By Russell Lorentz for Vandy Insider
Vanderbilt heads into 2017 season with anticipation and optimism
During Derek Mason’s first three seasons, he was widely known only for his astounding fashion statements at SEC Media Days.
But now heading into his fourth season the Commodore head coach is beginning to make a mark on the field, increasing the ‘Dores win total in each of his first three seasons, including sitting at 24th nationally according to 247 Sports in the 2018 recruiting cycle.
Mason and Commodore student-athletes Kyle Shurmur, Oren Burks, and Ralph Webb wrapped up the annual trip to SEC Media Days in Hoover on Tuesday afternoon, and it was no surprise that many of the same questions were directed towards the four Vanderbilt representatives.
The overwhelming question is if Vanderbilt will replicate the success of last season, after breaking through qualifying for the Camping World Independence Bowl in Mason’s third season.
Vanderbilt players feel a lingering chip on their shoulder
Vanderbilt Senior Running Back Ralph Webb
On Ralph feeling that he might not get the credit he deserves compared to other running backs in the conference…
“No, I am fine with that, I am used to it. I have been underrated my whole life, throughout high school, I felt that I was underrated. So I use that as motivation and play with a chip on my shoulder.”
Senior Linebacker Oren Burks
On the SEC East…
“We have always been the underdog in the SEC. We kind of like that and we know what work we are putting in. We know we are setting ourselves up for a great season. So that is all that matters and all this talk will go on. It matters about getting to the ball.”
Junior Quarterback Kyle Shurmur
On making a bowl last year but Vanderbilt searching for more attention or respect, expectations on entering the season…
“I think we are worried about ourselves at this point and winning games. We don’t worry as much about the outside. We work hard and we’re going to compete and go out trying to win games.”
“Vanderbilt Football is on the rise”
Frankly, Mason came into his first SEC Media Days in 2014 still trying to figure things out. It showed on numerous occasions on the field on Saturday, but Mason is night-and-day different from three years ago.
“Vanderbilt football is on the rise,” Mason said. “As I look at our program and where we’re at and what we’ve done, I thought in 2016, we took several steps forward to be a better program. You looked at how we finished the season, 4-2, got us to a Bowl game for the first time in my tenure. And that was an exciting time for us. Definitely not satisfied.”
“As I look at where we are too, we’re starting to close the talent gap. When you talk about recruiting and what it looks like for us, we look to yield a
Top 25 recruiting class, better than any of the classes we’ve built since I’ve been here, and that’s growth. That’s part of where we are. That’s part of where we need to be. So we’re moving the envelope. We’re pushing the needle.”
Mason looks to eclipse Vanderbilt’s best-ever recruiting class of 26th, set by James Franklin in 2013 according to 247 Sports.
Vanderbilt returns 18 starters on offense and defense, and all of its perennial pass catchers, including running back duo Ralph Webb and Khari Blasingame along with Shurmur behind center. The most important, however, may be Vanderbilt’s experience. Vanderbilt has 38 upperclassmen on its 2017 roster after offensive explosions in wins against Tennessee and Ole Miss to finish 2016.
Mason: CFB is a junior/senior sport.
Now, we’re here. I do know we have a junior/senior team. Those things lead to special things #SECMD17
— Vandy Insider (@vandyinsider) July 11, 2017
“I said this before, but when your team grows up, you’ve got a chance. So as I look at where we are offensively, the future is bright, but the future is now. As I look at our defensive progress we return seven of our top ten tacklers defensively, that’s saying something in a conference where you have to play great defense in order to win ball games. For me, I’m extremely excited about what the camaraderie, continuity, and leadership looks like defensively.”
Mason’s bunch should return to the postseason in 2017, but they fully embrace the us against the world mentality.
“But here’s what I tell you. I don’t fear anybody, and our team as well. So when we line up on Saturday, we’ll be ready to play.”