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.
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.