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May 16, 2014

Spring Wrap-up: Mason inherits a good situation

Editor's note: This is the fourteenth and final installment of a 14-part in-depth look at spring practices from throughout the Southeastern Conference from the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network. Up today are the Vanderbilt Commodores.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. | Coaching changes have not been uncommon during the last half-century of Vanderbilt football.

Since Art Guepe (39-54-7 at VU) retired after the 1962 season and uttered the famous words, "You can't try to be Harvard Monday through Friday and be Alabama on Saturday," a dozen coaches have since come and gone in Nashville.

Each time a change was made, there were virtually no expectations for the next guy other than the faint hope that maybe, in four or five years, the Southeastern Conference's perpetual doormat might make a minor bowl game.

This off-season, Vanderbilt changed coaches again, but new coach Derek Mason inherits a situation vastly different from virtually every one of his predecessors. Former coach James Franklin may have left a bad taste in Vanderbilt fans' mouths by the way he left for Penn State, but he also left the program in the best shape it has been in since Red Sanders left for UCLA after the 1948 season.

Franklin's back-to-back Top-25 finishes in his last two seasons shocked even the most optimistic observers. What's crazy is that the best could be to come.

The bulk of Franklin's last two teams came from the 2009 to 2011 recruiting classes, which finished 71st, 61st and 71st, respectively, in the Rivals.com team rankings. There are a few significant hold-overs from that 2010 class, and several from Franklin's hastily-assembled 2011 group will play key roles in 2014, but the talent upgrade that Franklin earned through recruiting -- the '12 and '13 classes ranked 29th and 19th -- should start to show more in 2014.

While it will be hard to top the back-to-back, nine-win seasons, Mason -- who ironically comes to Vanderbilt from the "Harvard of the West" -- brings with him a highly-regarded staff that includes former UCLA coach Karl Dorrell (offensive coordinator) and 16-year NFL assistant Brett Maxie (secondary coach). The Commodores have some key pieces to replace in NFL draft picks Jordan Matthews, Wesley Johnson and Andre Hal, and while that may leave too many question marks to have a historic 2014, the former Stanford defensive coordinator makes no bones about where he'd like to take the program.

This program, whether anybody believes it, is going to win championships," Mason said. "We're already on the clock. This spring is important for laying that foundation, and then we're going to go one fall practice at a time, one week at a time, and make our march toward the SEC East title."


What's the biggest thing you learned about Vanderbilt this spring?

That all the defensive talent that Franklin stockpiled on the defensive side of the ball should soon pay off.

For much of the past few decades, the Commodores had Southeastern Conference-level players at a few spots on the field -- they almost always had a standout linebacker or two, and have put some good defensive backs in the NFL -- but had to piece-meal together a sub-par, undersized defensive line. Even where VU had good starters, depth was always an issue.

Now, the Commodores have plenty of guys who look like they belong along the line, and (though in many cases unproven) SEC-level athletes on their first- and second-teams. The key guy up front is end Adam Butler, who had a very successful season inside as a freshman in 2013 and should be a star. The fact that Jay Woods projects to start at the other end also says something about the talent, since senior Barron Dixon has played a lot of meaningful snaps.

Depth has been an issue at linebacker the last few years, where Franklin had to sometimes fill out his two-deep with walk-ons. Now, the second- and third- teams are populated with names like Jonathan Wynn, Zach Cunningham and Landon Stokes, each of whom were highly-regarded recruits. Nigel Bowden, another highly-regarded 2013 signee, should start in the middle.

The secondary replaces four senior starters, but players like safety Andrew Williamson and corner Paris Head were great in spot duty last season. Again, a whole host of highly-regarded athletes from the last few signing classes fills out the depth chart.

Being highly-regarded as recruits is no assurance of future stardom, but in the team's public scrimmages, there were a lot of players who looked the part. Given the number of bodies and the success that Mason had in coaching one of the top defenses in the country at Stanford, don't bet against the 'Dores being good on defense again this fall.

Who'll be the quarterback?

Mason's probably no closer to an answer there than when the spring started, and the fact that's the case contains elements of both good and bad news.

