NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Vanderbilt's all-time leading rusher is gone, currently trying to earn a job in the NFL with the New England Patriots.
With Ralph Webb out of the picture, luckily for the Commodores they have quarterback Kyle Shurmur back to follow up one of the best seasons in school history and help Vanderbilt earn its second bowl berth in three years. Coach Derek Mason calls Shurmur one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference to lead that group.
"I've seen him with weapons, without weapons, with an offensive line, and without an offensive line," Mason said. "His growth and maturity is really beyond his years. He believes in this team. This team believes in him. And in this conference, it all starts with the quarterback position. If the quarterback can play well, you got a chance for success."
That's what the Commodores are wanting after going 5-7 in 2017 , a 3-0 start dimmed by a five-game skid started by 59-0 loss to eventual national champ Alabama . Mason brought in four new coaches with the biggest move hiring Jason Tarver from San Francisco and the NFL as defensive coordinator.
Shurmur threw a school-record 26 touchdowns last season, and his 2,823 yards passing was third-most in school history. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback is why the Commodores ranked 53rd nationally last season averaging 243.6 yards passing per game. Shurmur didn't have enough help as Vanderbilt was 95th averaging 24.6 points per game and even worse at 102 in total offense with 350.8 yards.
The senior, whose father is head coach of the NFL's New York Giants, has much more help with his entire offensive line back to protect him. Mason believes he has the pieces in place to help Shurmur be his best.
"I look at our depth and say it's as good as it's ever been," Mason said.
Some things to watch from Vanderbilt this season:
KEEP SHURMUR HEALTHY: Mason announced Aug. 2 that backup quarterback Deuce Wallace will miss this season for violating university policy. That leaves Vanderbilt with Mo Hasan, who started his career at Syracuse before transferring away, and freshman Allan Walters. "We definitely plan on Kyle Shurmur being under center all season," Mason said.
REPLACING WEBB: Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has plenty of options to replace Ralph Webb. Graduate student Khari Blasingame ran for 596 yards and 10 TDs backing up Webb the past two years. Ke'Shawn Vaughn sat out last year after transferring from Illinois where he ran for 1,024 yards and nine TDs in two seasons. Mason said he's happy to go with a committee approach.
WHO'S CATCHING: Three seniors left, but Kalija Lipscomb is a junior who had a team-high eight TD catches in 2017. Shurmur also has junior tight end Jared Pinkney back and a trio of freshmen receivers. "I think we'll be able to hit the ground running," Shurmur said.
DEFENSIVE SWITCH: Mason no longer is working as both head coach and defensive coordinator, a job he added late in his rookie season. Tarver takes over a unit that ranked 89th giving up 31.3 points per game. The Commodores also are focused on more turnovers after only seven interceptions in 2017, putting them 102nd nationally.
"Both those guys talk about the same thing: All gas, no brakes," defensive lineman Dare Odeyingbo said. "The terminology might be new with Tarver, but it's the same mantra Coach Mason teaches. You always go hard no matter what."
SCHEDULE: The Commodores avoid Alabama from the SEC West, drawing instead a trip to Arkansas and a visit from Mississippi. Vandy's nonconference schedule helps make up for that a bit with a trip to Notre Dame on Sept. 15, and the Commodores also open hosting Middle Tennessee on Sept. 1 and Nevada on Sept. 8. The SEC slate brings South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee to Nashville. Vandy go to Georgia, Kentucky and Missouri.