We complete this SEC preview series with the Commodores, whose offensive struggles and 4-8 record meant not a great deal of attention and focus on them, but they had one of the better defenses in the country last season and have a number of talented players very much worth watching in 2016 in Derek Mason’s third season in charge.
THE TOP 5
Zach Cunningham, rJr, LB, #41 – 6ft 3, 234 lbs
Which three linebackers were awarded All-SEC First Team in 2015? Most would likely be able to correctly assume Alabama’s Reggie Ragland and LSU’s Kentrell Brothers were in there; fewer would realise that Vandy sophomore Zach Cunningham completed the elite trio. The spotlight didn’t focus on the Commodores much last year and so the great season that Cunningham had went under the radar to the majority of college football fans. Even more impressive was that it came after not initially starting the first 3 games of the season, but his impact when rotating into the line-up made it clear that he should be starting, which was quickly resolved for the final 9 games of the year. It’s not like he hadn’t already shown what he could do. Similar occurred his redshirt freshman year as he started the final 5 games of 2014 and finished with an impressive 67 tackles as part of his contributions his debut year. Last season Cunningham totalled 103 tackles, a massive 16.5 tackles for loss (TFLs) for a linebacker, 4.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups and forcing 4 fumbles on an under-rated Vanderbilt defense that ranked 27th in the nation in total defense and 22nd in points allowed. Cunningham’s NFL level size and excellent production makes him a very interesting prospect to watch, and potentially a candidate to leave a year early for the 2017 draft. His strong physical tackling stands out, and as all the plays behind the line of scrimmage suggest, he is fantastic at timing his moves into the backfield. All that said, he’s not infallible as a tackler, missing the occasional chance to bring down the ball carrier. He doesn’t exactly fly around the field with great explosion, energy and intensity. His instincts can be hit or miss, guessing incorrectly in his early movements off the snap fairly often to go with the great plays. The ability in coverage is arguably not up there with the top linebacker prospects, a must for the modern game at that position. That area will be where I’ll be scrutinising his play during Vandy games in 2016 as it will significantly factor into how high a grade he warrants.
Trent Sherfield, Jr, WR, #10 – 6ft 1, 192 lbs
While Cunningham could be an early entry to the next draft, Sherfield probably won’t be. But I love his game and really looking forward to what he can do this year. He’ll be hoping for better quarterback play in order to fully showcase his skills, something that has been lacking over the past couple years, but Sherfield was still able to put up reasonable numbers last year with 51 receptions for 659 yards (12.9 average) and 3 touchdowns in a breakout year after just the four touches his freshman season in 2014. The skill set is really impressive. While not a blazer with elite speed, Sherfield really understands how to play the position, running excellent routes with great short area movement to create separation, which includes both initially off the snap, and on route breaks further down the field. His savvy play continues with how well he uses his body to position himself advantageously relative to the defensive back tracking him. His fantastic field awareness finds the spaces in a defense to be found wide open in pockets of space often. When in tight spaces, Sherfield displays great footwork to get both feet down in bounds, and of course as important as anything is the actual hands themselves which are just as impressive to high point the ball away from his body, come down with the ball in tight coverage, and even make highlight reel one handed catches on occasion. Finally, Sherfield brings a real fire and tenacity to his game, ultra-competitive. He may not have great measurables, looking a little smaller than his listed size, and the top end speed question previously mentioned, but he’s got the rest that despite the team’s offensive struggles overall saw him added to the Biletnikoff watch list (for the nation’s best receiver) last season with his play. Whether he’s a guy for the 2017 or the 2018 draft, he’s a great receiver and one to get to know and enjoy watching.
