NASHVILLE, Tennessee — The Vanderbilt Commodores are irritated. After three straight bowl berths and back-to-back nine-win seasons, they felt they had proven Vanderbilt was a successful program on the rise.
They've heard all the talk about being the "Same old Vandy" since going 3-9 and failing to win even one game in the Southeastern Conference in coach Derek Mason's debut season in 2014. And they simply don't like it.
"Last year we probably took a couple steps back, and we made the corrections," tight end Steven Scheu said. "There's a totally different mindset coming into this season."
Mason wasted little time after last season ended, bringing in Andy Ludwig from Wisconsin as his new offensive coordinator. Hired because of his work with Stanford's defense, Mason had taken charge of the defense for the season finale loss to Tennessee so he also made himself defensive coordinator.
The changes haven't impressed many people not on the Vanderbilt campus with the Commodores the only SEC team not to receive at least one first-place vote this preseason. Mason said what prognosticators say about Vanderbilt is a great thing.
"From where we sit, we feel pretty good about our chances," Mason said. "We're going to be about the work, get the work done, compete, let this football team show its mettle and we'll see where it takes us."
Some things to watch in Mason's second season:
FOUR NO MORE: The Commodores were the only FBS program to start four different quarterbacks last season, a move due in part to injuries to Patton Robinette who started the opener. Robinette chose medical school after spring practice, so Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck are competing for the job. Freshman Kyle Shurmur also has tried to push himself into the competition for a position that has to protect the ball better after throwing 19 interceptions in 2014. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig says they want the quarterbacks to make the decision for the coaches. Mason says they will name a starter with a backup before the season opener. "I want to play one quarterback," Mason said.
SPLIT ATTENTION: Mason is pretty confident he has figured out how to schedule himself as both defensive coordinator and head coach. He practiced what would work best this spring, and Mason said he will focus on coaching the defense in the morning with the rest of each day on his duties as head coach. "It feels comfortable," Mason said. "I'm excited about where we are and about, what this group is doing. We've had our time to look at all the intricacies of what we need to do."
EXPERIENCE BACK: Making Mason's job a bit easier is having 11 players who started at least five games last season on defense for a unit that ranked 68th nationally allowing 402.1 yards per game. They ranked 104th in scoring defense and last in the SEC allowing 33.3 points per game.
AVOID SOPHOMORE SLUMP: Ralph Webb set Vanderbilt's freshman rushing record with 907 yards last season. That makes him the target to stop by defenses looking at an offense that ranked 122 out of 125 teams averaging 288.3 total yards per game. Vandy already has lost wide receiver C.J. Duncan for the season to a leg injury, putting more pressure on Scheu and his fellow tight ends. Spencer Pulley, moving from guard to center, leads four returning offensive linemen.
SCHEDULE: It's never easy playing in the SEC, and the Commodores open against the nation's top passer in Brandon Doughty of Western Kentucky on Sept. 3. Then they host Georgia in their league opener Sept. 12 with visits from Missouri, Kentucky and Texas A&M. But Vanderbilt has to visit Mississippi, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee.
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