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Derek Mason, Vanderbilt Needs Time to Work Through Growing Pains

Vanderbilt was the SEC’s worst team in 2014. Derek Mason’s career in Nashville started with a 37-7 upset by Temple in the team’s home opener and saw little success otherwise.

The Commodores went 3-9 and finished winless in SEC games. The team was atrocious in several areas, but the biggest was its offense.

Vanderbilt ranked last among SEC teams in total offense with 288.3 yards per game. The highest ranked team, Mississippi State, averaged 513.8, while no other team averaged below 300 yards.

Unsurprisingly, this lead to the Commodores also ranking last in scoring offense with an average of 17.2 points per game. Again, no SEC team averaged less than 27.6. Vanderbilt’s offense was held out of the end zone in four games including its first two of the season.

The Commodores’ offensive lapses fall on the team’s inability to find a consistent quarterback. The team made more than 10 quarterback changes — including starting all four players on its roster — even before finishing half of its schedule.

But the expectations for Mason’s first season may have been skewered due to the team’s recent success. For years, Vanderbilt was a doormat in the SEC.

But upon former head coach James Franklin’s arrival, the team became competitive. Franklin led the Commodores to three consecutive bowl appearances, which included back-to-back nine-win seasons and three years of finishing fourth in the SEC East.

Sure, the former Maryland offensive coordinator found immediate success, but also had a far superior team than what he left Mason. Franklin had the likes of Jordan Matthews — the program’s most prolific wide receiver — Zac Stacy and several other veterans that would eventually make NFL rosters, as well as several SEC East opponents facing down years.

But like many of his departing players, the Pennsylvania native left Nashville for his “dream job” at Penn State following Bill O’Brien’s sudden move to the NFL. Franklin also made it his mission to pillage the recruiting class he helped build for the Commodores and sway several commits to the Nittany Lions.

So Mason, who agreed to terms with Vanderbilt several weeks after Franklin’s departure, was left with a depleted roster and recruiting class just weeks before National Signing Day. He managed to sign some under the radar talent and was forced to play an inexperienced roster during his debut several months later.

Sure, Vanderbilt’s season was a disaster, but several players showed promise, mainly redshirt freshmen Nigel Bowden and Ralph Webb. Bowden led all SEC freshmen with 78 tackles and was the first freshman to lead the Commodores since All-American Jamie Winborn in 1998. He also became the first Vanderbilt linebacker voted to the freshman All-SEC team since Chris Marve in 2008.

Webb was, by all accounts, the only consistent offensive option for the Commodores. The Gainesville, Florida native set the Vanderbilt freshman rushing record with 907 yards and four touchdowns on 212 carries. Webb ranked ninth among SEC players in rushing yards and third among freshmen. He also averaged 4.28 yards per attempt, despite carrying the load of the SEC’s worst offensive unit.

25 October 2014: Vanderbilt Commodores quarterback Johnny McCrary (2) in action  at Memorial Stadium at Faurot Field, in Columbia, Mo. Missouri beat Vanderbilt 24-14.

25 October 2014: Vanderbilt Commodores quarterback Johnny McCrary (2) in action at Memorial Stadium at Faurot Field, in Columbia, Mo. Missouri beat Vanderbilt 24-14.

Vanderbilt also saw signs of potential from Johnny McCrary, who tied Jay Cutler and Bill Wade’s single-game passing touchdown record (5) against Old Dominion. McCrary is a dual-threat passer who should see improvement in his confidence and consistency should he re-earn the starting job this fall.

The Commodores won’t enter 2015 with high expectations but should follow the old montra of “it can’t get much worse.” The team had a good offseason by hiring new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who coached Melvin Gordin to a rushing title at Wisconsin. His scheme should work well for Vanderbilt as it plans to use Webb as its feature back.

Mason also took over as defensive coordinator. After a disappointing debut season, he’ll return back to his comfort zone where he excelled enough at Stanford to earn a head coaching job in the first place.

Vanderbilt also hired former Nebraska strength and conditioning coach James Dobson, who has already made the roster “look like an SEC team,” according to Mason. Dobson helped Nebraska rank No. 22 by the coaches and No. 25 in the Associated Press when he was hired by Vanderbilt on Dec. 22. The Huskers appeared in a bowl game and were one of three teams — Alabama and Oregon — to post at least nine wins in each of his seven seasons with the program.

The Commodores have a long road back to being a competitive team but the fan base needs to have patience. Vanderbilt doesn’t have the luxury of facing the down Tennessee and Kentucky teams it did during Mason’s tenure as both programs have improved since their coaching hires in 2012.

But the Commodores should see improvement from last season’s debacle and could surprise some teams in 2015. However, the bigger picture is Mason’s plan for long-term success and fans must allow the team to work through its early growing pains to see success.

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