First, the bad news: though Patton Robinette, who started and won several key games last year (including Florida and Tennessee on the road), didn't step up and seize the starting job. Robinette did show slightly-improved arm strength, but no one's making Jay Cutler comparisons right now. Robinette also drew some criticism from Mason for his tendency to scramble too early rather than to process his second and third reads.

The VU staff believes that Johnny McCrary has the talent with both his arm and his feet to be a big-time player, but the redshirt freshman just isn't there yet in terms of his command of the offense.

The good news; Next year's starter may not have been on campus. The wild-card could be LSU transfer Steven Rivers, who graduated in three years at LSU. Mason likes tall, pro-style quarterbacks, and Rivers has the size, intelligence and arm strength to compete for the job when he arrives in Nashville this fall. It would not be a shock to see him win the job.

VU also signed two quarterbacks (Wade Freebeck, Sean Stankavage) in its 2014 class, and potentially a third in Ronald Monroe.

Can Vanderbilt replace Matthews at receiver?

The obvious answer is "no," and that's expected when you lose the SEC's all-time leader in catches and yardage. You replace someone like Matthews with increased production from three or four people, but the problem is that it's hard to identify who those people are going to be.

Jordan Cunningham was a four-star recruit who played as a true freshman in 2013, but Cunningham failed to contribute down the stretch of 2013 and didn't separate himself from a completely-unproven pack in the spring. Latevius Rayford also played as a true freshman in 2013, but failed to shine in the spring. Redshirt freshman Carlos Burse could be the best of the bunch, but he was suspended all spring and will have to get eligible for the fall.

Two players who stepped up a bit were diminutive Gerald Perry and unheralded redshirt freshman C.J. Duncan, who both figure to play in the slot.

Without a lot of obvious answers here, the 'Dores spent a lot of the spring dumping the ball off to running backs and tight ends.

Will the running game improve?

Yes, if only because it can't get much worse. The 'Dores never could replace St. Louis Ram Zac Stacy last year and at 3.6 yards per carry and just 139 per game, they fielded the SEC's worst rushing attack in both areas.

The good news is that Brian Kimbrow, the Volunteer State's top recruit two years ago, looked a whole lot more comfortable in this offense as compared to Franklin's version, which had the 5-foot-8 (then-) sophomore almost always running between the tackles despite his sub-4.3 speed. Mason made an effort to get Kimbrow the ball around the edge, and he made some plays.

The starter, though, may be Ralph Webb, a late edition to the 2013 signing class after VU struck out on a ton of backs it really wanted. Anyone who saw Webb seamlessly weave between defenders for a 60-yard scoring run in the spring game came away thinking that could have been a blessing in disguise.

The Commodores will have to monitor the health of redshirt junior Jerron Seymour, who missed time in the spring with an injury. Seymour should be a factor in the fall, but he's never been healthy for long since arriving on campus.

How will VU handle the transition to the 3-4?

Probably better than most thought when Mason was hired in January.

Mason was asked this spring whether the team was going to make the transition to the 3-4 regardless of the readiness of the personnel. His response was that he wouldn't make the move unless he felt the players he had were ready for the move now, and then reminded fans that the team would also show a 4-3 at times this fall, also.

The key to the new defense is the fact that Mason has muscular, rangy athletes who can run who now man the outside linebacker spots -- guys like Caleb Azubike (6-foot-4, 268), Stephen Weatherly (6-foot-5, 255), Wynn and Stokes (both 6-foot-4, 240) -- whom the previous staff considered physical-enough players to man end. Quite frequently, Mason would bring the edge linebackers up to the line of scrimmage where the 'Dores would show a five-man front.

Almost to a man, the Commodores spoke about the ease they've had learning a new scheme. The benefit is that each player is allowed to make adjustments on the fly.

"It is broken down. Guys just focus on what they are supposed to do rather than the defense as a whole. I say simple because the coaches taught us to look at the whole defense so we can figure out where the plays go wrong. When a guy messes up, I know right when he snapped the ball that he messed up," Azubike said when asked about it.

While at Stanford, the Cardinal fielded one of the nation's biggest defenses due to those massive linebackers and bigger ends. That should be the case at Vanderbilt this fall, too.

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