Vanderbilt Head Football Coach Derek Mason feels like this is the best, deepest team he's had in his 5 years at the helm at VU. He likes his lines on both sides, with talent and depth, Kyle Shurmur is a top flight quarterback with NFL pedigree as his dad, Pat, is the head coach for the New York Giants, and Kyle plays like an NFL quarterback. He has an excellent arm, good accuracy and he runs better than most people think. Kyle lost Ralph Webb in his backfield, but the position is well manned heading into the opening game versus Middle Tennessee State on Saturday, September 1st at 6:30 PM CT on SEC Alternate Network.
Ke'Shawn Vaughn, the Mamba as he's known on the football team, is 5'10", 215 pounds, a redshirt junior, who transferred to VU from Illinois. The Mamba was a 4 star highly touted running back coming out of Pearl-Cohn High School in Nashville and brings both power and speed to the backfield. Coach Mason is ecstatic about Ke'Shawn. Khari Blasingame is back after having an injury filled junior season, and Khari, at 6'1", 235, also brings power and speed to the backfield. Add to those 2, Jamauri Wakefield, 6'1", 218, a stud, and Josh Crawford, 5'10", 202, along with incoming freshman Ja'Veon Marlow, 5'10", 190, and DMase has a loaded backfield. At wideout, the great Kalija LIpscomb leads the way. Kalija is 6'1", 192, and brings physicality, awesome hands and game breaking ability. We have some inexperience out there, but there is a lot of talent. Tight end will be led by Jared Pinkney, 6'4", 250, and Sam Dobbs, 6'4", 230, both excellent players. On defense, the great db's Joejuan Williams and Ladarius Wiley will lead the secondary along with outside linebacker Charles Wright (6'3", 242) and defensive end Dare Odeyingbo (6'2", 262). Josh Smith, who was a 95, 4 star coming out of high school, is ready to cut it loose his senior year at outside linebacker. Josh is 6'4", 236. New defensive coordinator Jason Tarver has the defense hungry, aggressive and ball hawking.
The schedule looks challenging as always. We open at home versus MTSU, then play Nevada, Saturday, 9-8, at 11 AM at home on SEC Network. Then we hit the road for a classic matchup with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame on Saturday, 9-15, at 1:30 PM on NBC. There is no TV scheduled yet for the rest of our games, but we'll be able to see them all. We host South Carolina in game 4, on 9-22, host Tennessee State, 9-29, we're @ Georgia on 10-6, home versus Florida on Oct. 13, then @Kentucky, 10-20, @Arkansas, 10-27, off then @ Missouri, 11-10, vs Ole Miss, 11-17, and vs Tennessee on 11-24, all Saturdays.
James Franklin told me one time that the 3 best conferences in the country are the NFC, the AFC and the SEC. I believe it. But we gotta focus on MTSU before we do anything else. They won their bowl game over Arkansas State last year, 35-31, and return a very good offense and talent on defense. So they're a tough out and are always ready to knock us off. So fall practice and Middle Tennessee are all that matter right now. Fall practice starts tomorrow at 4:20 PM CT.
I spoke with Coach Mason a while back and here's what he had to say about his 2018 team.
DW: How is this team looking?
Mason: This team is built for this quarterback, so we've got to build around him.
DW: Does 2018 look promising?
Mason: Yes. Any time you have a returning quarterback, you've got a returning offensive line and we added some key pieces and athleticism to where we are offensively, that's a good foundation. And from what I saw this spring defensively, Jason (Tarver, DC)did a really good job. He threw a lot at them. The defense is going to be aggressive. Charles Wright was gone most of the spring, (cornerback), Donovan Sheffield was gone during most of the spring, and they'll be back. Our interior defensive line looks good, linebackers got a lot of reps, and I do believe those young inside backers, even though they're young, they're athletic. Besides Jordan Griffin and Andrew Rector, the veterans, the guys are 230 plus, they can rush and they're long. LaDarius Wiley has been a great leader in the secondary, Joejuan Williams, those guys need to compete opposite Joejuan and opposite Ladarius to see who'll run the ship. We've got a lot of guys who've gotten reps and played, guys like Tae Dailey, Zaire Jones, Austin Quillen. Everybody thinks we've lost a lot of players, but we have a lot of players who've been in the system a while. I always say that football is a junior-senior sport, and that's what we had last year. But we've got some experience back overall this year too.
