Year two under Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason began on Thursday night. The Commodores and their fans were eager to get rid of the stench of last season. In Mason’s first year, the team was inconsistent on both offense and defense and the first-time head coach looked a little overwhelmed at times. But going into this season, there was some growth expected. Mason was taking over the defense and being the head coach. Mason also changed the coordinator on the offensive side of the ball, bringing in offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig from the University of Wisconsin. The changes to the staff and the potential growth of the team from year one to year two were supposed to show in the opener. But instead, the result was not the desired one for the Commodores. The Commodores came out and dropped their opening game Western Kentucky 14-12. And with that, the second season under Mason begins the same way the first season began. And looking at how the team played, 2015 could be another long season for the Commodores.
The Commodores struggled last year offensively. They were the worst offense in the SEC, averaging only 17.7 points per game. The best thing the offense had in 2014 was freshman running back Ralph Webb, who ran for 907 yards and 4 touchdowns. But the worst thing that Vandy had was its quarterback play. Part of the issue there was the constant shuffling of quarterback from Mason and his staff. Vanderbilt went with Stephen Rivers, Patton Robinette, Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck at different points of the season and that led to no consistency at all at the position. Heading into this season, Robinette had given up football, Rivers left and apparently McCrary was the man to take over. The sophomore quarterback showed flashes of being the guy and at other times, looked overwhelmed when he was in there his freshman season. But heading into this season, it was expected that he would show some growth early on against Western Kentucky. He did show some growth at points in the game, but the same head-scratching plays he made last season reared their ugly head again. McCrary had the team down near the goal-line twice and the least the Commodores could get was a field goal. But instead of taking what the defense gave to him, he tried to force a few passes that were not open. And as a result of him forcing those passes, Vanderbilt missed out potentially on six points. The result of those two forced passes were interceptions. And thus the Commodores missed out on scoring. McCrary is still a young quarterback, but he has to take what the defense gives him. When he went through his progressions and actually read the defense, he made some good throws and allowed players to make the play. If he does this, then Vanderbilt will have a chance at consistency offensively. But if he wants to continue to force passes into tough spots, then he may find himself sitting on the bench again. He has a lot of potential with his size and his abilities, but there comes a point when the potential he has shows consistently on the field. McCrary has to grow up and grow up fast. His team needs him to.
But McCrary was not the only issue the Vanderbilt offense had. The thing that Vandebilt is missing offensively is a playmaker from the receiver spot. The tight ends at Vandy seemed to be the best playmakers on the team. But if you look at the receivers that Vandy has, there is not one that strikes fear in an opponent. And it seems that when teams play them, they don’t respect their receivers at all. And who can blame teams for not respecting them? The receivers of Vandy have shown time and time again that they cannot get any separation from the defenders at all. And as a result of that, there are tighter windows that McCrary has to throw in often. McCrary has to be better with the football and that is known, but he has to have someone step up and make some things happen on a consistent basis. There is no Jordan Matthews in this group and it is very likely that not one receiver steps up to be that lead guy like Matthews was in his time at Vandy. And if that is the case, then offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig needs to make the adjustment. One adjustment to get his playmaking tight ends involved would be bootlegs and actually using his tight ends often as his slot receiver. At times he did so during the game versus the Hilltoppers, but at other times he went to another formation with more wide receiver and less tight ends. Doing this will get more of his consistent players on the field. Another adjustment would be to run quick hit things like wide receiver screens and things like that to get the receivers the separation they need. That screens would be a way to manufacture some offense along with allowing McCrary an easier throw than trying to fit a pass in a keyhole. Whatever Vandy does, they have to make sure and get some offense going and going soon.
Another issue is the offensive line. They were consistently getting manhandled up front in the game by Western Kentucky. The result was an uneven running game and a quarterback that was under pressure. For things to get better offensively, the line has to be better than they have been. They may not be the biggest or the strongest, but they have to at least give their skill players a fighting chance to make a play. With what they showed tonight, Vandy may want to consider going at a quicker tempo. Not saying that they need to go full-speed uptempo all the time, but any tempo would be better than the methodical tempo they go with offensively. That tempo would not only have Vanderbilt running their plays with pace and tempo, but it would throw defenses off. As a result, the offensive line would have the upper hand and could potentially be able to get a better angle on their blocks than they did in the first game.
But the offense is not the only issue going on right now in regards to this team. The Vandy defense was rock solid to start the game. They played hard and kept the team in the game. And one could argue that because the offense could not stay on the field, the defense tired out in the end. But one thing that was noticed tonight was the misdirection that fooled the defensive backfield a few times versus Western Kentucky. It seemed when Western Kentucky was running a little bit of a rollout for their quarterback, someone was running wide open in the Commodore secondary. That would lead to big plays that should not have happened. In almost every one of those instances, there was someone that blew an assignment. Vanderbilt was playing a zone everytime that happened, so that tells me that someone was watching the quarterback instead of playing their responsibilities. For Vandy defensively, they are gonna have some pressure on them until the offense gets it together. So they must all remember to only do their assigments. When a player starts trying to do another player’s job, that is when trouble happens. And that is what happened for Vandy against Western Kentucky.
The misdirection was not the only issue the defense had Thursday night. The best player on that defense is defensive lineman Caleb Azubike. He made some plays during the game that were great. But the one thing that is disappointing is he is not moved around enough to make even more plays. With his size and speed, the sky is the limit for what he can do. So why not move him around along the defensive line and even on the edge a little bit more? That would make the offense have to account for someone at all times and then free up other players to make more plays. When other players are freed up, that could lead to more turnovers and havoc placed on offenses by Vanderbilt’s defense. And by looking at the offense in their current state, they need all the help they can get. The potential field position they could gain with an attacking defense making plays could be instrumental in helping put points on the board for Vandy.
Looking at Vandy, coach Derek Mason has a lot of work to do. At this same point last year, it was evident he had work to do and the team never seemed to grow as much as some expected. Well, this year is his retake of the same test. We shall see if he learns from his mistakes or if he repeats the same ones. And even though there is a lot to repair, we all have to remember it is only one game. But this one definitely left a sour taste in the mouths of Vanderbilt fans. And if Mason cannot figure it out, that sour taste could be enough to give him the pink slip. Only time will tell what happens, but the Commodores and their fans are hoping game number one was an abboration.