Adam Butler, rSr, DL, #69 – 6ft 4, 301 lbs
The best senior on this roster, as I see it, is a guy who I’ve not seen discussed much for his next level potential as yet, so might be just under the radar, or maybe I’m just alone in that thought right now (entirely possible). None the less, I see something, so we shall see. Butler has NFL size, that’s for sure, plus the strength within that big body. He combines that with being quick off the snap then using his hands well to create some disruption. His powerful push regular forces his opponent backward into the pocket, and has totalled an impressive 20.5 TFLs over his first three seasons from that interior position, as well as 5.5 sacks the past two years, all despite being part of a regular rotation that limited his snaps somewhat. Add in a very good character off the field and good special teams impact as well (blocking 3 kicks in his college career so far), and there’s a lot to like. However, while the backfield stats are good, just 18 tackles in 2015 is a low number for someone of his calibre against the run, and needs to improve in his final season to sell his case for NFL scouts. He has done it in the past, with a far better 35 tackles in 2014. The rotation was referenced earlier, but even so, the regularity with which he comes back to the sidelines during a game might raise a question of his overall conditioning at the moment. While he’s tough to move at the line of scrimmage, Butler can on occasion over-lunge too much on some rush attempts, getting off balance. Overall though, there looks to be enough traits to work with at the NFL level to get a shot and potentially add on day three of the draft.
Ralph Webb, rJr, RB, #26 – 5ft 10, 200 lbs
More junior talent, and as a running back with quite a large number of carries already in his first two years in college, has to automatically be considered for early draft entry, where too many touches is generally considered a negative to a runner’s draft stock. And after 222 touches as a freshman then 301 last year as a sophomore, it would not be a surprise to see him have his highest number of carries in 2016 as the focal point of this offensive again, given the issues recently of getting an effective pass game going. Webb has been another fantastic and under-rated player in the SEC on this Commodores team, a workhorse back who churned out 1,152 yards on the ground, and 7 total scores (including the 2 receiving). While the yards per carry isn’t anything standout at 4.16, he’s been an exciting, creative and explosive back with some very impressive runs. That versatility sees him produce out on the edge, up the middle, and as a very reliable receiver out of the backfield. Webb isn’t the biggest RB but he plays bigger than he is, incredibly tough, engaging the defense head on, lowering his shoulder and giving a hit rather than simply taking them. His effort on each and every carry clearly stands out, and sees him regularly pumping his legs to gain extra yards after contact or breaking free from would-be tackles. As well as that tough running style, he has the burst of acceleration when hitting through running lanes onto the second level. As with Butler discussed earlier, Webb is another with both the intelligence and high character that coaches will love. Expect another big junior season from Webb in 2016, the only question is whether it will be his final season before heading to the pros.
Torren McGaster, rSr, CB/S, #5 – 5ft 11, 196 lbs
Back to the senior class, and again it is the defense where the top veterans are found on this Vanderbilt squad. They have a good one at corner in McGaster with heaps of experience having started 22 games over the past two seasons while also playing in all 13 games during his redshirt freshman season back in 2013. One of McGaster’s best traits is his very impressive physicality that he brings to his game, and when that is looked at in combination with arguably his biggest question mark, being his deep speed, there might be consideration to a future as a big nickel / 3rd safety role at the next level. Regardless of where he lines up though and despite uncertainty about the speed, McGaster is talented in man coverage that saw him total 13 pass breakups last season, tied for third best in the conference, and though he didn’t pick any of those off, has done it before with two interceptions the previous year in 2014. Over the past two seasons, he’s piled up a fantastic 117 tackles with his run support. He’s an impact playmaker and while he’ll need to prove he has sufficient pace, could be worth a late round selection toward the end of the 2017 draft.
OTHER PROSPECTS TO WATCH
Andrew Jelks, rSr, OT, #50 – 6ft 6, 303 lbs
After 21 consecutive starts on the O-line, Jelks’ run was broken by a pre-season knee injury that forced him to miss the entirety of 2015. He returns to the line-up this year as a senior and will need a healthy year start to finish to have a chance to earn a look in the NFL. Durability will be a question mark, as even while starting every game in 2014, he wasn’t at full health during that time either. Length and overall size is a big plus to his game, but he doesn’t have the athleticism to go with it, slow moving that leaves him vulnerable to speed rushes off the edge. There’s limitations to go with the health questions which all make Jelks unlikely to be drafted. Right now though, he and Vanderbilt will just be glad that he’s back available for the immediate future.
