Vanderbilt football coach Derek Mason was full of energy after his 3-9 debut year in 2014, and now he’s coming off his first bowl game with 16 of 22 starters returning.
Mason’s Commodores upset Georgia and Tennessee last year on their way to a 6-6 regular season, but they fell flat in a 41-17 loss to North Carolina State at the Independence Bowl. Vanderbilt held a “Spring Showcase” this past weekend and is down to just two more spring practices, which are scheduled for Wednesday and Friday.
“Getting to a new place and not necessarily getting what you want leaves you hungry, and this group is hungry,” Mason told reporters Saturday. “They’re mad and upset that they didn’t win the bowl game, so they want to grab what there is to grab. The foundation has been laid, and we just need to put good work on top of good work.”
Vanderbilt is the lone Southeastern Conference program not conducting a spring game this year, but Mason said his Commodores have been getting 65 to 72 snaps in most of their practices.
Senior tailback Ralph Webb was held out of Saturday’s showcase, with Mason explaiming, “I know who that dude is.” Webb rushed for 1,283 yards and 5.1 yards per carry last season and is the school’s all-time leading rusher.
With Webb out, redshirt junior Khari Blasingame took the opportunity to shine, reeling off a 53-yard touchdown run. Blasingame rushed for 449 yards and 4.6 per carry a year ago.
“Khari’s energy is infectious, and he brings a different mentality to that side of the ball in terms of who he is and what he is,” Mason said. “With him and Ralph Webb, our entire running-back crew is pushing the envelope in terms of our physicality and what we need to be offensively. I like where we are right now.”
Said Blasingame: “We have a culture of competition in that room.”
Mason liked what he saw out of the running game Saturday and said the short passing game was improved but still needed some cleaning up. Junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur completed 7 of 13 passes for 88 yards.
Shurmur threw for 2,409 yards last season, completing 204 of 375 attempts but posting just nine touchdowns against 10 interceptions.
“I think we’ve gotten better these last three weeks for sure,” Shurmur told reporters. “We have the ability to do some great things. We showed a lot of great things last year, but it’s a matter of those waves of ups and downs. We need to show consistently that we can play at a high level.”
Mason praised Shurmur for his leadership this spring and said he can be effective later this year under center or in the shotgun.
Senior cornerback Tre Herndon, the former East Hamilton High standout, had four tackles during the showcase and blocked a field-goal try. Mason singled out senior defensive tackle Nifae Lealao as the defender who most often has introduced himself to the offensive backfield.
Vanderbilt opens its season Sept. 2 at Middle Tennessee State, a team the Commodores thumped 47-24 last September in Nashville, and Mason is not lacking for excitement more than five months out.
“This will be the first junior-senior football team I’ve had,” he said. “They’re confident, and I’m confident. The energy has been good, and everybody understands where we want to go.”
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.