Vanderbilt looks to rise higher in SEC East

Friday, September 1, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 35
By Don Wade

Senior running back Ralph Webb became Vanderbilt’s all-time rushing leader last season with 3,342 career yards.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Joe Howell / Vanderbilt Athletics

It’s always good to know who you are. Gives you a foundation. A starting place. “We know the academics are a huge piece of our identity as a Vanderbilt football player,” says senior Oren Burks, who has moved from safety to linebacker. “But at end of the day, it’s about winning. That’s why you play.”

In coach Derek Mason’s third season at Vanderbilt – which begins Saturday night at MTSU (7 p.m., CBSS) – there was enough winning to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2013. The Commodores beat Ole Miss for the sixth time in the last 10 meetings and knocked off Tennessee for the third time in five years down the stretch to get to 6-6. They then took a 41-17 beating from North Carolina State in the Independence Bowl.

But given that they were 2-4 at the halfway point, it was a very encouraging finish to the season. And yes, the record is how they will be measured.

“The teams we play, they don’t care about the APR (Academic Progress Rate),” Mason says. “They don’t care about what happens, you know, with the all-academic team. OK? What they care about is who’s winning on Saturday.”

For the Commodores to win their share in 2017, the offense will need to be better. With nine returning starters, it should be.

Vanderbilt’s 23.0 points per game ranked 113th in the country. Junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur’s 185.3 passing yards per game put him 10th in the SEC and he threw just nine touchdown passes while tossing 10 interceptions.

“Not only myself, but as an offense we all grew as the season went on,” Shurmur says. “We would like to be more consistent, but I think we can build off the end of last season.”

Senior running back Ralph Webb set Vandy’s single-season rushing record in 2016 with 1,283 yards, along with 13 rushing touchdowns. His 3,342 career rushing yards ranks 20th on the SEC’s all-time list.

“Probably the most underrated back in this conference,” Mason says. “He’s the back that nobody talks about, but all he does is perform. You put him on a stage and he’s going to be big.”

Four returning wide receivers caught at least 24 passes and C.J. Duncan led that group with 44 receptions; senior Trent Sherfield had 31 catches for 448 yards last year and went big in the victory over the Vols, reeling in nine balls for 184 yards.

Seven starters return on defense, including 6-foot-5, 312-pound nose tackle Nifae Lealao; he was disruptive enough to force opponents to double-team him. The secondary returns four starters, including safety LaDarius Wiley; he’s the team’s leading returning tackler after making 76 stops as a junior.

The Commodores have a tough schedule that includes Kansas State (Sept. 16) and Alabama (Sept. 23) at home early, at Florida (Sept. 30) and home vs. Georgia (Oct. 7).

The season starts on Sept. 2 at Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders are coming off an 8-5 season. Vanderbilt won in Nashville last season 47-24.

“We’re expecting a dogfight,” Shurmur says. “We haven’t won a season-opener in a few years and in order for us to have a great season we’re gonna have to win this game.”

The SEC East would appear to be fairly wide open and if the Commodores can stay in contention until the last part of the season, they finish with Kentucky (Nov. 11) and Missouri (Nov. 18) at home and at Tennessee (Nov. 25).

“We want to compete and win the East just like everyone else and we are going to do everything in our power to get it done,” Webb says. “We caught some fire late in the year last year and we are going to use that to start out hot this year.”