Will Holden, rSr, OT, #74 – 6ft 7, 314 lbs
In Jelks’ absence, it was Holden who moved over from his previous right tackle spot over to the blindside in 2015, but should be returning to his original position again. His experience playing on both sides of the line is a positive, and as with his teammate Jelks, also boasts excellent length and build that looks the part. He’s quite well polished technically as well as a pass protector. That said, he’s another who lacks ideal movement, quickness and overall athleticism. In addition, his strength has been lacking previously, as well as not always being to most aggressive in particular with his run blocking, but he has reportedly been working to improve that this year. How much that has improved could be crucial to his chances for an NFL look after the season.
Darrius Sims, Sr, WR/CB, #6 – 5ft 9, 182 lbs
Size will hurt his chances at the next level, but Sims combats that with his dynamic playmaking ability and versatility. His best shot to make the NFL probably will rely on impressing as a special teams returner, but in college he is a triple threat as a runner, receiver and returner and back in 2014 also saw time on the other side of the ball as a cornerback, another area where he could possibly get some consideration even if again that smaller frame is an issue. Last season though, most of his touches came as a ball carrier out of the backfield, where although limited to just 43 carries he had a good average of 5.81 yards on those rush attempts. His best season as a returner came in 2014 where he took 2 kick-offs all the way back for touchdowns – a repeat of that as a senior will greatly help his cause.
Torey Agee, rSr, DL, #94 – 6ft 4, 277 lbs
Agee’s playing time increased as the 2015 season progressed. While he’s played mostly as a defensive tackle in college, he’s a little lightweight for the position and might earn the dreaded “tweener” tag where his skill set and size don’t mesh to fit ideally either outside or inside. In addition, while reliable he has a fairly low impact game that saw him total just 17 tackles, 3 TFLs and a pair of sacks last year. While he might be a long shot, he’s a solid reliable player with good strength and build, that perhaps could see him contribute as a 3-4 end.
Nehemiah Mitchell, Sr, EDGE, #44 – 6ft 4, 258 lbs
Mitchell has travelled around, spending two years at Sacramento State in the FCS, then heading to community college, before finding his way to Vanderbilt last season for his first year at this level. He began well too, starting the first 7 games of the season, before splitting reps with Landon Stokes in a rotation over the final 5 games. He finished the year with 24 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks and 1 pass breakup.
Barrett Gouger, rSr, C/OG, #54 – 6ft 4, 300 lbs
There’s plenty of senior experience on the offensive line this season for Vandy, and Gouger is another, though in terms of actually starting, 2015 was his first year doing so with 10 starts at right guard while playing in all 12 contests, after two seasons as a reserve O-lineman. He might be in for a change of position this season as well, with a possible move to the center position. While he’s a fighter in the trenches with excellent effort, Gouger doesn’t perform well in pass protection, proving to be quite beatable. He fails to fully extend his arms efficiently, allowing contact into his body to be controlled and moved by the opposing defender, and also factors into his poor anchor that sees him regularly forced back into the pocket.
JUNIORS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Nigel Bowden, rJr, LB, #52 – 6ft 1, 238 lbs
The stocky, heavily built linebacker is not as heavy as previously! With a healthier diet, Bowden has slimmed down from 260 lbs, and it should help his game. Previously his style is such that would likely limit his role at an NFL level, to almost exclusively a run defender who is going to struggle to contribute in space playing against the pass game. He’s pretty good at the former though, as a thumping, powerful tackler with strength, but who also knows how to wrap up correctly. The movement was slow before though, with Bowden unable to effectively cover to the sidelines laterally – we’ll see if there’s improvement his junior year. He’s got a tough task ahead in the immediate future though, returning after his 2015 season ended early. A concussion suffered after just two games was serious enough to end his season right there, a very concerning issue. Any long term effects of that, especially if he were to suffer another might be worrisome.
