Vanderbilt season awards: Gauging the Commodores’ improvement under Derek Mason
The Vanderbilt Commodores didn’t go out with much of a bang in their 25-point loss to the Tennessee Vols, but they did see improvement in year two under coach Derek Mason. One season after finishing winless in the SEC, the Commodores went 4-8 overall and 2-8 in conference play. They didn’t have a winning season, but that doesn’t mean Vanderbilt didn’t significantly improve.
The season started off pretty rocky with a two-point loss to Western Kentucky, but the Commodores improved almost each week. There were still rough moments, like shutout losses to Houston and Texas A&M. However, Vanderbilt managed to pull off conference wins over Mizzou and Kentucky, and also gave the SEC East champion Florida Gators a scare in The Swamp.
Team MVP: RB Ralph Webb
Webb provided the spark for Vanderbilt’s offense, making up for the quarterback problems that plagued Vandy’s entire season. All season, he gave the Commodores offense a chance to compete. He broke the team’s sophomore rushing record with 1,152 yards, the second-highest total in program history.
Defensive MVP: LB Zach Cunningham
Cunningham finished with 103 tackles as a first-year starting linebacker despite not starting until the third game. He leads the SEC with three fumble recoveries and is tied for second in forced fumbles. The sophomore compiled double-digit tackles in six SEC games, making such a name for himself that even ESPN.com’s David Ching had to take notice.
Best Freshman: QB Kyle Shurmur
After experimenting with a dual-quarterback system featuring sophomore Johnny McCrary and freshman Kyle Shurmur, it looks like the Commodores finally have a quarterback they can depend on. The freshman has a bright future as a starter.
Shurmur’s performance against Kentucky resulted in the Commodores’ second conference win of the season. The freshman threw for 166 yards and two touchdowns, but his performance against the Tennessee Vols really stands out. Although Vanderbilt came up short, Shurmur threw for 209 yards and three touchdowns — a season high for Vandy.
Biggest Surprise: A respectable defense
Mason named himself defensive coordinator at the end of last season, and now the Commodores have one of the better defenses in the SEC. They were 106th in scoring defense last year and moved all the way up to 21st, allowing only 21.0 points per game. Vanderbilt finished sixth in the nation for third-down and red-zone defense.
Best Play: Webb’s 74-yard touchdown run against Florida
Webb had the team’s best play of the season in The Swamp. As soon as McCrary handed the ball off to Webb, the running back cut right through the middle and ran 74 yards for a touchdown. The Florida Gators didn’t recruit the Gainesville native, so he finished off the play with a nice gator chomp in the end zone.
Overall Grade: B-
Year after year, people wonder why a team like Vanderbilt is in the SEC — a top-notch conference with arguably the best competition. This year, though, the Commodores showed that they might actually belong.