For years Vanderbilt football was a punch line, but the last three it have been days of clover. The hire of James Franklin changed everything. The hope now is that his departure will not change everything back.
While there are on-field losses to make up for, clearly the biggest loss is that of Franklin. As preseason has progressed, one thing is obvious: any and all respect built in the Franklin years melted away with his move to Penn State. No respect has resulted from the theme of the preseason prognostications—no hope among those seemingly in the know for Vandy to do anything but return to the bottom. Not so fast, my friend.
Vanderbilt’s biggest personnel question heading into the opener is who will play quarterback? At press time no clear decision had yet been made. But whoever the man is has the same challenge, and the decision still has the same import. New coach Derek Mason, a defensive guy, must choose wisely. Any mistake could put Vanderbilt too far behind to continue the success of the past three years.
Sophomore Patton Robinette is the favorite but has been battling redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary and transfer Stephen Rivers. Rivers (brother of the Chargers’ Philip Rivers) is more of a drop back passer. He transferred in from LSU. McCrary is a dual-threat with strength as a runner. Robinette’s strength is more as a passer on paper, but he is coming off a poor ending to last season in that regard. Mason, and offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell, must first decide which direction they want to take the offense. It is a big test right away for the new staff.
Whoever gets the position will have a largely rebuilt line to protect him. Offensive captain Joe Townsend centers a line looking for continuity. Jake Bernstein and Andrew Jelks make up the left side. Right side will be the biggest question, but all return with some experience in key moments last season. The running game is the position of most strength with returning juniors Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow. Redshirt freshman Ralph Webb could also figure prominently.
On the field, the biggest loss was that of Jordan Matthews. Counted on in all the key moments, his void is large. Jordan Cunningham is being counted on to be the big-play target at wide receiver. Former QB Josh Grady is in the mix, as are DeAndre Woods and Chandler Dorrell. Kris Kentera has been moved out wide but is more of a possession receiver. Steven Scheu could be the team’s leading receiver as a tight end.
Defense is a strength, though the move to a 3-4 is concerning. It leaves the line inexperienced but creates a loaded linebacker corps. Defensive captain Kyle Woestmann with Caleb Azubike might be the finest pair of outside linebackers in the SEC. The secondary must replace Andre Hal and Kenny Ladler, another area that needs some sorting out.
Derek Mason is a defensive-minded coach in an offensive-minded league who does not sound as sure as the rest of us that the proven methods of James Franklin are the best to succeed at Vanderbilt long term. Still, enough talent remains to go to a fourth straight bowl, clearly.
If Mason is the right guy, Vandy could win at least the nine won each of the last two years, even if he is not they should win six or seven. The future depends on him being the right guy, something we still need to see to be sure of.