Finishing Strong

Commodores look to end season on winning note

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As the 2019 season comes to a close this month later this month, Derek Mason and his team will be looking find a way to go into the offseason on a winning streak as games with East Tennessee State and Tennessee, respectively, remain on the schedule.

After that? The Commodores will turn focus toward the 2020 season – and Mason will be at the forefront of that next chapter.

“I want to make it very clear that Derek Mason will be our head football coach moving forward,” Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor for Athletics and University Affairs and Athletic Director Malcolm Turner said Tuesday. “Coach Mason has my full support and I am committed to working with him to ensure our football program has the necessary resources and support to succeed. We are in the midst of developing a new and robust athletic strategic plan with the vision to put the football program and all of our varsity sports in a position to win on and off the field of play.

“Coach Mason is committed to leading Vanderbilt’s football program the right way and we will move forward in that spirit together.”

Vanderbilt, like most teams in America, came into the 2019 season with high hopes and high expectations. But things never quite clicked for the Commodores through 10 games.

After an 0-3 start that included losses to Georgia (ranked No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings) and Louisiana State (No. 1 in the CFP), respectively, the Commodores appeared to get back on track with a win over Northern Illinois.

Then came a pair of defeats at Mississippi and to UNLV. Mason made a change at quarterback the following week going into the Missouri game – and that sparked a 21-14 victory over a ranked Tigers team. The momentum was short-lived as Vandy has dropped the last three since.

“As we got into camp and the early part of the season, between injuries, between guys not necessarily performing up to expectations, some of that (confidence) goes away,” Mason said. “I don’t think anybody goes into the season saying, ‘Wow, man, we’re going to be terrible.’ I think you go into the season with some optimism.

“I went into the season with some optimism and it hasn’t turned out that way. I take full responsibility for that and we’ll keep moving.”

Four quarterbacks have seen action this season for Vanderbilt which has poked holes in the team’s offensive consistency. Riley Neal, a Ball State graduate, started the season and has completed 58 percent of his throws for 1,267 yards and six touchdowns – he also left the 24-7 loss at South Carolina with a concussion after the first offensive series of the game.

Mo Hasan, a redshirt junior, started the Missouri win, but was knocked out of that game in the third quarter after a vicious, helmet-to-helmet hit. He hasn’t returned to the field since.

Redshirt junior Deuce Wallace and redshirt freshman Allan Walters have also seen time behind center.

The rotation at QB has somewhat affected the production of offensive stars Ke’Shawn Vaughn at running back, Kalija Lipscomb at wide receiver and Jared Pinkney at tight end.

“Developing a quarterback for this year has been hard,” Mason said. “Trying to find that guy consistently of who I am, how we play, how I want to play, what it looks like – it just hasn’t been there.

“With that we’re just constantly working at it. The season is not done, we got two games left, we got to get it this week and I’m asking Riley Neal to be exactly who I am. Stand up, let’s play, take it on your shoulders and let’s go. He’s talented enough, we’re good enough and we’ve got to go play.”

Defensively the Dores have shown flashes of solid play at times. Hope for the future lies in the the majority of the 2019 team returning for future seasons – among the team’s top-10 tacklers, none are seniors.

Going into Game 11, a 2:30 p.m. contest Saturday against East Tennessee State, Vandy lists just two seniors – cornerback Cam Watkins and linebacker Caleb Peart – on the official depth chart.

“This is a heavy freshmen, sophomore and junior team. We only have 16 spots in next year’s (signing) class. So what does that tell you? The heaviest part of what we’re doing is with underclassmen,” Mason said. “College football is a junior-senior sport. And I don’t know how many times you’ve heard me come in here and speak to that idea.

“When you have juniors and seniors that have been in your program – I’m not talking about guys that are one-years – guys that have been in your program, they know who you are, they know your identity, they understand how you work and they understand what you’re working toward.”

Vanderbilt, at best, can finish the season 4-8 if it’s able to beat the Buccaneers (3-8) this Saturday and then win at arch-rival Tennessee (5-5) on Nov. 30. That wouldn’t quite make amends for a disappointing 2019, of course, but it would create some positive momentum for the offseason and going into 2020.

And today that’s all the Commodores can really be concerned with.

“Right now for us it’s just about identity. No matter what the record is at this point, we just got to continue to focus on going 1-0 this week,” Peart said. “As far as development and everything like that, we’re going to get back to that in the offseason, but right now we just got to keep focusing on going 1-0 this week.”