Van­der­bilt ready to con­tend in East

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - BOB HOLT

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.”

AP/BUTCH DILL

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.

Chat­tanooga Times Free Press/ROBIN RUDD

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.

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