SEC: Caleb Azubike

SEC fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
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Believe it or not, we are two days away from SEC football officially kicking off the 2014 season. And you thought we'd never get here!

Each season we make perfect prediction after perfect prediction. From weekly game picks to preseason teams, we think we've got this whole prognostication thing down to a science!

It's become a tradition here on the SEC blog to release our fearless predictions for the season ahead. I'm riding solo on them this year, but they shouldn't be any less correct this time around.

Here are my 10 fearless predictions for the SEC in 2014:

1. The SEC champion will have two losses ... but still make the playoff: With the talent gap between the teams at the top and the middle of the pack growing tighter, the SEC might be in store for the most exciting divisional races we've seen in a long time. No team is perfect. I've said this since the end of last season: No team will go undefeated in the SEC and no team will leave Atlanta with fewer than two losses. But with how strong the conference is this year, there's no way the SEC champ will be left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesMike Davis rushed for 1,183 yards on 203 carries and 11 scores in 2013.
2. Mike Davis will lead the conference in rushing: He can steamroll over you or just run by you. Davis has everything you'd want in a back and even though he's dealing with a rib injury, he'll lead the SEC in rushing yards this season. It won't hurt that he has arguably the nation's best offensive line in front of him. Georgia's Todd Gurley has yet to make it through an entire season healthy, while T.J. Yeldon will undoubtedly have his carries eaten into by Derrick Henry. With what should be a solid passing game taking some pressure off him, Davis will blow by the 1,183 yards he had last year.

3. The SEC will have 12 bowl-eligible teams: Last year, the SEC saw 10 teams go bowling. This year, Florida and Tennessee will reach at least six wins this fall and join the teams that made bowl games last year. Yes, a Tennessee team with brand-new offensive and defensive lines will go bowling, and yes, Florida's offense will be much better.

4. Will Muschamp will finally beat Georgia: After going 0-3 against his alma mater, Muschamp will finally get a win at the World's Largest Outdoor, eh, Party. It's a rebound year in Gainesville with a better offense. Of course, the game will be close, but quarterback Jeff Driskel will engineer a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter to end the bleeding the Bulldogs have caused the Gators the past three years. That means the SEC East title will come down to the Gators' home game with South Carolina on Nov. 15.

5. Arkansas will have two 1,000-yard rushers: The Razorbacks came close last year after Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams combined to rush for 1,926 yards. With so many unknowns still lurking in the passing game, coach Bret Bielema will have no problem handing the ball off to his duo as much as possible. Williams might even lead the Hogs in rushing this year after an impressive offseason. Stacking the box won't stop this duo.

6. The Mississippi schools will reach nine wins: It seems like whenever Mississippi State and Ole Miss have higher expectations, they fail to live up to the hype. Well, that ain't happening this season. With two very manageable seasons, and a host of talent returning, both of these schools will reach at least nine wins this season. Ole Miss gets Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home and should sweep nonconference play. Mississippi State has an extremely soft nonconference slate and gets Auburn and Texas A&M at home. Both Mississippi teams will pull a big upset on their way to nine wins.

7. Leonard Floyd will lead the SEC in sacks: Last year, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks. This year, Georgia's best pass-rusher will push for All-American status by reaching double-digit sacks and leading the league. He's fast, strong and terrifying off the edge. Floyd had a great offseason and will be a nightmare for quarterbacks.

8. Vanderbilt will make it four bowl trips in a row: No James Franklin? No problem. What Franklin didn't take was the talented core of players the Commodores have. The Commodores return a strong offensive line and a deep, talented group of running backs. New coach Derek Mason also likes what he has defensively. The new 3-4 scheme will make the Dores faster off the edge with Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike moving to outside linebacker. Vandy should win its four nonconference games and will find two more wins to make it back to the postseason.

9. The SEC won't win the national championship: Look at prediction No. 1. While I think the SEC is stronger than ever as a whole, the winner of this league (I'm predicting Alabama) will be pretty beat-up come playoff time -- monthlong break and all. But it isn't just that. I think the country has a great set of teams at the top this year, and I don't see one SEC team really sticking out like seasons past. The seven straight titles were good for the league, but the conference will hit a two-year snag.

10. Ohio State will lose to another SEC team: The loss of quarterback Braxton Miller might have spoiled the Buckeyes' playoff hopes, but they'll find a way to meet an SEC team during the postseason and continue their time-honored tradition of losing to the SEC. Come January, the Buckeyes will be 0-11 against the SEC in bowl games.
 

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Vanderbilt Commodores:

2013 record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC). Beat Houston 41-24 in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Final grade for the 2013 season: This was quite the finale for former coach James Franklin. Winning nine games in back-to-back seasons was a first for Vanderbilt, and so was beating Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season. There were some up-and-down times for the offense, but the defense ranked sixth in the SEC. The Commodores capped the season with a blowout win over Houston in their bowl game, giving Vandy a solid A- for the season.

