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Q&A With Vanderbilt Blogger

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Let's learn about the Commodores!

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week I exchanged emails with Christian D'Andrea, Editor-in-Chief of SB Nation's Vanderbilt site Anchor of Gold. Kentucky heads down to Nashville to play in a game whose significance has grown exponentially for reasons ranging from postseason hopes to the mental health of fans, coaches, and players alike.

I want to thank Christian for taking the time to provide thoughtful answers. Check out their site as it's writing and unique SEC perspectives. For example, I especially liked this thorough breakdown of the Vandy-Florida game (good conversations going on in the comment section that probably sound familiar to ASoB readers). I also answered some questions about UK so that's another reason to check them out.

Without further ado...

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Derek Mason decided in the off-season to make himself the defensive coordinator, and it has worked out incredibly well. Vandy is using the same personnel, but is now considered an elite defense. What specific factors have led to the turnaround?

This defense was hurt by two factors in 2014: mass departures and the transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. This year, they've watched their young players turn into veterans while adapting to the scheme that Mason used to shut down high powered offenses like Oregon's while he was defensive coordinator at Stanford.

The Commodores have had several mostly anonymous players step up and play at an all-conference level. Zach Cunningham has developed into a get-everywhere tackling machine at inside linebacker and Torren McGaster has developed into the latest link in a chain of NFL talent in the Vandy secondary.

However, this team's success starts with the most underrated defensive line in the SEC. Adam Butler, Caleb Azubike, Nifae Lealao, and Jay Woods do a great job of occupying blockers on running plays and shrinking the pocket on passes to keep opposing offenses from getting comfortable.

Likewise, Mason fired his first offensive coordinator and brought in former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig to run the show. The results haven't been as good as the defense. Is that due to personnel, bad breaks, or is Ludwig not an improvement over previous offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell?

First off, the "Ask Corso" button in NCAA Football '08 was an improvement over Karl Dorrell (five straight fake field goals? WAY BETTER). Ludwig has been forced to simplify his offense as the season goes on to create a conservative gameplan for turnover-prone quarterback Johnny McCrary, but there's no single cause for Vandy's offensive woes.

Injuries have ravaged the team's offensive line, starting with left tackle lynchpin Andrew Jelks during the preseason. Vanderbilt's receiving corps is loaded with underclassmen who have failed to create separation (with the exception of Trent Sherfield, but the former DB is still learning the position), and All-SEC tight end Steven Scheu has been unreliable. Emerging sophomore tight end DeAndre Woods looked like a potential standout early in the year, but he suffered a knee injury that will keep him out for the rest of the year.

This team was showing improvement before checking down to an ultra-conservative gameplan last week against Florida. The Commodores were able to sustain drives, but not finish them, thanks to McCrary's woeful red zone play. He's thrown 12 interceptions already this season, and his inability to check down to open receivers and willingness to force throws into triple coverage are preventing the former Army All-American from reaching his full potential. He'll cede time to true freshman Kyle Shurmur, but the young QB is dealing with a head injury, so who knows when we'll actually see him again.



Watching Vandy this season, what has stood out to me, besides the excellent defense, is how much more physical the team plays than they did in Lexington last fall. I read over the weekend that Vandy hired James Dobson from Nebraska to be their strength and conditioning coach in the offseason. What impact has Dobson had on the team this year?

His impact is most notable on the defensive side of the ball. Vanderbilt struggled late in games when their defenders gassed out (a constant stream of three-and-out drives didn't help). Dobson has helped them play a complete 60 minutes of bend-don't-break defense. Last year, the 'Dores gave up 14 points per game in the second half. This season, that mark is down to 9.1.

Who is Vandy's biggest offensive weapon?

Ralph Webb proved on Saturday that he is, far and away, this team's biggest scoring threat against SEC defenses. Though his blocking has been inconsistent, the sophomore is a solid all-around tailback with the vision to find space and the athleticism to rip off a huge gain - as evidenced by his 74-yard touchdown run against the Gators. Wide receiver Trent Sherfield is a dynamic weapon as well - he had 240 receiving yards in a glorified scrimmage against Austin Peay - but he hasn't caught a single pass as this team's passing game has turned into a drawing of a scared turtle.

Vandy has had issues at the quarterback position the last two seasons. Where do things sit now with that position?

Johnny McCrary, Wade Freebeck, and Kyle Shurmur entered the season locked in a battle for the starting spot, and up until three weeks ago it looked like McCrary was going to ride out the season as the team's lone starter (one year after Derek Mason was justifiably roasted for starting four different passers last season, including confused skeleton Stephen Rivers). However, McCrary had been ineffective in the red zone (17 points in nine red zone trips in his first two starts of the year) and Freebeck didn't look much better in mop-up duty against Austin Peay. That gave way to a week seven burning of Shurmur's redshirt but the freshman looked solid, if a bit slow to find opportunities, in Vandy's win over Mizzou while sharing time with McCrary.

That didn't last. Shurmur's inability to find open windows made him ineffective against Houston, and he left the fourth quarter of that game after getting flattened by a Cougar blitz. He missed last week's game with a head injury, and that's extremely depressing for Vandy fans who saw their last promising young quarterback, Patton Robinette, retire from the sport due to concussion concerns. If he's healthy, Shurmur will split time with McCrary. If not, we'll only see Johnny. No matter what, expect a gameplan that shades heavily towards handoffs and quick passes.


Which of Vandy's defensive playmakers should UK fans be the most aware of heading into Saturday's game?

Zach Cunningham will tackle every skill player on your team. He has tremendous pursuit capabilities and will get from sideline-to-sideline to make stops and recover fumbles on plays he probably has no business being near. If he isn't an All-SEC selection this winter, Vanderbilt fans will complain loudly to no one in particular. Caleb Azubike will have a similar presence, and while he won't have a ton of tackles, he'll still find his way into the Kentucky backfield to make the day difficult for Patrick Towles.

What's your prediction of the final score and the biggest factor causing the result?

The biggest factor may be which team makes the fewest mistakes. These are two turnover prone teams (21 for Vandy, 16 for UK), and a defensive touchdown or a short field could be the defining factor in what seems primed to be a low-scoring game. The over/under is 37, and a 3.5 point spread suggests something like a Vanderbilt 20, Kentucky 17 victory. But if we've learned anything from this Commodore team, it's to bet the under. I'll take Vanderbilt 13, Kentucky 10.