DW: I know you're excited about Kyle (Shurmur). What kind of season do you expect out of him?
Mason: I think he's one of the best quarterbacks in college football that nobody has been talking about. Because he'll put up numbers comparable to a lot of guys in terms of the efficiency rating, what he does in the red zone. I truly believe this offense is going to thrive with Kyle. He's got a great guy pushing him in Deuce Wallace. They're going at it. That's been a great thing to see. Two really good friends and two competitors really pushing one another. This is Kyle's football team and it has been for a while, but Deuce made it known and apparent that he's more than capable of stepping in and putting up good numbers as well. It starts with the quarterback, and again, I think we have one of the best in the country. And we need to make sure the run game and the people around him can show up.
DW: What does Deuce bring to the table? (Kyle is 6'4", 225 and Deuce is 6'2", 205)
Mason: He's got a tremendous football IQ, good arm talent and he's got an ability to extend a play. Kyle had to learn how to extend plays, because he played from the pocket. Deuce can play under center, in the gun, he gives you some different dimensions. Unlike most quarterbacks today, if they're not starting, they're transferring. But Deuce is learning the system much like Kyle has and it's been Kyle and Deuce. Both have great command of the system. I'm glad we've got 2 great quarterbacks, who can put up good numbers. That's the way we want to go.
DW: You have freshman (quarterback) Allan Walters coming in (6'1", 203, 5.7 3 star). What do you like about him?
Mason: Allan, again, he's a talented passer, he's got tremendous arm strength, he knows how to read progressions, he can play from under center and has the ability to extend plays. He can do RPO's (run pass option). He can put the ball where it needs to be and in a conference like this where you get tight coverage, and the balls always going to be contested, you gotta have quarterbacks who can throw in rhythm, on time and hit moving targets.
DW: Does he have good running skills.
Mason: Yes, that's why Allen was one of the top passers coming out of the 18 class. He has a tremendous ability to extend plays. Is Josh Rosen (former UCLA) a runner? No. Is the kid from USC (Sam Darnold) a good runner? No. But they can extend plays (both now in the NFL). That's what you're talking about that a quarterback has to do. It's not just about running the football, it's about extending the play. Can you handle the pocket and deliver the football, or tuck it and run and get 8 yards.
DW: I know you're excited about the running backs with the Mamba, and the wide receivers led by Kalija Lipscomb. Can you talk about the running backs and wide receivers?
Mason; For our running backs, Khari Blasingame is the elder statesman of the group. He's a guy who had a breakout year in 2016, but not as productive in 2017, but he's at a great playing weight at 222-223, he looks great. We saw him in the spring game take a counter to the end zone. Khari's a different back. He can play between the tackles, he can get on the outside, he's a good receiver and he's good in pass pro (blocking). So he's 3 dimensional. When you talk about the Mamba, he's a complete back. Ke'Shawn Vaughn is really what Vanderbilt and the city of Nashville has been waiting for. He's the heir apparent to Ralph Webb. Ralph did a lot of great things here, but when you look at this stable of running backs, Ke'Shawn can run by you, he can run over you, there aren't too many things he can't do. The guy who really caught people's eye in the spring game was Jamauri Wakefield. I've got 3 tailbacks that are all 220, they've all got different dimensions, and bring different things to the table. It just gives us flexibility to use different backs on the field. They all have great ability. I just like who this running back group is. And we really haven't touched on Josh Crawford. I think Josh has the best hands of the group. He sort of reminds me of the backs in New England. Every time he touches the football he gets 5 yards a carry. And when you look as his ability to play outside. This may be the most versatile running back corps to come to Vanderbilt in 30 years.
