Opponent Outlook: Vanderbilt defense prepared against the run

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Last season, Vanderbilt jumped out to its first 3-0 start since 2011. An ensuing five-game losing streak and 59-0 blowout to Alabama, though, quickly spoiled any excitement.

The Commodores began this season by taking care of Middle Tennessee State (35-7) and Nevada (41-10). They have not finished better than 6-7 since 2013.

Will this year be different for Vanderbilt, which opened as a 14-point underdog against No. 8 Notre Dame? We caught up with Adam Sparks of the Tennessean for a closer look at the Commodores.

Have you learned anything new about the Commodores and what are your expectations for the rest of the year?

Sparks: ”Offensively, Vandy has run the ball reasonably well and quarterback Kyle Shurmur is on point. I expected that. But defensively, the Commodores have exceeded my expectations, at least this early into the season. Vanderbilt has put together an effective pass rush and forced six takeaways in two games (it had only nine takeaways all of last season). It’s obvious that new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver (previously of the 49ers and Raiders) has made an impact on the scheme and utilization of players.

“Entering the season, I thought Vandy could go anywhere from 4-8 to 7-5, and still in bowl contention entering November. That hasn’t changed, nor will it until I see how the Commodores play in a game they’re supposed to lose (this one and some upcoming SEC games). But overall, this team has played slightly better than I thought through two games. and the SEC East appears wide open below Georgia, so Vandy may find more opportunities for conference wins.

As a three-year starter, where does senior Kyle Shurmur rank among SEC quarterbacks?

Sparks: “Ranking SEC quarterbacks is difficult this season because there are a lot of good ones. Shurmur was No. 2 in passing yards per game of returning QBs, behind Drew Lock, but it’s hard to put him that high until we see how the SEC schedule shapes up. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa may be a Heisman candidate. Missouri’s Drew Lock and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham are high NFL prospects. South Carolina’s Jake Bentley and Georgia’s Jake Fromm are really good. This is just a really good crop of SEC QBs. By year’s end, Shurmur could be top-3, or he could be sixth or seventh despite having a really good season.”

Brandon Wimbush likes to use his legs, but when limited last week, he forced too many 50-50 throws. Derek Mason’s defense ties for third in sacks and ranks 18th against the run. Who are Vandy’s impact players on defense and how do you expect them to matchup against the Irish?

Sparks: ”The good news for Vandy is that it’s had different guys make big plays so far. Brothers Dare and Dayo Odeyingbo are good on the defensive line (Dayo sat out last game with an injury, but I think he’ll be back this week). OLB Kenny Hebert is turning into a budding pass rusher. OLB Josh Smith made a lot of big plays last week because OLB Charles Wright (the team’s best returning pass rusher) got double teams on the other side. Joejuan Williams is an NFL-caliber cornerback.

“In terms of matching up with Notre Dame, I’m sure Vandy would like to keep Wimbush in the pocket and make him throw. Vandy has had reasonable success against mobile QBs in past, but Notre Dame is an unfamiliar opponent. The pass rush will be key either way.”

Ke’Shawn Vaughn led Vanderbilt’s three-man running back rotation against Nevada last Saturday, rushing for 93 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. Has he solidified himself as Ralph Webb’s replacement?

Sparks: ”It will probably be a three-man rotation all season, but at varying degrees. Vaughn may be the most complete back, but he’s still shaking off the rust after transferring from Illinois. In a perfect scenario, Vandy would love to get 100 yards out of Vaughn, a couple of explosive runs from sophomore Jamauri Wakefield and some bruising runs by power back Khari Blasingame late in the game if the score is still close. But I think Vandy would be content with getting two out of three of those. The Commodores will definitely need a quality run game to have a chance in this one.”

The Commodores were scoreless in their first two red zone trips last week. Was that a one-time gaffe or could that be an issue for them on Saturday?

Sparks: ”My gut says that won’t be repeated too many times this season. Vandy struggled in a lot of areas last season, but committing turnovers was not one of them. However, playing on the road — especially in an unfamiliar setting — could always influence that. Shurmur has protected the ball well, and he’ll need to continue to do that in this one.”

Vanderbilt senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur (14) has thrown four touchdowns and zero interceptions across two games this season.