Key losses: QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, RB Wesley Tate, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Jonathan Krause, OT Wesley Johnson, DE Walker May, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler

[+] EnlargeCaleb Azubike
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCaleb Azubike posted 10 tackles for loss and four sacks as part of the DE rotation in 2013.
Key returnees: QB Patton Robinette, RB Jerron Seymour, RB Brian Kimbrow, OT Andrew Jelks, C Joe Townsend, DT Vince Taylor, LB Caleb Azubike, LB Kyle Woestmann

Breakout player: While Vandy has to replace a stud in Ladler at safety, new coach Derek Mason is very excited about the prospects of redshirt freshman Oren Burks. He was recruited to Vandy as a linebacker, but Mason calls him one of the best safeties people haven't heard about. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Burks should have no problem knocking people around.

Key position battle: Being a new coach in the SEC is one thing, but being a new coach and having a quarterback battle is another. It's down to three players -- Robinette, LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary -- and Mason has actually been pretty excited about the competition for a while now. Robinette has the most experience, and even came off the bench to deliver a comeback win over Georgia last year and later directed wins over Florida and Tennessee. Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, played sparingly at LSU, but he made up a lot of ground with his competitors this fall. He has a ton of upside and has two years of eligibility. McCrary might be the most athletic and the most talented of the bunch, which could get him on the field even if he isn't the starter.

Most important game: Even though the Commodores are breaking in a new coach, they aren't going to be overlooked in 2014. That means getting off to a fast start, and a win over Ole Miss in Nashville could be crucial to the Commodores' bowl chances in 2014. Last year's back-and-forth scoring act between these two was one for the ages. We still don't know fully what to expect from Vandy this fall, so to start 3-0 would be huge when it comes to the postseason.

Biggest question mark: The loss of Matthews and Krause takes away 154 receptions, 2,191 yards and 10 touchdowns from a year ago. That leaves sophomore Jordan Cunningham as the leading returning pass-catcher at receiver with his 15 catches from a year ago. Experience isn't something the Commodores have at receiver, and it doesn't help that the quarterback situation is unsettled. Redshirt freshman C.J. Duncan is a converted running back and might be the Commodores' most versatile player. Still, he has no in-game experience. Sophomore Latevius Rayford and redshirt freshman Gerald Perry have all shown flashes, and Kris Kentera has moved from tight end.

Upset special: Last year, Vandy went on a run of upsets. While beating Florida in Gainesville was historic for the Commodores, the biggest win of the season came when Vandy took down No. 15 Georgia 31-27 at home. This season, the Commodores could have another upset in the making with a home game against South Carolina on Sept. 20. The Gamecocks will enter the season ranked ninth in the country, and there's always that one game in which the Gamecocks get caught snoozing. Steve Spurrier has lost to Vandy twice (2007, 2008) since taking over at South Carolina in 2005, and both times his Gamecocks were ranked, including No. 6 in 2007. Four games in this series have been decided by seven or fewer points in that span.

Key stat: Vandy owned the SEC's No. 6 defense last year, but ranked 13th in the league when it came to stopping opponents in the red zone. Teams scored on 40 of 46 (86.96 percent) trips inside the Commodores' 20 last year. Twenty-nine of those scores were touchdowns.

They said it: "We’re going to be physical. We’re going to be a team that doesn’t beat itself. You’re going to have to take it out of our hands. We’re going to be a team that it’s going to take you four quarters -- you may even have to go five -- to try and pull one out of the hat. We’re just a team that’s going to be blue collar in terms of what we work toward, what we look like." -- Mason

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 4.93

Bovada over/under: 6

Our take: One thing that made Franklin so successful at Vandy was the attitude he instilled in his team. This was a program used to being pushed around at the bottom of the conference. Back-to-back nine-win seasons and three straight bowl trips were all firsts for the school, so can Mason, who also arrived in Nashville as a highly touted assistant coach, replicate Franklin's success? Now that everyone is paying attention to the Commodores, it won't be easy, and having questions at quarterback and receiver won't help, either. But a solid offensive line and running game should help the passing game, while Vandy has some good, underrated talent within its front seven and could have some breakout candidates in the secondary. Vandy won't get back to nine wins this season, but the Commodores will make their fourth straight bowl game, winning six games during the regular season.
Now that we've taken the time to look at offensive players who could pile on the stats in 2014, it's time to take a look at the defenders who make this league so scary.

Today, we're talking sacks and who could reach double digits in that category in 2014.

Last year, the SEC only had two players reach that mark -- Missouri's Michael Sam (11.5 sacks) and Auburn's Dee Ford (10.5) -- after three did in 2012 and 2011.

This season, the SEC has a lot of talent and potential within its various front sevens. So how many players do I see reaching 10 or more sacks? I'm going to go with three.

