The life of a Vanderbilt Commodores football fan is never plain sailing. The waters of the SEC make for a choppy ride. Despite back to back winning seasons under James Franklin in 2012-2013, the Commodores have seen just three seasons above .500 this millennium.
Although 2018 wasn’t the other, that honour belongs to Bobby Johnson’s 2008 team, it did see the Vanderbilt Commodores return to Bowl action for only the second time in head coach Derek Mason’s tenure.
The campaign got off to a bright start. Behind quarterback, Kyle Shurmur, and running back, Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt secured comfortable wins over Middle Tennessee State and Nevada. However, tight defeats to highly ranked Notre Dame and Kentucky bookended a losing streak. In six games, the Commodores only victory was a 31-27 win over Tennessee State. In that stretch, they gave up 30+ points three times.
The close defeat to a strong Kentucky team in game 8 seemed to galvanise Vanderbilt.
Despite losing to Missouri in game 10, they won three of their final four games. Victories over Arkansas and Ole Miss meant that they headed in to the final game of the season with a chance to go bowling.
The final game would be the rivalry game versus the Tennessee Volunteers. It would be a battle to avoid the bottom of the SEC East. In Kyle Shurmur’s final game in Vanderbilt Stadium, he put on an electric performance. With a stat line of 31/35, 367 yards, 3 TDs and no interceptions, he guided Vanderbilt to a 38-13 victory and in to bowl season.
The Texas Bowl would give Vanderbilt the opportunity for their first bowl win since 2013. Unfortunately for Derek Mason’s men, they came up short in a 45-38 loss to Baylor. Despite the loss, the highlight of the night was the performance of Ke’Shawn Vaughn. With 243 yards and 2 touchdowns, the game should give Vanderbilt fans a cause for optimism heading in to 2019.
Vaughn will be the focal point of the Vanderbilt offence in 2019.
With Kyle Shurmur leaving to the NFL at the end of the year, the Vanderbilt offence will have a different feel to it in 2019. Behind Shurmur and a strong offensive line, the 2018 Commodores were a pass first offence. For the coming season, they look set to transition to a more run focused offence. That focus will be Ke’Shawn Vaugh, and I’ll go in to why he’ll be so important a little later on.
Riley Neal looks set to be the starting quarterback in Shurmur’s absence. The Ball State transfer is the favourite ahead of redshirt junior’s, Mo Hasan and Duece Wallace. Reproducing the production of Shurmur won’t be an easy job, especially behind an offensive line that loses three starters from 2018.
On the defensive side of the ball, they lose six starters.
They truly are a team in a transition this season. One of the big losses from 2018, is cornerback JoeJuan Williams. He led the team with 4 interceptions and 13 passes defended on his way to being drafted by the New England Patriots. How they replace his production is one of the big questions for 2019. The secondary will be led by safety, Frank Coppet, who returns after being second in interceptions behind Williams in 2018.
For a team that was second to last in the SEC in defence last year, the biggest question is how they create more pass rush. They were sadly lacking in getting to the quarterback last year. Improvement here will be key to any hope of success. Thankfully they return Kenny Hebert, who led the team in sacks. However, they’ll be looking for a big year from junior defensive lineman Dayo Odeyingbo. Last year he contributed 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Vanderbilt will look for him to be even more disruptive this season.
Three key players to watch…
#5 Ke’Shawn Vaughn – Running Back
As I mentioned earlier, Vaughn is set to be the focal point of the Vanderbilt offence in 2018. Despite being a pass first offence in 2018, Vaughn racked up 1244 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He also added two receiving touchdowns, most notably showing good hands in a grab against Missouri.
After transferring from Illinois in 2017, last season was a suitable homecoming for the 2014 Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year. His yardage and touchdowns were the second highest in Vanderbilt history. With 103.7 yards per game, he was second in the SEC and led the conference with a staggering 7.9 rushing yards per attempt.