DW: What about the wide receivers, you have Kalija and Alex Stump (6'3", 210, transfer from Ohio State). What about those guys?
Mason: Everybody has seen Kalija grow up in front of us. He was productive as a freshman. In 2017, he was productive. This guy knows he'll be the center of the defense's attention, but he's still able to produce. I don't care what other teams are going to do because of the depth of our wide receiver corps. Chris Pierce (6'4",208, sophomore) had a phenomenal spring. James Bostic (6'4", 208, sophomore) had a phenomenal spring. We've seen the emergence of Alex Stump (4 star out of high school). The last 2 weeks of spring ball, Alex Stump played like the dude I expected when he came in. He can move the chains, he's big, he's good in the slot. He's willing to block. He can work the middle like a tight end, and he's a matchup problem for a linebacker. You talk about Bostic, 6'4", 6'4" with Pierce, and 6'3", with Stump. We're a much different team then we were in 2016. These 3 guys, Kalija has great hands, but these other guys have long catch radiuses. That's what we saw in the spring. These guys can make tough catches, contested catches. So if they double Kalija, we'll have to make'em pay.
DW: Coach how is Jackson Winrow developing. Is he going to be a player for us? (6'1", 185 sophomore whose high school film was off the charts good)
Mason: He and Trey Ellis will have to give us quality snaps. I saw Jackson look more like a receiver. Cortez Hankton did a good job of developing these guys, but Coach (Aaron) Moorehead (first year from Texas A&M) has been able to fine tune these guys. He's helped them understand the idea that if you want playing time, you'll have to play multiple positions. If you can't play more than one position, you'll have a hard time getting on the bus.
DW: Tight end you have Jared and some others. You feel good about this group?
Mason: Jared is a terrific player. But I want to go back to receiver and talk about C.J. Bolar (6'2", 185, 5.7, 3 star freshman from Purvis, MS. who was an early enrollee). You've got people talking around here about Earl Bennett. There's been more than a fair share of guys at practice including Jay Cutler and they're like, Wow, he's got it. He's an incoming freshman who made a big impact this spring. He gained 10 pounds this spring to go from 175 to 185, He can run. He's more on the line of Kalija Lipscomb. This is a group that can make an impact, but they need to grow up fast.
Back to our tight ends, Pinkney, Sam Dobbs, Cody Markel. I think this group did a really good job of coming a long way. Dobbs was hurt, Pinkney had some injuries this spring, but I look at this group and they're ready. They're ready because they're older now. Sam Dobbs is finally above 240. Pink is around 260, and he's a problem. He's a matchup problem. The guy who caught people's eye was Ben Breshahan, the true freshman ( early enrollee 6'4", 225, 5.6 3 star from Cumming, GA.).
DW: What do you like about Ben?
Mason: These guys all cause you problems. He can play on the line or off the line. When he's flexing, he's no different from Alex Stump. He's too big for safeties and too fast for backers. That, plus incoming freshman Gavin Schoenwald (6'5", 220, 5.6, 3 star from Brentwood Academy in Nashville). These tight ends will make this offense go. We've got guys who can give matchups inside and create 1 on 1 matchups outside. And when they cover, we can run it down their throats. This receivers group is a talented group (along with the tight ends).
DW: I know you like your offensive line. Who do you consider your leaders?
Mason: You've got guys who've played a lot of football. It starts with Bruno (Reagan, senior center, 6'3", 315). And then you go out to Justin Skule (left tackle, 6'6", 310), then you go back to the right side and Devin Cochran (right tackle, 6'7", 305). You have guys who've gotten a lot of playing time and you gotta feel good about that. Then you have Cole Clemens (6'6", 305, sophomore), Bryce Bailey (6'5", 305) who are chasing Justin and Devin. Saige Young (6'4", 320 guard). This dude, watching him in the weight room this morning, we haven't had a guard like him in a while. At 320 pounds, extremely athletic, 30+" vertical jump. He was learning how to play in this system a year ago. Now he's healthy after being hurt some of the spring, and he's athletic. Him and Egidio DallaRipa (6'4", 295) and Jared Southers (6'4", 310) are battling and that will give us more depth all the way around. Looking at this group from a year ago, they look ready, and they're going to lead the way. It's a line of scrimmage league and you've got to be able to move people up front.
