pair of veterans in Ted Roof and Todd Fitch.
The Commodores haven’t lost fewer than three games since Robbie Caldwell’s season as interim coach in 2010 when they went 2-10. The last time they managed to win only once in a season was 1990 in Watson Brown’s final season.
Only a recent contract extension and big buyout kept Mason’s job safe for another year. He’ll need a strong coaching performance to make sure he’s back for an eighth season in 2021.
Mason started three quarterbacks and played four last season, and all are gone. Riley Neal was a graduate transfer who threw for 1,585 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. Deuce Wallace left the program after graduating with a year of eligibility, while Mo Hasan (Southern California) and Allan Walters (Mississippi State) both transferred.
Fitch has four new quarterbacks. Freshman Ken Seals and Jeremy Moussa, a transfer from San Bernardino Valley College, worked this spring before the pandemic canceled practice. Junior college transfer Danny Clark and freshman Mike Wright joined the competition when practice started in August.
“Watching these quarterbacks, I like the rhythm, their cadence, their ability to command the huddle,” Mason said. “They just got to continually step on the grass and get better.”
Vanderbilt lost a trio of key players off that couldn’t overcome the quarterback issues. Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn was a third-round pick of Tampa Bay. Wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb is with Kansas City and tight end Jared Pinkney signed with Atlanta after both went undrafted.
Jamauri Wakefield sufferd a season-ending injury in the season-opening loss to Georgia. Now he’s healthy with the senior the top returning running back. Keyon Brooks was second in rushing as a freshman last season with 56 carries for 252 yards.
Mason’s best news came Aug. 26 when linebacker Dimitri Moore, his top returning tackler, changed his mind and announced he would play his final season rather than opt out. Moore’s grandfather died of COVID-19 earlier this summer.
“His ability to be a calming force is really going to impact how those guys play around him,” Mason said of Moore.
Roof will need Moore for the defense to build off last season when Vandy ranked 95th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 31.8 points a game. The Commodores also were 101st in total defense allowing 436.6 yards a game.
The SEC’s decision to go to a league-only slate didn’t help the Commodores. They lost non-conference games against Mercer, Colorado State and Louisiana Tech at home plus a trip to Kansas State. Vanderbilt added a visit from defending national champ No. 6 LSU and a trip to Mississippi State.
Half of Vanderbilt’s schedule features Top 25 teams in the preseason Associated Press rankings. The Commodores won’t find it easy opening at Texas A&M before opening at home against LSU followed by South Carolina. The finishing stretch isn’t much better hosting No. 8 Florida and No. 25 Tennessee before the regular season finale at No. 4 Georgia.
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