Here's my list of potential double-digit sack artists for 2014:

[+] EnlargeLeonard Floyd
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMIGeorgia linebacker Leonard Floyd is looking to build off of his strong freshman season.
1. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: During his first year at Georgia, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 22 QB hurries. He explodes off the line and is a beast for linemen to handle. He could be the SEC's best pass-rusher in 2014.

2. Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: Overshadowed by Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, Golden had 6.5 sacks last year. Even as a backup, Golden could have left for the NFL after last season. He's back, and he won't be fun to deal with off the edge.

3. Alvin "Bud" Dupree, DE, Kentucky: Get used to this name because he's gotten better each year he's been on campus. After moving to defensive end last year, Dupree had a team-high seven sacks, but feels his game is even better this time around. He has All-SEC written all over him.

4. Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Florida: He can play with his hand in the ground or upright. Fowler can absolutely fly and has tremendous strength to bully his way through opposing lines. Expect him to vastly improve on the 3.5 sacks he had last year.

5. Shane Ray, DE, Missouri: He might not have a very recognizable name right now, but you should hear a lot about Ray in the coming months. He's incredibly fast and athletic. Add his strength, and he'll have no problem zipping past his 4.5 sacks from 2013.

6. Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas: He'd be higher on the list if there weren't questions about the guys around him. Flowers is a monster, but he had the benefit of working with stud Chris Smith on the other side. He'll have to work even harder this year. Still, Flowers is too good not to at least approach the five sacks he had last season.

7. C.J. Johnson, DE, Ole Miss: A devastating leg injury cost him most of his 2013 season, but he's back and says he feels better than ever. He changes Ole Miss' defense so much when he's on the field and is the Rebels' best pass-rusher. With people keying in on Robert Nkemdiche inside, Johnson should be a menace off the edge.

8. Curt Maggitt, DE/LB, Tennessee: He might not have played last year, but Maggitt is arguably one of the best at his position. He'll play more defensive end this year, but his goal every time he's on the field is to hit the quarterback. If he can stay healthy, he'll do that a lot.

9. Danielle Hunter, DE, LSU: He only had three sacks last year, but Hunter could be a breakout star for the Tigers. Pictures of him from this summer tell me that he's loaded up on the lean protein and hopes to dine on quarterbacks this fall.

10. Caleb Azubike, LB, Vanderbilt: One of Vandy's most athletic defenders, Azubike seems to really be taking to his new position at outside linebacker. With his speed, he could be a terror outside in the Commodores' new 3-4 scheme. He had four sacks in 2013.

Most important game: Vanderbilt

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
3:30
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We're kicking off a new series today looking at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. We start in reverse alphabetical order with Vanderbilt.

Most important game: Sept. 6 vs. Ole Miss

Key players: The biggest change at Vanderbilt is at head coach where former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason was brought in after James Franklin bolted for Penn State. With the departure of senior starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, the Commodores will also be breaking in a new signal-caller. Sophomore Patton Robinette started three games last season, including the BBVA Compass Bowl. Stephen Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers, transferred from LSU in the offseason and is immediately eligible to compete for the job. Vanderbilt junior running back Jerron Seymour made eight starts in 2013 and tied Zac Stacy's school record with 14 rushing touchdowns. The Commodores have a large hole to fill at receiver where they graduated Jordan Matthews, the SEC's all-time leading receiver with 262 receptions. Mason has a lot of work to do with Vandy's defense, especially after losing Andre Hal, Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall -- three of the team's top-four tacklers -- from the secondary. The strength of Mason's defense, as it moves from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base, will be the linebackers. Darreon Herring (84 tackles), Jake Sealand (45 tackles) return in the middle, while Kyle Woestmann (six sacks) and Caleb Azubike (four sacks) move from defensive end to outside linebacker.

Why it matters: The second game of the season won't have postseason implications for either team, but it means everything in terms of Mason's first impression in the SEC. Taking over for the best coach in a school's history isn't easy. After three bowl games in a row and back-to-back 9-4 seasons, the bar is now set high at Vanderbilt. Mason will be looking to prove he can continue Franklin's success without much of a transition. His players, meanwhile, should have even bigger chips on their shoulders. They want the SEC to know their recent run wasn't all about Franklin. They'll also be looking for some revenge against Ole Miss for a season-opening 39-35 loss last year. Vanderbilt-Ole Miss isn't one of the SEC's highest profile rivalries, but it is one of the oldest. This will be the second time in two years that these two teams meet in Nashville, Tennessee. The Commodores played host to the Rebels in a highly entertaining back-and-forth game last season. There were four lead changes, culminating with a 75-yard touchdown run by Mississippi RB Jeff Scott with just over a minute left in the game. The loss didn't dampen Vandy's enthusiasm much, though, as the Commodores went on to beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. They'll need the same kind of mental resolve to make Mason's debut in 2014 a success.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When Jim Harbaugh was in search of a defensive backs coach in 2010, he wanted someone who preferred a 3-4 defense. Stanford was making the transition to that scheme at the time. Harbaugh had already hired longtime NFL assistant coach Vic Fangio to run the defense, and he wanted like-minded assistants.

