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Vanderbilt Commodores preview

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Derek Mason made plenty of changes after last season's disappointing finish. AP Images/Mark Humphrey

Derek Mason fired his offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, wide receivers coach—even his strength coach. Now, after 2014’s 3–9 collapse, he says he’ll turn the program around because “it has my name on it.” But by cleaning house and installing himself as DC, his reputation and his job are on the line.

Offense

How the Commodores beat you: First things first, Vanderbilt must settle on a quarterback. But if that happens and the program develops some semblance of a passing game, pay attention to Ralph Webb, who in the midst of chaos last season set a school freshman record with 907 rushing yards, earning SEC all-freshman honors. “He’s a tremendous threat for us,” says new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who sees Webb as the centerpiece of a more balanced offense in 2015. “He has a multifaceted skill set—good carrying the ball out of the backfield, a good pass receiver out of the backfield. He’s going to be our workhorse again.”

How you beat the Commodores: How many quarterbacks does it take to throw 19 interceptions? Four, apparently. Last year Johnny McCrary, Wade Freebeck, Patton Robinette and Stephen Rivers threw 19 picks and just 13 TDs. If that turnstile at QB continues, so will the Commodores’ struggles. The offense had a league-high 29 TOs, so it’s not just the passing game that had trouble holding on to the ball. And that will need to improve in 2015. “If we take care of the football and establish a good ground game with a mix of pass, we’ll be fine,” Mason says. “That’s something we couldn’t do a year ago. We couldn’t stay on the field.”

Defense

How the Commodores beat you: Once again coaching the defense every day in practice, Mason says, “I’m having the time of my life. I’m back doing the thing I love to do.” He’s good at it too, having led Stanford’s defense to a top-20 ranking in 2012 and 2013. But besides what he promises will be a simplified scheme in 2015, Mason says the biggest improvement will happen in the weight room, where new strength coach James Dobson (Nebraska) hopes to create a more well-built defense. “We’re in a conference where linemen are big and guys are physical,” Mason says. “It’s a little different than the West Coast because these guys are much thicker.”

How you beat the Commodores When Mason watches tapes of practice, he sees one linebacker who cheats to stop the run. Another gets lost on a play-action pass. Every once in a while there is a sign of hope on the screen, but it’s rare—this unit doesn’t do well under pressure. It’s the same thing Mason encountered last year: a defense that was trying to do too much. “It’s tough when you look and your kids aren’t playing fast,” he says. This unit struggles in the most critical situations, last year allowing 42.2 percent of conversions on third down and surrendering touchdowns on 65.4 percent of opponents’ red zone trips.