SEC MEDIA DAYS 2017: Can Vandy contend? Mason says ‘yes’
By Graham Dunn
HOOVER – Here’s a fact known to anyone who has paid even moderate attention to college football.
The Vanderbilt football program has not won an SEC championship in its history. For those counting at home that’s 84 years.
It hasn’t come close. The last time Vandy won anything in the sport was prior to the conference’s existence when the Southern Conference was home to many of the current members of the SEC. The league ended in 1932.
Why bring up these facts in 2017?
Head coach Derek Mason isn’t making any bold predictions that the Commodores are ripe for a trip to Atlanta in December. But he is getting more confident in the ‘Dores’ chances to become a factor in the SEC East.
“Vanderbilt football is on the rise,” he 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.
“This group is definitely moving forward, and I talk to our guys about it all of the time. It’s about the work. It’s a daily process to make sure that we can work hard to achieve, push ourselves in the right direction to become Vanderbilt men.
A win over arch-rival Tennessee as well as the Georgia Bulldogs will do that. Vandy also reached a bowl game for only the eighth time in school history.
But the Vanderbilt players came to Hoover and SEC Media Days looking to make last year’s “success” the norm, better yet, something to build on.
“We want to compete and win the East just like everyone else, and we are going to do everything in our power to go out and get it,” stated all-conference running back Ralph Webb. “We caught some fire late in the year last year and we are going to use that to start out hot this year. We are going to make sure we carry that out the entire season.”
Webb might be the key to just how far Vandy can go. He had a record-setting performance last season, rushing for 1,263 yards and 13 TDs. He is already among the top 20 in offensive production in SEC history.
Ask anyone outside of Nashville (and a few SEC coaches) if they’ve heard of him and chances are you’ll get a blank stare.
“Ralph Webb to me, is probably the most underrated back in this conference,” Mason said. “He’s the back that nobody talks about, but all he does is perform. The first year, could he run between the tackles? He did that. Second year, could he catch the football out of the backfield? Did that. Third year, could he pass throw? Did that. Any time you can make yourself a three-dimensional back in this conference, I think that says something.”
Maybe since the graduation of Jay Cutler, Vanderbilt hasn’t enjoyed consistency at quarterback. Kyle Shurmur may be the answer.
He has the pedigree with his father, Pat, a coach and offensive coordinator at the pro level. Currently, he is with Minnesota and was once the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and briefly with Philadelphia.
“He has taught me a bunch of things throughout my life and I think the biggest thing is the mental side of the game; how to handle success, adversity, failure and more of the mental aspect oppose to the nitty gritty of football,” Shurmur said.
Shurmur has dealt with rough times since being rated the top drop-back passer in the 2015 recruiting class. But he found a spark in the latter part of the season leading the ‘Dores to wins over Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee.
“Kyle Shurmur has impressed me because (trouble) has rolled off his back,” Mason said. “You’re talking about a young man that grew up as a coach’s son. He grew up with professional athletes as a young guy. He’s never been worried about the media or expectations of the media. He’s good with who he is. He knows who he is. He has a head coach that knows who he is. For me, I tell Kyle be who you are, have fun, lead your group.”
Defensively, Vandy returns seven of its top tacklers. Zach Cunningham is gone but the nucleus is back.
While there isn’t much hype surrounding Vandy this week, the idea they could compete has merit, if only because the East looks ordinary again. While Florida and Georgia should receive the bulk of first-place votes, don’t be surprised to find a few media members give the ‘Dores the nod this season.
“I’m not a soothsayer. I am not talking about how many games we are going to win, but I do know we have a junior-senior team (38 total),” Mason said. “The culture, continuity, all of those things lead to special things. I’ve been there before, and I am truly excited what the season holds for us.”