HOOVER— Head coach Derek Mason’s third season proved to be his best season since joining Vanderbilt as head coach.
The Commodores finished 6-7 (3-5 SEC) last year on way to going to a bowl bid and best record since 2013. However, the team plays one of the toughest SEC schedules this season.
“Vanderbilt football is on the rise,” Mason said Tuesday at SEC Media Days. “We’re definitely not satisfied. We are going to make sure to push ourselves.”
Vanderbilt opens SEC play against Alabama, which hasn’t lost a conference game since falling to Ole Miss in 2015. Since then the Crimson Tide has gone onto play in two national championships and is most likely the favorite to win the SEC West and repeat as conference champion.
Following Alabama, the Commodores travel to Gainesville to play Florida, the SEC East champion the past two seasons. Following Florida, Vanderbilt hosts Georgia and then travels to Ole Miss.
Vanderbilt brings back its leading passer, rusher and its two leading wide receivers.
Ralph Webb led the team with 1,283 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Mason believes that Webb is the most underrated running back in the conference. Khari Blasingame added 10 touchdowns and 449 yards.
Kyle Shurmur comes back as the starting quarterback. He threw for 2,409 yards and nine touchdowns.
The biggest loss was linebacker Zach Cunningham. He was the leading tackler in the SEC last year. He tallied 119 total tackles, 19 more than the second-place player. However, Vanderbilt returns seven of the top 10 tacklers on the team.
“It’s hard to replace a good player like Zach Cunningham,” Mason said. “This defense isn’t about one guy and one player. It’s not about one guy. This defense is going to be stout.”
LaDarius Wiley comes back as the leading tackler. He finished 12th in the SEC with 76 total stops last season Oren Burks finished with 59 tackles. Burks is going to be Cunningham’s replacement at middle linebacker.
Vanderbilt starts its season on Sept. 2 at Middle Tennessee.
Head coach: Derek Mason
2016 record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC)
Returning starters: 18
Toughest question Mason faced: I just wanted to see if there’s an update on Frank (Coppet) and Tae (Daley) after their shooting?
Mason’s reply: “Frank and Tae are doing well. Everybody here understands what they were involved with. I’m just glad they’re safe. You know, when I look at these young men, I want to make sure that they were safe. I don’t agree with the decision-making process of these young men all of the time, but I do know this. These young men are healthy. They’re safe. These guys are suspended indefinitely, but when you look at it, I’m just trying to get young men from where they are to where they need to be. Making good decisions is what we’re about. Here’s the thing, growing up is what we have to do. And that’s a daily process. These young men are safe, they’re happy to be in contact with their head coach, but they do know and understand to whom much is given, much is expected.”
You need to know: Vanderbilt finished with its best season under head coach Derek Mason, finishing 6-6 on way to its first bowl game since 2013. Mason returns most of his team from a year ago, the biggest loss was linebacker Zach Cunningham, who led the SEC in tackles last year. However, seven of the top 10 tacklers on the team return next season. Ralph Webb comes back after school record setting year. He totaled 1,283 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Best player quote: “Ralph plays with a chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t talk too much, he’s all about the work. He leads by example. He’s a tremendous runner. He also worked really hard on his pass protection. Most importantly what you don’t see behind the scenes is that he is a great teammate, person and leader. He was our captain last year.” Junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur said on running back Ralph Webb.