NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason will welcome more than 100 student-athletes on Friday when he opens his sixth preseason camp with the Commodores.
While Mason will greet 13 returning starters and nearly 50 letter winners, he is expected to turn his attention to several areas as the Commodores look to improve on a 2018 campaign that culminated with an appearance in the Texas Bowl.
Here are six things to watch as the Commodores build toward the home opener against Georgia on Aug. 31.
Identifying the Quarterback
The Commodores have several impressive offensive weapons, topped by All-America candidates Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Jared Pinkney and Kalija Lipscomb. But the Commodores will have a new signal caller directing the offense.
Kyle Shurmur, a 43-game career starter and the program’s all-time leading passer, currently is in preseason camp with the Kansas City Chiefs.
During spring drills, Deuce Wallace and Riley Neal stepped forward as the leading candidates for the role. Wallace is a talented redshirt junior who saw action in 2017 as a backup to Shurmur. Neal is a graduate transfer from Ball State who threw for 7,393 yards and 46 touchdowns in 34 career appearances.
Junior Mo Hasan and redshirt freshman Allan Walters also will get plenty of repetitions in camp.
Mason has stated that he wants to see more competition in camp before deciding on Shurmur’s replacement.
Graduate Transfers Fitting In
Since the Texas Bowl, Mason and his staff have strengthened the roster by adding Neal and five more graduate students. The next couple of weeks will go a long way to deciding where they fit into the early-season depth chart.
Neal is one of three graduate transfers on offense, joining Justice Shelton-Mosley and Rowan Godwin. Shelton-Mosley was a versatile threat at Harvard, amassing 148 catches and 1,921 yards as a wideout and averaging 14.4 yards as a punt returner. Godwin is expected to bring experience and add depth on the Commodore offensive line after seeing action in every game last year at South Alabama.
The Commodores’ defense has two graduate transfers in cornerback Cam Watkins and defensive tackle Eddie Zinn-Turner. Watkins is a Nashville native who started 16 games at Illinois while Zinn-Turner is a big-body interior tackle prospect.
Scott Meyer, a former starting long snapper at Alabama, also has joined the Commodores’ special teams corps.
Different Makers at Linebacker
Defensive coaches expect to see several young linebackers blossom after enjoying their first significant collegiate action last year.
The Commodores’ inside linebacker corps features several talented sophomores, including Dimitri Moore, Feleti Afemui, Colin Anderson, Brayden DeVault-Smith and Alston Orji. At outside linebacker, Caleb Peart, Kenny Hebert, Andre Mintze and Michael Owusu are expected to compete for playing time, along with junior transfer Lashawn Paulino-Bell and Elijah McAlister among others.
Solidifying the Offensive Line
The Commodores enter camp looking to replace a pair of multi-year offensive line starters in Justin Skule and Bruno Reagan, and build quality depth across the front.
Redshirt sophomore Grant Miller and redshirt freshman Dan Dawkins will get early reps as Reagan’s replacement at center, though several other players including redshirt junior Sean McMoore and senior Saige Young have worked at the position.
With redshirt junior Devin Cochran likely to replace Skule at left tackle, the competition at right tackle includes junior Cole Clemens, redshirt sophomores Bryce Bailey and Jonathan Stewart, and redshirt freshman Tyler Steen.
A bevy of talented defenders will compete to replace departed cornerbacks Donovan Sheffield and Joejuan Williams.
Two newcomers with previous collegiate starting experience, Watkins and junior Dontye Williams, have strengthened the team’s cornerback corps. Several others are returning with experience, including junior Elijah Hamilton, sophomore Allan George and sophomore Randall Haynie, will be among those competing for the vacant starting roles.
New Coordinator, New Special Teams Approach
Special teams coordinator Devin Fitzsimmons have quickly earned respect and buy-in from Commodore players since arriving last winter. Now, he looks to mold returning starter Ryley Guay into one of the SEC’s elite kickers and identify a new punter.
Three prospects appear in the hunt to replace punter Parker Thome — sophomore Pierson Cooke, sophomore Harrison Smith and freshman Jared Wheatley.
The staff has also attracted graduate transfers Meyer and Shelton-Mosley to force more competition and versatility to the special teams’ corps.