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SEC spring preview: Vanderbilt

2015 record: 4-8 (2-6)

Final AP rank: N/A

2016 Way-too-early rank: N/A

2016 FPI rank: 50

Spring game date: Friday, March 25

Key losses: TE Steven Scheu, OC Spencer Pulley, DE Caleb Azubike, LB Stephen Weatherly, LB Darreon Herring, DB Andrew Williamson

Key newcomers: DB Joejuan Williams, DB Zaire Jones, OL Sean Auwae

How will Vanderbilt replace Herring and Weatherly?

As talented and as deep as Vanderbilt’s linebacking corps was a season ago, it will take a hit with the losses of Herring and Weatherly. Herring finished second on the team with 64 tackles, and Weatherly, who surprised everybody by leaving early for the NFL, was second on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss.

That’s the bad news. The good news is Zach Cunningham, the team leader in tackles (103) and tackles for loss (16.5), is back. Cunningham will try and improve on a breakout season that put him in elite company among the various All-SEC teams.

Also back are outside linebackers Nehemiah Mitchell and Landon Stokes. The two split reps opposite Weatherly during the second half of the season. It would make sense for one or the other to move over and replace Weatherly, but also keep an eye on Josh Smith. The former ESPN 300 recruit played in every game last year as a true freshman.

Replacing Herring won’t be as easy -- he was voted defensive captain by his teammates. But Nigel Bowden is expected to be healthy again after missing the majority of last season because of injury, and from a talent standpoint, he might be an upgrade.

Have the Commodores finally found a quarterback?

Head coach Derek Mason hasn’t had a solid starting quarterback since he’s been at Vanderbilt.

In Year 1, he rotated between Patton Robinette, Johnny McCrary, Wade Freebeck and Stephen Rivers, hoping to find the right guy. He never did. The quartet combined to throw 19 interceptions and completed just 50 percent.

Last season, Mason began the season with McCrary at quarterback and was adamant about sticking with him. His plan lasted all of six games. That’s when he turned the offense over to Kyle Shurmur, giving the true freshman his first career start against Missouri. Shurmur helped lead the Commodores to a 10-3 win and went on to see action in five of the team’s final six games, finishing with five touchdowns to three interceptions.

It was the best a Vanderbilt quarterback had played since 2013, and it was enough for McCrary to see the writing on the wall. He transferred in the offseason. That means, in all likelihood, Shurmur is the guy for the Commodores in 2016. Now he just has to go out and prove it this spring as he fights to earn the starting job.

How will the return of Andrew Jelks affect the offensive line?

The key newcomers listed above are three incoming freshmen who could all make contributions this coming season, but the most influential "newcomer" for Vanderbilt is not a newcomer at all. It’s Jelks.

The redshirt senior will be a new addition to the starting lineup after he missed all of last season because of injury, but it wasn’t long ago when he was considered one of the best offensive linemen in the SEC. He was named to the SEC All-Freshman team in 2013, and he started all 12 games at left tackle for the Commodores in 2014.

Then he suffered a knee injury last August which forced him to miss the entire 2015 season.

Now, six months later, Jelks is healthy again and ready for when the Commodores open spring practice Monday. The question is where does he fit in? Does he return to left tackle, where Will Holden started all 12 games in his absence? Or will the coaches try him somewhere else on the line? Either way, when healthy, Jelks is arguably the team’s top lineman. His return will be a huge lift.