- Chris Low, College Football
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Schedule: The Commodores kicked off spring practice Monday with an 8 a.m. ET practice in their indoor facility, and their first practice in full pads is set for Friday morning. Their Black & Gold spring game is scheduled for March 21 at 2 p.m. ET. No practices will be held Feb. 28-March 7 during Vanderbilt's spring break.
What's new: Derek Mason, entering his second season as head coach, fired both of his coordinators, Karl Dorrell on offense and David Kotulski on defense. Mason brought in former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig to run the offense and coach quarterbacks, but Mason will run the defense himself. Cortez Hankton, a former NFL receiver, replaces Marc Lubick as Vanderbilt's receivers coach. Hankton was most recently the receivers coach at Dartmouth. Marc Mattioli fills the open spot on the defensive staff and will coach safeties. Mattioli was a graduate assistant under Mason at Stanford. Mason initially hired former Philadelphia Eagles assistant defensive backs coach Todd Lyght to coach the cornerbacks, but Lyght left after three weeks to return to his alma mater and coach at Notre Dame. Brett Maxie will coach the cornerbacks. Maxie handled the entire secondary a year ago.
On the move: With the Commodores thin at running back, junior defensive back Darrius Sims will get a lot of work at running back this spring. He played some running back last season, but got only two carries. He's a dynamic return specialist and could give Vanderbilt another potential playmaker on offense. Mason refers to Sims as a "Joker," meaning he's going to play next season wherever the Commodores need him.
New faces: Junior college transfer Nehemiah Mitchell is enrolled in school and going through spring practice. The 6-4, 255-pound Mitchell played at City College of San Francisco last season after transferring there from Sacramento State, where he played the 2013 season. Mitchell has the kind of length Mason is looking for in his outside linebackers.
Question marks: Building depth and getting more production in the defensive line will be important. In particular, the Commodores need senior Caleb Azubike to take hold of the defensive end position in his second season in the 3-4 scheme. Azubike is up to 280 pounds. The same goes for 6-5, 320-pound sophomore Nifae Lealao at nose guard now that Vince Taylor has departed. The offensive line was a huge sore spot last season and has to get better. In SEC games, the Commodores finished last in rushing offense with an average of 94.1 yards per game and scored just three rushing touchdowns in eight league games. Fifth-year junior Spencer Pulley is one of four returning starters in the offensive line and has started in 25 straight games at right guard. He's likely to shift to center for the 2015 season. Jordan Matthews spoiled everybody at Vanderbilt with how many plays he made at receiver during his record-setting career. The void his departure left last season was glaring. The Commodores need more players to step up at the receiver position, and they need more explosive plays from their receivers. Defenses were able to load the box last season against the Commodores, and they rarely made them pay down the field with big plays. It's a big spring for third-year sophomore receiver C.J. Duncan to come into his own as a true No. 1 threat. Getting back senior tight end Steven Scheu should help the passing game. Scheu was Vanderbilt's leading receiver last season and a second-team All-SEC selection. He'll be a big part of Ludwig's plan on offense.
Key battle: It's the same one as a year ago. The Commodores need to settle on a starting quarterback after having four different quarterbacks start games last season, none of them playing with much consistency. Three are back -- fourth-year junior Patton Robinette, third-year sophomore Johnny McCrary and true sophomore Wade Freebeck. Redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage will also take his shot at the job this spring. Ludwig would like to pare the competition down to two as soon as he can and go from there. They all bring different skill sets to the table. McCrary is probably the most athletic and has a big arm, but he needs to cut down on the mistakes. Robinette has had concussion issues. They all will get a clean slate under Ludwig, who wasn't around to see the Commodores throw 13 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions last season.
Breaking out: Third-year sophomore Jay Woods is somebody to watch at defensive end. He was a part-time starter last season and showed flashes. On the offensive line, 6-5, 320-pound Delando Crooks sure looks the part. Also a third-year sophomore, he's plenty athletic for a guy his size and could help solidify matters inside at guard. Anybody who can stretch the field at receiver will be given a long look. Redshirt freshman Ronald Monroe is a bigger target (6-2, 200) who could help the passing game become more potent. Trent Sherfield played a little bit last season as a true freshman and has the speed to be one of the Commodores' most explosive receivers. Monroe and Sherfield are still learning how to play the position after playing quarterback in high school. And at safety, third-year sophomore Oren Burks, with his added maturity, experience and athleticism, has everything it takes to be a leader in that secondary.
Don't forget about: Vanderbilt's linebacker corps has a chance to be outstanding. Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham were both starters at inside linebacker as redshirt freshmen last season and were the top two tacklers on the team. Junior Stephen Weatherly is also back at one of the outside linebacker spots, and he led the Commodores last season with 12.5 tackles for loss. The veteran of the group is senior Darreon Herring, who was sixth on the team in total tackles last season and played both inside linebacker and the nickel position. Throw in the addition of JUCO transfer Mitchell, and it's easy to see why Mason likes what he sees at linebacker.
All eyes on: Now that Mason has shaken up his staff, including bringing in a new head strength coach (James Dobson from Nebraska), everybody is anxious to see how it will all translate to the field. Mason is taking the reins on defense, which means Vanderbilt fans can hope to see more of what they saw in the finale against Tennessee last season than the earlier games. Mason was much more involved in the Tennessee game plan, and the Commodores played one of their better games. One thing Mason mentioned was being able to execute the defense better and not worry as much about having so many different looks, checks and packages in the playbook. They'll have just five defensive calls this spring. Wearing both hats (as head coach and defensive coordinator) is a steep challenge, especially for such an inexperienced head coach. But Mason knows what he wants and is confident the Commodores can be more disruptive on 'D' next season after giving up more than 30 points in seven of their 12 games last season.
Building depth, getting more production in the defensive line and settling on a QB will be key issues for the Commodores as they start spring practice.