Vanderbilt Commodores post-spring breakdown

Good news, college football fans: we’re officially less than 100 days away from the first Saturday of the season.

To mark the occasion, we on the SEC blog will take a look at where all the conference teams stand right now.

Up next is Vanderbilt.

What we learned on offense: If you paid close attention last year then you know how good Vanderbilt was on defense. The problem was they couldn’t score any points. Derek Mason said he’d never start a true freshman quarterback, and that’s exactly what he ended up doing, throwing Kyle Shurmur to the wolves. But Mason might be in for a treat now that Shurmur is a year older and wiser. The turbulent rookie season didn’t seem to break Shurmur as he played well this spring, completing 7-of-9 passes in the spring game while looking like the presumptive starter. With C.J. Duncan back from injury and Ralph Webb expected to be 100 percent by fall camp, Shurmur will have some weapons to work with, lending hope to the idea Year 3 of the Derek Mason regime will finally bring a respectable offense.

What we learned on defense: Only LSU and Arkansas return more starters on defense than Vanderbilt's eight. Mason whipped the defense into shape last year by taking on the role of defensive coordinator, and he expects a more athletic, versatile defense this time around. While half the linebacker corps will be comprised of new starters, the return of Zach Cunningham and Nigel Bowden at linebacker provides some stability. What’s more, Vanderbilt returns safety Oren Burns, who led the team in interceptions last year, and cornerback Torren McGaster, who led the team in pass breakups.

Breakout player: Vanderbilt really could have used Duncan last season, but a leg injury intervened, robbing Shurmur of a dependable target in the passing game. Now the 5-foot-11 Alabama native is back healthy again and ready to show his freshman season (28 catches, 441 yards, four touchdowns) was no fluke. In the spring game, Duncan looked sharp, catching two passes for 50 yards, including a nice 32-yard grab.

Key storyline: Could Vanderbilt be ready to go bowling again? That idea might seem farfetched when you consider the last two years have yielded a 7-17 record, but the Commodores aren’t that far off. Three of their losses last season were by single digits, and that was with an offense that provided very little in the way of support. If that changes, there’s a window for Mason’s squad. With South Carolina rebuilding under Will Muschamp and Missouri in transition now that Gary Pinkel is gone, it could be Vanderbilt’s time to take advantage and climb out of the cellar of the East.