DW: I know you're excited to have Jason Tarver on your defense. How much has it helped you to have Jason Tarver as your defensive coordinator? (Tarver came to VU from the NFL and was a co dc with Mason at Stanford in 2011).
Mason: He's been unbelievable. Jason's done a great job of rallying the troops quickly. The defense isn't different. The defense is very much in line with where I'd like to see this defense go. It's attacking, aggressive. This will be the first time I've been here where we've had a rolling group of 3 deep on the interior line. You're leaning on guys and they're pushing you. We're playing to the strengths of each of these guys. It's going to be an attacking defense and it starts up front. I'm truly excited about what Jason is bringing to the table. We're looking like we need to look.
DW: Do you like your personnel up front?
Mason: I do. It starts with Dare and Dayo (Odeyingbo, Dare's little brother, 6'6, 250, if you want to call him little). You look at what Cameron Tidd (6'3", 290) and what Drew Birchmeier (6'4", 290) are now. They are players now at 300 pounds who look like the Kansas State team we played a year ago. Big, strong, athletic dudes who can keep pressure off our linebackers. We couldn't do that a year ago. You add in a Darion DeBrossard (6'4", 295) a Josiah (Sa'o, 6'2", 298). And Stone Edwards (6'5", 245). He's grown into a monster (at defensive end). I like the length, athleticism. You add a Jonah (Buchanan, 6'4, 270 defensive end). We've just got more bodies. It's going to be good to see what this defensive line can do. We're going to roll them around so they don't wear down.
DW: Sounds like you've got pretty good depth there.
Mason: We do.
DW: Inside and outside linebackers sounds like you're pretty excited about them. Talk about that personnel group.
Mason: Coach (Chris) Marve is handling the inside backers. He's been fortunate with Stephen Weatherly three years ago, Zach (Cunningham) a couple of years ago and Oren (Burks, all 3 are in the NFL) last year. This year, Jordan Griffin is finally grown into the player we need him to be. He's 6'0", 226, he's trimmed down and has just 9% body fat. That's the best he's ever been. He's got young guys coming at him like Faleti (Afemui (6'3", 235), Brayden DeVault-Smith (6'3",215), Dmitiri Moore missed part of spring but he's sitting now at 231 pounds. Now we're adding Alston Orji (incoming freshman, 6'2", 216, 5.9 4 star) who's going to make an impact right away. These guys are all competing for playing time. I thought they played a little more down hill in the spring, they understood coverage better and we played well collectively. We had one guy, Zach or Oren, but this may be the most athletic group we've had here. On the outside with Coach Tarver (coaching outside linebackers) you add Josh Smith and Charles Wright, a Michael Owusu. Caleb Peart (6'1", 235). Caleb is going to be a monster. He had a great spring. I thought he was the most improved player on the outside. Andre Mintze has really grown into himself. He's physical , his motor is high, we've just got more depth.
DW: Charles will be ready to go in the fall?
Mason: Yes, he's 248 pounds, he's got his body fat down to 11%, and the thing you see is you've seen an increase of strength in his lower body.
DW: Coach, just to backtrack a little, Cam Johnson, your 4 star incoming freshman ( from Brentwood Tennessee), he could be an impact player for you too at wide receiver.
Mason: We're going to get him on the field and get the ball in his hands as much as we can. When you talk about groups of guys. C.J. (Bolar, wide receiver) and Cam can do it all. We're still waiting for Donaven (Tennyson, wide out) to step up for us. He's going to be a junior. We expect him to be impactful. Cam Johnson is going to come in and challenge every one of these guys. And i'm not reaching. You're talking about somebody who's a true competitor. He wants to be on the field, he's physically ready. This city's going to stand up because we've got some guys, and Cam is one of them, who are going to make an impact and affect the return game.
