NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Fresh off its second bowl appearance in three seasons, Vanderbilt football kicks off spring practice Wednesday at 7 a.m. at the John Rich Complex on campus. Spring culminates with the Black and Gold Spring Game on March 30 at 10 a.m. at Vanderbilt Stadium.
In 2018, the Commodores won their final two games of the regular season to finish 6-6 and become bowl eligible. They faced off against Baylor in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl last December.
As Vanderbilt becomes the first SEC program to begin spring ball in 2019, here are five storylines to watch for the Dores:
Search for a signal-caller
The most prominent job opening on Vanderbilt’s roster sits under center. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur, the four-year starter who finished his career as the Commodores’ all-time leading passer, is gone. Now the Dores open spring practice with a quarterback competition for the first time in four seasons.
Mason will have no shortage of candidates from which to choose. In fact, the Commodores expect to suit up five scholarship quarterbacks this spring. Juniors Mo Hasan and Deuce Wallace and redshirt freshman Allan Walters will join early enrollee freshman Jamil Muhammad and graduate transfer Riley Neal in workouts. Hasan and Wallace are the only two quarterbacks with playing experience at Vanderbilt, but Neal arrives having started 32 games at Ball State and throwing for 7,393 yards in his undergraduate career.
No matter who ends up throwing the ball for Vanderbilt, he must adjust to a revamped offensive line. Guard Egidio DellaRipa, center Bruno Reagan and tackle Justin Skule all graduated. Look for redshirt junior Devin Cochran and junior Saige Young to lead this unit.
Mason’s staff shakeup
Vanderbilt will open spring with a new offensive coordinator in Gerry Gdowski, who coached quarterbacks in 2018 and has been with Mason since his inaugural season on West End in 2018. But this won’t be Gdowski’s first rodeo, as he has called plays at Ohio, New Mexico State and South Dakota State prior to his tenure at Vanderbilt. Gdowski takes over a Commodore offense that averaged 28.5 points/game last fall, the third-highest scoring average by the Commodores since 1950.
Along with Gdowski, Mason brought in two new position coaches in Devin Fitzsimmons (special teams/tight ends) and Tim Horton (running backs).
Return of playmaking trio
Gdowski expects to have plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal in his first season as offensive coordinator. This winter, the Commodores got a nice boost when wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb, tight end Jared Pinkney and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn all decided to forgo early entry into the NFL draft and return for their senior seasons. All three were Associated Press second-team All-SEC honorees last season; Vaughn, in particular, led all SEC players with 7.92 yards per carry.
How important are those three returning players to the Commodores’ offense? The trio combined for 3,179 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2018, or 59.5 percent of Vanderbilt’s total yards and 66.0 percent of its touchdowns.
Bounce back on D
Vanderbilt’s defense was not as stingy as it wanted to be under first-year coordinator Jason Tarver. That unit loses a lot of production this spring in four of its top five tacklers, including senior linebacker Jordan Griffin (119 total tackles in 2018) and cornerback Joejuan Williams, who left early for the NFL Draft. But the group should bring back plenty of young talent under Tarver.
Linebacker Dimitri Moore earned All-SEC Freshman honors last fall after finishing second on the team with 84 total tackles, chipping in 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Senior Caleb Peart and junior Andre Mintze are names to watch at linebacker, as well. The loss of defensive lineman Dare Odeyingbo up front is a big one, but his brother Dayo, a junior and fellow lineman, had a strong sophomore year in 2018. In the secondary, newly signed cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams — a starter at Wisconsin two seasons ago — will join redshirt sophomore Allan George (33 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss) and junior Tae Daley (45 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss).
Improved kicking game
Rising senior Ryley Guay was just 12-22 on field goals last fall, including 4-of-7 on kicks from inside 29 yards. Mason knows the Dores need more out of their kicking game. Expect that to be a priority for Fitzsimmons, Vanderbilt’s newly minted special teams coordinator, as Guay and rising sophomore Javan Rice trade kicks this spring.
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.