Enter Derek Mason. The up-and-coming coach had spent the last three years in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings, and though they ran a 4-3, Mason knew his way around a 3-4 defense dating to his early days at Bucknell University.

“I think it's a different mentality,” Mason said. “I think it's a difference of philosophy in terms of what we look to do. Obviously when you go from a four-man front to conceivably what's a five-man front, there's a different mentality in terms of how you attack the line of scrimmage and what you're looking to do with your structure.”

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyFour years of success running Stanford's D has Derek Mason looking to do more as the head coach at Vanderbilt.
After Harbaugh left for the NFL, Mason was promoted to co-defensive coordinator at Stanford and put his own stamp on the Cardinal’s defense. Now, four years later, he’s bringing that defense with him to Vanderbilt, except that this time he’s in Harbaugh’s shoes. For the first time in his career, he’s the head coach.

Like his old boss, Mason went out and hired defensive coaches who share the same philosophy. And who better to serve as his defensive coordinator than David Kotulski, the inside linebackers coach at Stanford and the man who introduced the 3-4 defense to Mason when the two were together at Bucknell 15 years ago?

Bucknell was Kotulski’s second defensive coordinator job. Vanderbilt will be his sixth.

“We're very excited about the young men that we have,” Kotulski said. “Is there a transition point? Yes. And we put a lot of stuff in, no question about it. At this point in time, we just have to keep on playing faster as a unit, and it will come as we keep on getting better.”

Changing defenses is never easy, but Mason knows what to expect as this Vanderbilt defense goes through the same transition.

Defensive linemen who are used to being on the edges are now being asked to take on blocks in order to free up linebackers. Defensive ends who have always played with their hand in the dirt are being asked to drop back and play in space.

“I think it's a three-phrase approach,” Mason said. “I think it goes from spring into summer and then back to fall. What happens is right now they're learning it for the first time. When you come back in fall camp, they will now have heard it for the third time, and I think hearing it for the third time, that's when it starts to go.

“I really believe that where we're at right now is just the first phase of it. We'll be fine.”

Veterans Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann are among those in unfamiliar territory this spring.

As defensive ends a year ago, Azubike shared the team lead in tackles for loss (9.5), and Woestmann finished with a team-high six sacks. In the new defense, they’re both moving to outside linebacker, where they will play standing up for the first time.

“We're learning a new scheme, obviously,” Azubike said. “But playing with this new coaching staff has made the process much easier because they understand the fundamentals needed. They don't rush you. They try to make sure you know exactly what to do in every single aspect of the game. With their help, there's very little we couldn't do.”

“The new staff is incredible,” Woestmann added. “These coaches are great X’s and O’s coaches. “They show us how the fits work and all the moving pieces that you draw up on the whiteboard. They do a great job really teaching us how to play football.”

As the Commodores adjust to the new defense, they’re doing so essentially without eight starters from a year ago, including two potential NFL players in cornerback Andre Hal and safety Kenny Ladler. It’s a unit that has talent, but is lean on experience. The goal is to develop leadership and game experience, but that will come with time.

“It's not a goal of winning championships right now,” Kotulski said. “It's about getting better each time. Now, bottom line, that's what we're talking about. We didn't come here to play for second. You play hard. You play fast. You have fun playing it. You compete and when you put all those pieces together, good things happen.

“Hopefully, we'll play a lot of important games as the years go on.”

SEC's next wave of star players

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
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For the most part, we have an idea who the top returning players are in the SEC for next season.

There are 11 players back who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors last season from the coaches, including six first-team selections: Auburn center Reese Dismukes, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt. The second-team selections returning are Mississippi State tight end Malcolm Johnson, LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins, South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers and Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

Picking the next wave of All-SEC players can be tricky, and it's certainly not a given that all these players returning will be repeat selections.

So what we've done is go through and pick the 10 players most likely to emerge as All-SEC players next season, and the caveat is that they can't have previously earned postseason all-conference honors from either the coaches or Associated Press (first or second team). That rules out a few other players not listed above such as Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Alabama safety Landon Collins.

Here's our next wave of SEC stars, listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner / Icon SMIChris Jones showed his big-play potential as a freshman at Mississippi State.
Caleb Azubike, OLB, Vanderbilt, Jr.: Look out for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Azubike coming off the edge in Derek Mason's new 3-4 defense. Azubike tied for the team lead last season with 9.5 tackles for loss.

A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina, Sr.: The anchor of what should be the best offensive line in the SEC, Cann enters the 2014 season as perhaps the top guard in the league.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, So.: Just go back and turn on the tape from the Sugar Bowl. Henry is going to be a beast and is in great shape after what's been a terrific offseason for him thus far.

Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State, So.: The league is full of good, young defensive linemen, and the 6-5, 300-pound Jones is right there near the top. He's a force at both tackle and end.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn, So.: The Tigers will miss Dee Ford and his pressure off the edge, but the 6-2, 261-pound Lawson is the next star in the making on the Plains.

Curt Maggitt, OLB, Tennessee, Jr.: You might have forgotten about Maggitt after he missed last season because of injuries, but he's healthy again and will be used in several different roles for the Vols.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia, Jr.: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Mitchell from being one of the top playmakers in this league. If he can stay healthy, he'll put up huge numbers in 2014.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, So.: The top high school player in the country a year ago, Nkemdiche will move inside and has the size, power and athleticism to be dominant.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: He started his career at guard, moved to right tackle last season and is now in line to be the Aggies' third straight star left tackle as he takes over for Jake Matthews.

A'Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama, So.: The team leader with 5.5 sacks last season as a freshman, Robinson has a chance to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have produced under Nick Saban.

A few others to watch:

Opening spring camp: Vanderbilt

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
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Schedule: The Commodores will open spring practice at 4:50 p.m. ET on Tuesday. They’re scheduled to practice each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday leading up to the Black & Gold spring game at 11 a.m. ET on April 12 at Vanderbilt Stadium.

[+] EnlargeJerron Seymour
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesJerron Seymour tied for sixth in the SEC with 14 touchdowns in 2013.
What’s new: Just about everything. Derek Mason comes over from Stanford, where he was the defensive coordinator for the past three seasons, to replace James Franklin as the head coach. The only holdover from Franklin’s staff is Charles Bankins, who will coach running backs and special teams. Mason’s offensive coordinator is former UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell. His defensive coordinator is David Kotulski, who was at Stanford with Mason, but is a veteran defensive coordinator with stints at Leigh, Holy Cross, Utah State, Bucknell and Saint Mary’s. Rounding out Mason’s staff are Brett Maxie as secondary coach, Kenwick Thompson as outside linebackers coach, Frank Maile as defensive line coach, Marc Lubick as receivers coach, Keven Lightner as offensive line coach and Gerry Gdowski as tight ends coach.

On the move: Senior Kellen Williams is moving from linebacker to fullback. And with the Commodores moving to a base 3-4 on defense, several guys will move from end to outside linebacker. Among them: senior Kyle Woestmann, sophomore Stephen Weatherly and redshirt freshman Jonathan Wynn.

On the mend: The Commodores will have a handful of players who will be limited this spring while recovering from injuries/surgeries, including Woestmann, Weatherly and quarterback Josh Grady.

New faces: Tight end Mitch Parsons, who was a grayshirt in the 2013 class, enrolled in January and will go through spring practice. The tight end position could become a more focal part under the new coaching staff.

Question marks: On offense, it has to be wide receiver, especially with the record-setting Jordan Matthews headed to the NFL. Dependable Jonathan Krause is also gone. Four wide receivers with experience return, but they combined for just 19 catches last season. The guy to watch is sophomore Jordan Cunningham, who caught 15 passes last season as a true freshman. Latevius Rayford had his freshman season cut short by injury but should be one of the fastest receivers on the team. The Commodores will also need to get some help out of the three or four receivers they signed in this class, all of whom will arrive this summer. Defensively, Vanderbilt is replacing all four starters in the secondary, which has been the strength for the past several years. Safety Kenny Ladler and cornerback Andre Hal were both All-SEC players. There is some experience returning, particularly at cornerback. Sophomores Darrius Sims, Paris Head and Torren McGaster all played some last season. The bigger issue is at safety. After junior Andrew Williamson, there are a lot more questions than there are answers at safety.

Key battle: Redshirt sophomore Patton Robinette enters the spring as the guy to beat at quarterback and proved last season while filling in for Austyn Carta-Samuels that he’s not overwhelmed by big stages. Robinette, who needs to improve his accuracy as a passer, will get all he wants this spring from redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, who has a big arm and is also plenty athletic. It should be a good battle that will likely extend into preseason practice.

Breaking out: With so much new at Vanderbilt, there are a couple of guys to watch. Redshirt freshman C.J. Duncan is one of the most versatile players on the team. He’ll start the spring at receiver, where the Commodores need help, but could also be a factor at running back. On the offensive line, keep an eye out for 6-5, 310-pound redshirt freshman guard Delando Crooks. Defensively, redshirt freshman Nigel Bowden is poised to make a big impact at inside linebacker, and Sims reminds a lot of people of former Vanderbilt star D.J. Moore at cornerback with his nose for the ball.

Don’t forget about: Junior Caleb Azubike is up around 270 pounds and returns as one of the Commodores’ top big-play defenders. He missed the Commodores’ final three games a year ago with a leg injury but still finished with 9.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks. The explosive Azubike should be a natural pass-rusher in the new 3-4 scheme.

