Vanderbilt ready to contend in East
HOOVER, Ala. — Vanderbilt was a few points away from contending for the SEC East title last season.
The Commodores beat Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee and lost four SEC games by a touchdown or less — including 13-6 to East champion Florida.
A 45-34 victory over Tennessee lifted Vanderbilt to a 6-6 regular-season record and put the Commodores in a bowl game for the first time in Coach Derek Mason’s three seasons.
North Carolina State beat Vanderbilt 41-17 in the Independence Bowl, but with 17 starters and 43 lettermen returning, the Commodores are confident they will build on last season’s success.
“We want to win the East, just like everyone else does,” Vanderbilt senior running back Ralph Webb said at SEC media days last week. “I think we can compete with anybody.
“What happened last season was a big momentum swing for us, and we know that if we eliminate penalties and silly mistakes and turnovers, we can win a lot more games.”
The Commodores have improved each season under Mason from 3-9 to 4-8 to 6-7 overall, and from 0-8 to 2-6 to 3-5 in the SEC.
“Vanderbilt football is on the rise,” Mason said. “As I look at where we are, we’re starting to close the talent gap.”
Mason said a big reason for optimism is his team’s experience. The Commodores have 38 seniors and juniors, including 29 on their twodeep.
“I can remember coming into this conference and going down to Starkville and playing against a Mississippi State team that had Dak Prescott as a junior and a host of other guys as juniors and seniors on that football team,” Mason said of the Bulldogs beating the Commodores 51-0 in 2014. “I looked at our football team, and we took some punches.
“I said to myself I couldn’t wait to be a junior-senior football team in this conference. Now I’m not having to wait anymore. We’re here.”
Vanderbilt won 17-16 at Georgia last season for the Commodores’ first SEC road victory under Mason.
“Those kids have bought in and believe in what Derek’s doing,” Georgia Coach Kirby Smart said. “It’s evidenced on the field. They play really hard on both sides of the ball.
“I have a lot of respect for their coaching staff. They have done a tremendous job and continue to do that.”
Webb, 5-10 and 202 pounds, comes into this season 20th on the SEC’s all-time rushing list. His 732 carries for 3,342 yards are Vanderbilt records. He set a single-season school rushing record with 1,283 yards on 250 carries as a junior, when he also caught 21 passes for 166 yards.
Despite Webb’s production, he was voted to the third team all-conference offense by SEC media, finishing behind Georgia’s Nick Chubb, LSU’s Derrius Guice, Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway and Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough among running backs.
Webb, who is from Gainesville, Fla., also was overlooked by his hometown Gators, who didn’t offer him a scholarship.
“Ralph Webb, to me, is probably the most underrated back in this conference,” Mason said. “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.”
Mason said Webb has improved every aspect of his game over the past three seasons.
“The first year, could he run between the tackles? He did that,” Mason said. “Second year, could he catch the ball out of the backfield? He did that. Third year, could he pass protect? He did that.
“But what’s most impressive about Ralph Webb is really who he is every day. He wants to be the best.”
Webb said it doesn’t bother him to be underrated.
“I’ve been an underdog my whole life,” he said. “I just use it for motivation to go out there and prove everyone wrong.”
The Commodores lost linebacker Zach Cunningham, who left school after his junior season and was a second-round draft pick by the Houston Texans, but they return seven starters on defense.
“Zach enjoyed the luxury of playing behind some guys up front that were pretty solid and productive,” Mason said. “Zach’s a great player in his own right, but as I look it, this defense is never about one guy.”
Tackle Nifae Leslao and linebacker Oren Burks, both seniors, are two of the top returners.
“With experience comes confidence,” Burks said.
“We’re ready to play a lot faster.”
Commodores junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who passed for 2,409 yards and nine touchdowns last season, is among nine returning starters on offense.
“We’ve grown throughout the years, we’ve improved under Coach Mason’s regime at Vandy, but we’ve got to take the next step,” Shurmur said. “I don’t think anybody’s satisfied with where we’re at.
“Anybody that says they’re satisfied with 6-6, I’d have to say they’re lying. I think we’re ready to do bigger and better things.”
Mason said that in going 4-2 over the final six regular-season games last year, the Commodores got a chance to see what can happen if they play the right way and don’t beat themselves in games.
“They’re not planning on going back,” Mason said. “Once you taste it, the idea is to make sure you go forward, not backwards. That’s where we are.”
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has improved the team’s victory total in each of the three seasons he’s been at the school. The Commodores return 17 starters from last year’s team that finished 6-7 and reached a bowl game for the first time since 2013.
Quarterback Kyle Shurmur threw for 2,409 yards and 9 touchdowns while completing 54 percent of his passes for Vanderbilt in 2016. The junior had a career-high 416 yards in a 45-34 upset over rival Tennessee in the regular-season finale.