DW: I know you love the secondary. You sound like you feel good about that group.
Mason: It's like anything else. They've grown up. Joejuan Williams seems like an old vet. He's a great corner. You've got LaDarius Wiley who's tremendously experienced. You've got Zaire Jones, Tae Daley played as a young guy. Donovan Sheffield has played a lot of snaps. This is his year. It is. Again, when you've got a guy like Donovan and you've got Joejuan. Joejuan played lights out the last 3 games of the season. I thought he played outstanding. Now to have Elijah (Hamilton). We've got Frank Coppet back and Austin Quillen. You've got Brendan (Harris, 5.8 4 star safety 6'2", 195, Chattanooga) you've got Maxwell (Worship, 5.6 3 star safety, 6'2", 185, Fort Lauderdale). This group may be the most talented group of secondary guys to ever play here along with talented upperclassmen who've played a lot of football here. Dashaun Jerkins (6'0", 190, 5.6 3 star from Woodbridge, VA.) is going to be a good player. There's not one incoming freshman guy in the secondary who won't step on the football field and play special teams.
DW: You feel like the freshmen will be ready to play.
Mason: They will be. You look at Dashaun, he played for 4 state championships. You look at Maxwell Worship, at 200 pounds, yes they can play. B.J. Anderson is more explosive than Allan George his former teammate in high school, who's now on this team. We have more depth on this defense than we've ever had.
DW: Coach finally your kicking game. Do you feel good about those guys?
Mason: I do. Javan Rice and Ryley Guay are battling it out at kicker. I feel good about those guys. Parker Thome who's coming in as a grad transfer (from Columbia University) was an All Ivy League punter. He was a second team All American. He'll punt the ball lights out. Looking at our long snappers, I feel good about them.
DW: Who will return punts and kicks?
Mason: We're talking about Cam, we're talking about Kalija, we're talking about Mamba. We're going to put Jamauri back there. Any one of these guys can make a house call.
DW: Sounds like you're pretty excited about this football team.
Mason: Spring ball is spring ball. We've gone against each other. We haven't gone against anybody. We're a football team that's coming off a 5-7 record where we let games get away. You are what your resume says you are until you do something different. So let's go out here and make this football team will be big on a big stage and get our minds set on MTSU.
DW: What about MTSU. They're pretty dangerour.
Mason: They are. They have a really good quarterback. They've been to four consecutive bowl games. Coach Stockstill knows what he's doing down there. But on my staff, this is the best staff I've had since I've been here. To lose (wide receivers coach) Cortez Hankton (to Georgia) and get Aaron Moorehead (from Texas A&M) to replace him, that's a tremendous get for us. He's going to make an immediate impact. Then to have Terrence Brown coaching corners, he's sent 3 corners to the NFL in the last 3 years at Washington. It speaks highly of his ability to coach. He's a rising star. You look at Coach (Shawn) Mennenga (Special teams) and with his NFL experience, he gets guys to the next level. What can I say about JT. Jason, 20 years in the NFL, 16 at San Francisco. This dude is a teacher of the highest caliber. He knows NFL football he knows college football, he knows how to move guys from where they are to where they ought to be.
DW: And the guys you have coming back, you have to feel good about them.
Mason: This is the best group I've been around. Andy Ludwig is the longest tenured offensive coordinator in college football. He knows what he wants. You look at Cam (Norcross, offensive line), Cam does a great job, and I feel really good what will happen with the quarterbacks and Gerry Gdowski and what he's done with Kyle and Deuce. And you move over to the defensive side, C.J. (Ah You, d line coach) has finally got a full deck of players. Chris Marve has his work cut out with a young group (inside linebackers) Marve is a great teacher and they love him. And then (Marc) Mattioli (safeties) is the next coming of Jason Tarver. I feel really good with this group. So now it's time to take class to the grass and translate it into wins.