Oren Burks, rJr, S/LB, #20 – 6ft 3, 212 lbs
Burks has proved his good ball skills over his first couple seasons for the Commodores, with 13 pass breakups and 3 interceptions (1 for a pick six) over the two years, and all 3 of the picks coming last season. Despite those stats in coverage, Burks isn’t the most athletic and lacks ideal range, making questionable if he’ll be able to keep that production going at the next level. He’s in fact at his best moving downhill and playing in the box as a very aggressive physical hitter, leading to 59 tackles in 2015. He can take the aggression a bit too far after the whistle as well, getting close to taunting quite often from what I’ve seen! With 7 starts his redshirt freshman season, then starting all 12 games last year, he’s building good experience.
Nifae LeaLao, Jr, DL, #77 – 6ft 5, 320 lbs
LeaLao has a massive frame which certainly is his biggest asset and uses it to his advantage. He’s not notably explosive or quick, more of a space eater to open up opportunities for his teammates than to make plays himself, not one to offer any real interior pass rush threat of his own. He’s a solid player though and improved as his sophomore season progressed. After a reserve / rotational role early on, his play time increased, and earned four starts late in the year. Not a guy to make a splash on the stat sheet, LeaLao finished 2015 with 18 tackles, 1 TFL and 1 special teams block.
Arnold Tarpley, Jr, CB/S, #2 – 6ft 0, 209 lbs
Playing primarily in the slot, Tarpley earned 7 starts last season while playing in all 12 games (6 at nickel, 1 at strong safety), as well as contributing on special teams. A solid all-rounder, he makes most of his plays around the intermediate, 2nd level of the field and closer to the line of scrimmage than he does back in the deeper third. His versatility to do a little bit of everything however, is reflected in his production, contributing 36 tackles, 5 TFLs, 2 sacks, and 3 pass breakups last season.
Dallas Rivers, Jr, RB, #33 – 6ft 0, 225 lbs
A bigger back than Webb, Rivers is the thumper who backs up his flashier teammate, while also frequently used as his lead blocker in more of a full back role as well. The versatility continued with a bit of work as a kick returner in the final three games of 2015. The footwork is not too bad for a bigger back. His chances to carry the ball was limited to 60 attempts last season though, and averaged just 3.05 yards be carry. Even taking into account some of the short yardage conversion situations he was used in, that mark was disappointing and he is a bit too easily contained around the line of scrimmage and doesn’t break through many tackles after contact.
C.J. Duncan, rJr, WR, #19 – 5ft 11, 200 lbs
Built more like a running back, Duncan did see various work at that position as well as both receiver and even quarterback during the year in which he redshirted in 2013. Upon hitting the field for the first time in 2014, his speed and athleticism were put to use as a receiver, and combined with some nice route running skills already developed, made some big plays along the way in that redshirt freshman season in 2014. He finished with 28 receptions for 441 yards (15.75 per catch) and 4 touchdowns. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to build on that last year, with a pre-season lower leg injury ending his 2015 campaign before It even got started. He’ll be looking to bounce back from that this season and will be a welcome addition back on the offense.
Tre Herndon, Jr, CB, #31 – 6ft 0, 172 lbs
While he has good height, Herndon was too lightweight last season and hopefully has added some needed muscle to his frame. When facing top competition, notably while faced with Treadwell last season, he struggled to match up and was tentative and unconfident looking against the imposing opponent. He’s certainly not afraid to get stuck in to run support though, with 47 tackles, along with a sack and 4 pass breakups while starting all 12 games last season. Though a decent athlete with straight line speed, Herndon is a little bit stiff in his backpedal, and when flipping his hips in transition.
Jonathan Wynn, rJr, EDGE, #49 – 6ft 3, 248 lbs
Wynn spent much of 2015 rotating with the now departed Azubike, and so might get the chance to earn more than the 4 starts he totalled. Playing both at end and as an outside linebacker, Wynn can’t be faulted on effort with a good motor along with trying to use his hands as part of his rush attempts, but hasn’t manage to produce much results from that input with 3 TFLs and 1 sack in the backfield last year, along with 21 tackles and a pass breakup.