All eyes on: Jerron Seymour isn’t big in stature (5-7, 200 pounds), but the Commodores will need him to play a big role next season on offense, especially with so many key players from that side of the ball moving on. Seymour, a junior running back, rushed for 716 yards and scored 14 touchdowns last season.
The loss of James Franklin is really going to sting for Vanderbilt. There's just no way to get around it, but all should not be lost for those that make up a more-energized Commodores fan base.

While it will be very hard for Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams to replace the charisma, fire and work ethic that Franklin displayed every day he was on the job, the program is light-years ahead of where it was before Franklin's arrival in 2010, which should help make this a more attractive job for top-notch coaching candidates.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Zumapress/Icon SMICoach James Franklin, who is now Penn State's new coach, has left a solid foundation at Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt was the perennial cellar-dweller of the SEC before Franklin came along. Now, there's swagger after three consecutive bowl berths (two straight wins) and back-to-back nine-win seasons (all firsts for the Commodores). The facilities have vastly upgraded and they'll only continue to get better because of what Franklin did -- and demanded. A new coach might not have the attitude and salesmanship of Franklin, but he'll have a good base to work with in Nashville, Tenn.

When Vanderbilt hired Franklin more than three years ago, the program had won just four games total in the previous two seasons and had always been traditionally looked down upon. Making a bowl would have been a major accomplishment for Franklin and the program, but he went far beyond that. Because of his triumphs with the Commodores, it will be much easier for this program to attract a decent name from the coaching ranks.

The Commodores could certainly look in-house, at defensive coordinator Bob Shoop or offensive-line coach Herb Hand, but if Williams decides to search elsewhere, he shouldn't have much of a problem luring solid candidates. Expect well-known up-and-coming coordinators to hear their names attached to this opening. Vandy might never be a true SEC championship contender, but it's now a job that you can't laugh at. There's moxie and confidence swirling throughout that locker room and program.

There's also a new breed of talent. Studs such as Jordan Matthews, Wesley Johnson, Andre Hal and Kenny Ladler might be gone, but there's a solid group of youngsters still in town. Keep an eye on running backs Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow. Defensive end Caleb Azubike appears to have a bright future ahead of him, as do cornerbacks Paris Head and Jahmel McIntosh.

Getting Vandy to stay competitive means the Commodores' next head coach has to be able to build immediately. Even with a solid foundation, he has to be able to hit the same recruiting spots in the Southeast, especially the Atlanta area, with the same tenacity Franklin showed. He has to be able to keep the same level of confidence in that locker room and he has to invigorate a fan base that took a bit of an emotional hit with the loss of Franklin in order to keep this program relevant.

What Franklin did in Nashville was tremendous. Even after taking Vandy bowling in his first season, there was still plenty of skepticism. But the next year he did it again, this time winning a bowl, and equaled that accomplishment in 2013.

Really, keeping Franklin this long was a major win for Vandy, and now he leaves this program in much better shape than how he found it. He showed that there's a recipe for winning at Vandy -- but it isn't easy, and he's leaving some monster shoes to fill. The expectations are much higher at Vandy and it's going to take a special person to keep this momentum going.

Institutions with strong academic traditions have proven of late that winning is in fact an option. Vandy beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever in 2013 and hasn't lost a game in November since 2011. This team had a ton of momentum going into the offseason with Franklin as the coach, but now it's someone else's turn to keep that fire burning. With what Franklin has taught these guys, they'll be able to find it, and you had better believe they'll be motivated to show they can win without him.

SEC announces players of the week

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
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Here are the players of the week in the SEC, as announced by the league Monday:

OFFENSE: Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
  • Rushed for a career-high 214 on 14 carries with two rushing touchdowns while completing 3 of 7 passes for 35 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
  • His 214 yards are the most by a player in the SEC this season and tied for the third-highest by an Auburn quarterback in program history.
  • Had 164 yards on eight carries (20.5 per rush) in the first half. The 164 yards in the first half tied for the fifth-best rushing half in school history.
  • The 214 rushing yards are tied for the 16th most in school history and he became the first Auburn player since Cam Newton in 2010 to rush for 200 yards in a game.
  • Averaged 15.29 yards per rush, which is the second-best average (min. 10 att) in school history and eighth-best in SEC history.
  • Of the 30 best single-game rushing performances in FBS this season, Marshall’s 15.29 yards per rush is second only to Army’s Terry Baggett (16.89 ypr) versus Eastern Michigan.
DEFENSE: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
  • Signal caller on Alabama defense, led team with 12 tackles - 7 solo. Also had 1.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups.
  • Mosley is Tide's top tackler on season with 71 total stops.
  • Was the personal protector on the fake punt who took the snap and handed it off to Jarrick Williams which resulted in a key first down and eventual touchdown on that drive.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Chris Davis, RS, Auburn
  • Had two punt returns for 127 yards, including an 85-yard return for touchdown in the second quarter. The 85-yard punt return was the third longest in school history and longest since 1970 and was the first punt return touchdown by an Auburn player since 1970.
  • The 127 punt return yards are the second most in school history and are the most in the SEC this season and are the fifth-best in FBS this season.
FRESHMAN: Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri
  • Tied Mizzou’s school record for touchdown passes in a game with his five scoring throws, a mark only matched by the Tigers’ all-time leader in passing and current NFL QB Chase Daniel (who accomplished the feat four times in his Mizzou career).
  • Finished the game with 203 yards passing, 5 touchdowns (zero interceptions), and 24 rushing yards.
  • Four of the five touchdown passes went to wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham from distances of 8 yards, 7 yards, 22 yards and 7 yards, with a touchdown toss to tailback Henry Josey (6 yards) following Mauk’s first 7-yard pass to Green-Beckham.
  • Mauk completed 17 of 28 passes (60.7 percent) while guiding Mizzou’s offense to 427 yards of total offense while only having possession for 22:34 to UK’s 37:26.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss
  • Helped Ole Miss pile up 531 total yards and allow no sacks in a 34-24 win over Arkansas.
  • The Rebels surpassed 500 total yards for the third straight game and the fourth time this year.
  • Ole Miss finished with a season high in passing yards (419).
  • Has allowed only one sack all season.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt
  • Azubike's constant pressure on Florida quarterbacks helped cause four Gator turnovers, including three interceptions, in Vanderbilt's 34-17 victory in Gainesville.
  • Azubike was credited with two sacks, resulting in 32 lost yards, and a pair of quarterback hurries to spearhead the Commodore defensive performance.
  • The defensive end also earned four total tackles as the Commodores limited the Gators to 39 rushing yards.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If you're looking for one of the country's more underrated coaches and units, look no further than Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and his defense.

The Commodores ranked 19th nationally in total defense (333.9 yards per game) and fifth in the SEC last year, but not many people are looking to throw compliments up Nashville way. Maybe they should because Shoop, who enters his third season as Vandy's defensive coordinator with eight senior starters, has steadily made his defense better and better.

The talent has mostly remained the same, but Shoop's meticulous commitment to detail and unity has influenced improvement.

[+] EnlargeBob Shoop
Sean Meyers/Icon SMIVanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is quietly building another sturdy unit in Nashville.
"That's what our players have embraced: consistency," Shoop said.

That consistency helped the Commodores also rank inside the top five of the SEC in scoring defense (18.7 points per game) and passing defense (191.8 yards per game).

Where Shoop's defenses have really impressed is in the secondary. Teams have averaged less than 200 yards a game against the Commdores for the last two seasons and there's a good chance that trend will continue.

Vandy's secondary is headlined by senior cornerback Andre Hal and senior safety Kenny Ladler, who are two of the best players in the SEC at their respective positions. Hal broke up 14 passes and grabbed two interceptions last year, while Ladler made plays all over the field and led the team with 90 tackles.

Shoop considers Hal a five-tool player with his ability to press in man coverage, play off man, play Cover 2, blitz and support the run. Shoop said Hal doesn't do anything "incredibly excellent," but "he does all the things you ask out of a corner very, very well."

"Andre's a special player.," Shoop said. "He's one of the most under-the-radar players in all of college football. Sometimes he does things that maybe the average fan or person wouldn't see because the ball doesn't get thrown his way."

Shoop also said that watching Ladler develop has been one of the most rewarding parts of his job. When he first arrived, he saw talent and confidence, but Ladler had to expand. He had to find his range, cover tight ends and learn how to make plays off the edge. Now, all of that is second nature.

"Arguably in the spring and [fall] camp, he's been maybe our most consistent player on defense," Shoop said.

Helping those guys out will be safety Javon Marshall, who tied Ladler with 60 solo tackles and should help Vandy have the SEC's best safety duo, and senior Steven Clarke, who played nickel corner last year, but has made tremendous strides opposite Hal.

What really has the staff excited is the depth that emerged along the defensive line and at linebacker this spring. Play up front might even have these guys giddy. There's quite the foundation with ends Walker May, Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike, but Shoop is really excited about tackles Adam Butler, who could start as a redshirt freshman, Jared Morse, who Shoop thinks eventually could be a 10-year NFL pro, and Vince Taylor, who runs a legitimate 4.9 in the 40-yard dash while carrying 305 pounds.

"We've got eight guys who I think would play for most people in the conference, which I don't think we had that in the past," coach James Franklin said.

"Even just looking at them they look different. You have to be careful because a lot of guys look the part but don't play the part. We got a lot of guys who look like SEC players and are playing like SEC players."

Speaking of different looks, in order to help the defense more, Vandy's offense threw even more at it during fall camp. To combat the uptempo offenses the Dores will see -- starting with Ole Miss in Week 1 -- Vandy's offense gave the defense two different huddles to work with and the most challenging formations to face in rapid fire drills.

That constant movement challenged the defense's composure, condition and depth, which Shoop liked.

