Vanderbilt’s dealt with a laundry list of injuries this season, but senior defensive end Caleb Azubike (jawline break) and quarterback Kyle Shurmur (concussion) are no longer among the wounded.
Azubike returned against Florida after missing three games. The senior had three solo tackles and forced and recovered a fumble on a fake field goal. His presence on the field made a significant difference, according to coach Derek Mason.
“I thought Caleb brought some energy,” Mason said. “I thought he played well. He had a good week of practice. Man, we missed his experience.
“I think anytime you have a veteran that comes back that understands the game the way Caleb does — he brings experience and added value of just being in those games and having played in those games. It was huge for us on Saturday.”
Senior linebacker Darreon Herring also fed off of Azubike’s energy on the field.
“He is a good athlete and we missed him out there,” Herring said. “He played well against Florida.”
The Commodores defense forced four turnovers and held Florida to 3-for-13 on third down upon Azubike’s return. Even though the defense was successful, the offensive side of the ball still struggled. However, there was improvement on the number of turnovers the Commodores allowed — zero.
Shurmur will also be back to help out sophomore Johnny McCrary in the pocket. Because Kentucky and Vanderbilt have similar defenses, Mason is preparing his quarterbacks for the pressure they will face on Saturday.
“Anybody can sit back there and throw 7-on-7; it’s what you do when you have guys tearing down the barrel at you that really decides how you move your feet, can you extend a play, do you make the right decision, do you get it checked,” Mason said. “All those things are the things that we’re trying to push and promote for our quarterbacks. We try to make sure we can put them in as many game-like situations as we can.”
He also stressed the importance of protecting the ball this week against Kentucky, since McCrary did a good job of that against Florida. The Commodores proved they belong in the SEC after their performance against the Gators, and Mason has confidence in this team’s ability to win games.
“If we don’t turn the ball over, I think we can beat anyone we play,” Mason said.