Confident Vanderbilt team awaits Gamecocks in season opener

Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason returns 18 starters for a 2016 season that opens Sept. 1 against South Carolina. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

COLUMBIA — Over the past two years, they’ve tried five different starting quarterbacks and made eight changes to the coaching staff. But the Vanderbilt team that hosts South Carolina to open this football season may have at last found a degree of consistency — and with it, confidence.

The Commodores’ defense seemed to hit its stride last year, after head coach Derek Mason also assumed the duties of defensive coordinator, the position he filled at Stanford before taking the job in Nashville. And Vanderbilt also has a clear-cut No. 1 quarterback to open the season, something that’s been sorely lacking in each of Mason’s first two years.

Combine that with 18 returning starters and 56 returning lettermen, and it’s easy to see why the Commodores might be feeling confident about that Sept. 1 opener against the Gamecocks at Vanderbilt Stadium.

“It’s a huge momentum-builder once we get that win,” junior safety Oren Burks said last week at SEC Media Days, when asked about the opener against USC. “You can only tell on a week-by-week basis, so we’re going to take it one game at a time.”

Having an established quarterback certainly helps. Over Mason’s first two years, the Commodores tried Patton Robinette, Stephen Rivers, Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary and Kyle Shurmur behind center, finally finding some consistency last season with Shurmur, who as a freshman made five starts and engineered victories over Kentucky and Missouri.

Mason named the Philadelphia native his starter to open the season. Tailback Ralph Webb said the sophomore was a “a vocal leader” in the spring who showed he could take command of the offense. Questions at quarterback have dogged an offense with a standout rusher in Webb, who ran for 1,152 yards last season.

“It means a lot,” Webb said, when asked about having a starter in place. “It allows us to have a bond with Kyle, have that chemistry, have that timing down. It also eliminates the distractions of not knowing who your quarterback is going to be. It definitely solidifies that so we can move on and progress.”

That void was notable last season, when Mason said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig had to work “around the quarterback” given the lack of production behind center. An able Shurmur could ideally open up more options for Webb, whom the head coach wants to see become more multi-dimensional as a player.

On the other side of the ball, Mason admits “people sort of looked at me a year ago and thought that I was kind of crazy” for taking over the defensive calls, something not normally performed by a head coach. “But that’s my wheelhouse,” he added, and the result was a series of low-scoring grinders like the 19-10 loss at South Carolina the week of Steve Spurrier’s resignation.

Although Vandy suffered year-end blowouts at the hands of bowl-bound Texas A&M and Tennessee, the Commodores under Mason finished sixth in in the SEC in both scoring and total defense, notable improvements after placing last and 10th in those respective categories a year earlier. The head coach will fill those dual roles again this season.

“I think the group has benefitted,” Mason said of taking over the defensive reins. “ I’m going to continue to stay in that role as long as I need to until I find somebody suitable to take it over.”

Vanderbilt last season finished 4-8 overall and 2-6 in the SEC, good enough to tie Kentucky for fourth in the SEC East. The Commodores were projected to finish fifth in the division in a preseason Media Days poll, but clearly see themselves as capable of more.

“This football team knows how to compete, OK? It’s not about competing anymore,” Mason said. “It’s about winning.”

That quest begins Sept. 1, in an opener against South Carolina.

“That game will be really important for us — just showing in the first game what we have been working on, training hard, getting together, getting onto the field, watching film on them basically every week,” said junior linebacker Zach Cunningham. “We’re getting prepared to show what we can do and give the fans something to look forward to.”