"That's what we're aiming for," Shoop said. "We want to see who's going to be mentally tough, who's going to be physically well-conditioned, who's going to communicate and get going. I'm kind of pushing the envelope, trying to see what we can align and execute in those situations.

"Part of the things those uptempo teams aim to do is vanilla you up. We're a fairly high-pressure team so we try to get out of that and get aligned and execute the defense."

Execution hasn't been an issues thus far, and with Shoop leading the way, this unit should continue to frustrate opponents.

Vanderbilt season preview

August, 4, 2013
8/04/13
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Today, we're looking at Vanderbilt, as the Commodores look to build off a historic 2013 season.

Coach: James Franklin (15-11)

2012 record: 9-4 (5-3, SEC)

Key losses: QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, OT Ryan Seymour, DT Rob Lohr, LB Archibald Barnes, CB Trey Wilson

[+] EnlargeD. J. Swearinger andJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireVanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews (left) will lead an explosive Commodores offense.
Key returnees: WR Chris Boyd, WR Jordan Matthews, RB Wesley Tate, OT Wesley Johnson, DE Walker May, LB Chase Garnham, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler

Newcomer to watch: Wide receiver Jordan Cunningham was rated the No. 13 receiver in the country in the 2013 recruiting class and will have every opportunity to see solid playing time this fall.

Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 29 vs. Ole Miss, Sept. 14 at South Carolina, Oct. 19 vs. Georgia, Oct. 26 at Texas A&M, Nov. 9 at Florida and Nov. 23 at Tennessee

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The tight end position is a major concern for the Commodores. Only three tight ends were on campus this spring, and all lacked consistency. The recent dismissal of junior college transfer Brandon Vandenburg was a big blow to the position. Redshirt sophomores Kris Kentera and Steven Scheu are the top guys at the spot, but neither has stepped up to take the position and neither has shown that he's ready to.

Forecast: The Commodores return 17 starters from a team that tied a school record for both single-season wins (nine) and SEC victories (five). Last year's team also scored more points (390) than any Vanderbilt team since 1916, and owned a top-20 defense. The Commodores have every reason to be thinking about competing for more than just another winning record in conference play, but these players are too focused to talk about or think about an SEC championship or even a bowl game.

What they can focus on is having a lot of firepower coming back on offense, including receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, who combined for 2,097 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Matthews could have easily left early for the NFL draft last year, but returns as one of the SEC's best receivers. A new quarterback will be taking snaps, with Austyn Carta-Samuels taking over, but he'll have a strong, deep offensive line that has a handful of players ready to rotate in and out each game.

The defensive line is strong, starting with ends May, Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike. There's more speed and experience up front than last year. There's also good depth at linebacker, starting with one of the top LBs in the league in Garnham, and quality starters in the secondary. Hal (CB) and Ladler (S) are two of the best players at their positions.

The Commodores have made tremendous strides under Franklin, and this team seems primed to take down one of the big boys in the SEC East. Vandy plays Georgia at home, while games against Florida and South Carolina are on the road. With a harmless nonconference schedule, another eight-win regular season certainly isn't out of the question for the Commodores.
We end our look at the strongest and weakest positions for all 14 SEC teams by talking about the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Strongest position: Wide receiver

The Commodores have one of the top receiving corps in the SEC. Starters Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd are among the league's best duos. Indeed, Matthews could be one of the country's best receivers entering his senior season in 2013. He has 2,282 career receiving yards and 17 touchdowns on 150 catches; more than 1,300 of those yards came last year. Matthews is the star, but Boyd is certainly no slouch -- he caught 50 passes for 774 yards and five touchdowns in his second year on the field. Behind them, the Commodores have bodies, but not a ton of production. Senior Jonathan Krause only caught nine passes last season, but he's a very athletic player who can only go up in this offense. Five receivers were a part of Vandy's recruiting class, and all of them could be in line for immediate playing time, especially Jordan Cunningham, who was an ESPN 150 member.

At defensive end, the Commodores have one of the most underrated players in the SEC in Walker May. He's a little undersized, but registered 10.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last year. He has an extremely high motor and is hard to out-work. Junior Kyle Woestmann is another under-the-radar guy, but had five sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles last year. And sophomore Caleb Azubike could be a budding star in this league. He's rangy, fast and athletic and is coming off of a four-sack season. He had a great spring and should see the field even more this fall.

Weakest position: Tight end

Commodores coach James Franklin was very worried about tight end heading into spring, during spring and after spring. There were only three tight ends on the roster this spring, and the staff was never fully satisfied with their consistency -- or lack thereof. Kris Kentera led Vandy's tight ends with 10 catches last year, but redshirt sophomore Steven Scheu, who caught eight passes in 2012, has what it takes to grab the starting spot this fall. Then there's junior Dillon van der Wal, who has played primarily on special teams and as a backup tight end. He has yet to catch a pass during his career. Options really are limited for Franklin and his staff here. Finding someone to take the reins at this position is the first order of business for the fall.

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