By John Davis, Oxford Citizen
Vanderbilt’s success the last two seasons under James Franklin revolved around the Commodores being balanced on offense and productive, if not spectacular, on defense.
The Commodores won 18 games overall and nine games in the SEC as a result of the formula, and now Franklin resides at Penn State. On defense, Vandy allowed 24.6 points and 354.8 yards per game but garnered 30 turnovers.
Vanderbilt scored 34 touchdowns on the ground in 2013, one year after producing 25 on the ground in 2012.
Even though Franklin isn’t leading the team any longer, similar stats from the Commodores are possible this season.
Derek Mason, former defensive coordinator at Stanford, inherits a roster that has a stable of running backs and some experience on defense.
Vanderbilt lost 13 starters from a team that went 9-4 and won the BBVA Compass Bowl, but two of its top three running backs from last season — Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow — return.
Seymour rushed for 716 yards and led the Commodores with 14 touchdowns on the ground.
Kimbrow, who was heavily recruited by Ole Miss coming out of high school, finished with 341 yards and three touchdowns.
The bad news for the offense is a lack of experience at wide receiver. Jordan Matthews caught 112 of the team’s 243 catches last year. He also had seven of the 15 touchdowns thrown by quarterbacks. He is now playing in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles. The top returning pass catcher for the Commodores is actually the top returning rusher, Seymour, who finished with 19 receptions.
Coming out of the spring, Patton Robinette looked to have a slight lead on being the starting quarterback, but it was obvious that redshirt freshman Johnny McCray pushed Robinette in the spring and likely will continue at the start of summer drills.
Robinette played in 10 games last season, completing just 52.3 percent of his passes for 642 yards. He had more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4).
Mason installed a new 3-4 scheme on defense, which in theory, is supposed to allow his former defensive ends that have turned into outside linebackers more freedom to rush opposing quarterbacks.
Mason called his outside backers “soft” following the spring game in April, and he felt like his defensive line needed improvement, especially against the run.
“The premise of this defense is always going to be to stop the run so we can earn the right to rush the passer,” Mason said in his post-spring comments. “When it’s time to pin your ears back, they’ll pin their ears back, but you’ve got to earn that.”
Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann are the two starting defensive ends that have moved outside for the Commodores. Woestmann had two sacks against Ole Miss last season and ended up leading the team with six sacks. Azubike finished tied for the team lead in tackles for a loss with 9.5.
Darreon Herring, who was second on the team with 84 tackles last season, returns in the middle at linebacker, as does Jake Sealand, who finished fifth on the team in tackles with 45 stops.
An area of strength resides in the leg of punter Taylor Hudson. In his first season as a starter in 2013, Hudson averaged 42.9 yards per punt, good for seventh best in the SEC, while 13 of his punts ranged 50 or more yards, good for fourth best in the conference.
Mason will have to find a replacement for Carey Spear, who made 15 of 19 field goals last season, and was a perfect 48-for-48 on extra points.
Vanderbilt opens the season Aug. 28 against Temple on the SEC Network before hosting Ole Miss at LP Field on Sept. 6.