It was a joyous end to the month of November for Vanderbilt last season. But the Commodores, who made it to their first bowl game under coach Derek Mason last year, are still a major work in progress.
But there is optimism in Nashville. Mason still has some bite to his defense, but the next step is finding some positive continuity on offense.
Here are three things to keep an eye on during Vandy's practice this spring.
1. Kyle Shurmur's development. Right off the bat, you knew this was at the top of Vandy's to-do list in 2017. Shurmur was brought in to be the mainstay at quarterback for the Commodores. After a rocky start, he proved himself more by showing some of that potential toward the end of last season that the Commodores were thirsting for when he signed in 2015.
Shurmur closed the 2016 regular season by throwing for at least 200 yards in his last four games after hitting that mark just once in his previous eight games. Then, he turned right around and completed just 41.3 percent of his passes and chucked three interceptions in blowout bowl-game loss to NC State.
The rising junior must be more efficient going forward. His accuracy and his decision-making must improve. Eight other starters are back, and Shurmur has to help them take the necessary steps forward in order to keep this team trending in the right direction because as Shurmur goes, the Commodores go.
2. How do the Commodores coach around not having Zach Cunningham? This is such a tall task. Cunningham alone registered an SEC-high 125 tackles, had 16.5 tackles for loss, forced two fumbles and blocked a field goal attempt. That's a lot to ask a couple of people to recreate, let alone one player.
Veteran Oren Burks is back, and is the Commodores' most versatile weapon at the position. Burks, who had 59 tackles, 6.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks last season, plays that hybrid Star position so he'll have the best chance to be that jack-of-all-trades player that made Cunningham so deadly.
But Burks isn't Cunningham, and he'll need help. Upperclassmen Jordan Griffin, who played in all 13 games last season and had 21 tackles, and Charles Wright, who played in 12 games last year, are two guys to keep an eye on this spring, as their roles expand. The Dores lost Landon Stokes at linebacker, but youngsters Jay Hockaday and Caleb Peart, along with early enrollee Dimitri Moore will get reps at linebacker this spring.
3. Will Mason find effective pass-rushers? Mason's decision to also head the defense was certainly a good move. Now, he has to fine-tune some things, and one big need of his is to find effective pass-rushers. The Commodores were last in the SEC with 15 sacks and registered only 68 tackles for loss in 2016. Vandy's leading sack artist was lineman Adam Butler (four), who has run out of eligibility.
Jonathan Wynn, Dare Odeyingbo and Nifae Lealao provide a good base up front, but the hope is that Jay Woods will be more of a force in the interior. A host of youngsters, like Drew Birchmeier, Josiah Sa'o and Cameron Tidd, will get their shots to help as well this year.