Vanderbilt Commodores position battles

Defensive lineman Caleb Azubike is among Vanderbilt's returning starters up front. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

This week on the SEC blog, we will be breaking down the top position battles at each school as we approach the beginning of the season. Today, we start with the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Quarterback: After what happened a year ago, finding a quarterback should be priority No. 1 for Derek Mason and the coaching staff. Vanderbilt rotated players all season and never seemed to find any stability at the position. It was a disaster on the field. The second-year coach sounds like he’s learned from his mistakes, claiming that whoever wins the job before the season will be the guy. "There will be a starter, and there will be a backup. That’s clear." The main competitors are Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck, though Mason did allude to a young quarterback, presumably freshman Kyle Shurmur, who is also taking reps. McCrary might have a slight advantage, having played the most last season. He went 78 of 152 for 985 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions in seven games. The key, though, for whoever wins the job will be consistency and eliminating mistakes.

Wide receiver: What good is the quarterback without having weapons to throw the ball to? And Vanderbilt’s wide receiver corps took a major hit last week when C.J. Duncan, the team’s leading receiver from a year ago, went down with a lower-leg injury that is expected to sideline him for the entire 2015 season. The injury left the Commodores thin on experience, but they still have options. Latevius Rayford, who actually caught more passes than Duncan last season, is back and will likely be the team’s top target. Trent Sherfield and Darrius Sims are both expected to play a much bigger in Vanderbilt’s passing attack this fall. Sherfield backed up running back Ralph Webb last season, but new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig wants to get him out in space and use him more as a wide receiver. And Sims, a former defensive back who also returned kicks a year ago, is one of the fastest players on the team.

Defensive tackle: This is a difficult position to examine because Vanderbilt’s 3-4 defense typically has a nose guard, a tackle and an end up front. However, most of the defensive linemen are versatile enough to move around and play different spots. The first priority will be finding a replacement for Vince Taylor, the team’s nose guard last season, and sophomore Nifae Lealao has the inside track. At 6-foot-5, 320 pounds, he certainly looks the part. And as one of just two ESPN 300 recruits in Mason’s first recruiting class, he has the pedigree, too. But with starters Caleb Azubike and Adam Butler both returning and the emergence of Jay Woods, there is a surplus of defensive lineman. Who plays where? Who starts? What will the rotation look like? At this point, it’s safe to say all four players will play a decent amount regardless of who starts the game. But as the season approaches, they are all fighting for more reps.