What makes Vaughn so good? As a former standout track star, its no surprise that speed is one of his major attributes. He is lightning fast once in the open field. However, his explosion from the line of scrimmage is equally as impressive. Vaughn is also incredibly shifty. His cut moves and stutter step leaves tacklers in knots. If the defence can get their hands to him, he shows balance to stay on his feet. Finally, he isn’t afraid to take on contact but also is savvy enough to know when to avoid it and get out of bounds.
It is a stacked running back field in 2019. Do not sleep on Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
#7 Dimitri Moore – Linebacker
The former 3* recruit, and two time captain, out of Cedar Hill, Texas had one hell of a year as a freshman in 2018. As a sophomore in 2019, expect him to emerge as a leader in this remade Vanderbilt defence.
Moore secured SEC All Freshman honours in 2018. In 10 starts, his 84 tackles were the most by any first year player in the SEC. On a team that lacked a pass rush threat, he also contributed one sack and four quarterback hurries. Showing his ability in coverage as well as at the line of scrimmage, he added three passes defended to his stat line.
Long story short, Dimitri Moore can do everything. His sideline to sideline speed is impressive, and he uses that to track down ball carriers and make solid tackles. At 6’3 and 230lbs, he has good size and strength to be an effective tackler. His strength shows up in his ability to get off of a block, and he uses this particularly well in run defence. When in coverage, he shows good ability to keep his eyes in the backfield, on the quarterback, and uses this ability to then make a play on the ball.
Moore is going to be one of the most exciting linebackers to watch in the SEC this year.
#16 Kalija Lipscomb – Wide Receiver
When you’re the new starting quarterback of a team, you need to know you have reliable wide receivers to target. Thankfully for Riley Neal, in Kalija Lipscomb, he has. Lipscomb led the SEC in receptions in 2018 with 87 catches.
Becoming the most successful wide receiver in Vanderbilt history was the driving force behind Lipscomb’s decision to return for his senior year. He currently sits in the Commodores top 10 for catches (151), receiving yards (1845), and touchdowns (19). Half of those were accrued in a 2018 junior year that saw him record a career high 174 yards against Tennessee State.
After falling just shy of 1000 yards in 2018, Lipscomb will be looking to break through that barrier in 2019. He has high expectations of himself. There are also high expectations of him from around the world of college football. Both Athlon Sports and Lindy’s have him in their pre-season First Team All SEC.
The 2019 schedule isn’t kind to the Vanderbilt Commodores…
In their quest to return to a winning season, Vanderbilt have been dealt a tough hand by the schedulers for 2019. Their opening three games could be one of the toughest in the whole of college football. They open the season against a Georgia team primed to make another run at the College Football Playoffs. Week 2 sees a tough trip to Purdue and the electric Rondale Moore. The opening trio of games sees them entertain the highly talented and rated LSU Tigers. The one redeeming feature is that Georgia and LSU both have to travel to Vanderbilt stadium. Travelling to both would have been plain cruel.
Game 4 is a must win, out of conference, game versus the Northern Illinois Huskies. Not many people would give a MAC team the advantage over an SEC team, however the Huskies went 8-6 in 2018. It might be a must win, but it won’t be plain sailing. Another out of conference clash in game 6, at home to UNLV, should be easily winnable. The Mountain West program went 4-8 in 2018.
The game sandwiched in between those two could be the most important of them all. Game 5 sees the Commodores travel to Ole Miss looking to repeat their win from 2018. If they can win there, there’s a chance they hit a tough four game SEC stretch at 3-3. Momentum and confidence will be key.
It’s a tough four game stretch.
Despite some off field issues, Missouri will look to be rejuvenated behind Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant. Then follows trips to South Carolina and Florida, before returning home to face Kentucky.
Thankfully for Vanderbilt, an easy game versus East Tennessee State should set them up for the season ending showdown with Tennesse. The Volunteers will hope to be improved in 2018. However, it’s highly likely that the Commodores end the season with two wins for the second straight season.
Will it be enough to return them to winning ways and bowl season? The SEC have set Vanderbilt some tough waters to negotiate. It’s time to anchor down.
Feature Image Credit: Daniel Dubois