Spin the Roulette Wheel
After starting four different quarterbacks in 2014 (for comparison, Alabama has only had four quarterbacks start a game dating back to 2006 -- the Mike Shula Era), the position is no more settled at Vanderbilt entering the 2015 season. Last year's most productive (when healthy) quarterback, Patton Robinette (89-of-155, 64 percent, 1,096 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions) elected to retire and go to medical school after this spring's practice ended.
Returners Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck, along with redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage and true freshman Kyle Shurmur are expected to compete for this year's starting job -- or at least the pleasure (?) of taking the opening snap for the Commodores. For what it's worth, McCrary and Freebeck combined to start the last eight games of 2014, but only combined for a completion rate of exactly 50 percent, throwing for 1,361 yards, ten touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
The wild card in the quarterback battle is the incoming freshman Shurmur. The Pennsylvania native was a 247Sports Composite 4-star recruit and the No. 14 pro style quarterback in the nation. That ranking places Shurmur in similar regard to Joshua Dobbs, Jeremy Johnson, Anthony Jennings, Patrick Towles and Wes Lunt in past recruiting classes. With the last year's struggles by the returning candidates and the hire of new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig from Wisconsin, Shurmur should have every opportunity to earn the starting job.
Develop an Identity
The running game may have found a bell cow last year in Ralph Webb. Webb rushed for 907 yards as a freshman and gained at least 45 yards in ten of the Commodores' 12 games. Second-leading rusher Dallas Rivers also returns, but gained just over 200 yards in 2014.
Along the offensive front, four starting offensive lineman return, along with Second Team All-SEC tight end Steven Scheu. With an unsettled quarterback situation and Ludwig's Wisconsin experience, it would be far from surprising if Vanderbilt shifted to more of a power running game to spur the offense and allow a quarterback to get comfortable.
Build Depth and Experience
The defense for Vanderbilt returns nine starters, but the youth on last year's defense is reflected in the fact that there are still only three senior starters on 2015's squad. The 2014 defense was not necessarily good (100th in the S&P+ D and 75th in the FEI D), but a second year in the 3-4 system brought in by Derek Mason should improve things overall.
Senior defensive end Caleb Azubike leads the defensive front. Azubike had four sacks and 39 tackles last year and should build on those numbers if he can stay healthy throughout the entire season. Next to Azubike is one of the question marks, as the Commodores will be searching for a starting nose tackle in fall practice.
California native Nifae Lealao will be one of the candidates for the open position. The 320-pound sophomore from California came to Vanderbilt as one of the top recruits in Mason's first recruiting class in Nashville. Lealao was previously committed to Stanford, and the 4-star came to Vandy along with Mason. As a freshman, Lealao only had seven tackles, but could have the size to be the gap-filler needed in a 3-4 system.