With the Commodores entering the final stages of a successful winter conditioning effort, Vanderbilt Head Coach Derek Mason expects a healthy dose of competition when Spring Ball 2017 starts in less than two weeks.
"This spring will be the most competitive since we've been here," Mason said of the upcoming spring drills, which start Monday, Feb. 27, and continue into late March. "Every job will be open to competition. Last year has nothing to do with next year."
The Commodores will hold a Spring Showcase as its featured practice on Saturday, March 25 at 10 a.m. in Vanderbilt Stadium. The Showcase, which will include both scrimmage and traditional practice segments, will be free to Commodore fans and feature a post-scrimmage autograph session with Vanderbilt players.
Mason will welcome 75 student-athletes for spring drills, the fourth he will direct on campus. The spring roster includes 42 letterwinners from the 2016 Vanderbilt squad that finished with impressive Southeastern Conference victories over Ole Miss and Tennessee and a berth in the Camping World Independence Bowl.
Mason said the Commodores must continue their progress this spring on the heels of getting 15 extra practices last December leading to the Independence Bowl.
"We're ahead of where we were a year ago. This team has gotten better and stronger, and we're a more veteran-laden squad, but we still have a lot of guys who are unproven. We want to push every guy forward so we're an even better team heading into the summer," Mason said.
The Vanderbilt roster includes 24 players who started at least three games last year.
The offense returns the team's all-time leading rusher Ralph Webb, quarterback Kyle Shurmur, starting linemen Bruno Reagan, Ean Pfeifer and Justin Skule, and the top nine receiving targets from a year ago, including wide receivers Trent Sherfield, C.J. Duncan, Caleb Scott and Kalija Lipscomb.
On defense, linemen Nifae Lealao and Jonathan Wynn, linebacker Oren Burks, cornerbacks Taurean Ferguson and Tre Herndon, and safeties Ryan White, LaDarius Wiley and Arnold Tarpley are back after starting last year.
Both starting specialists from a year ago, kicker Tommy Openshaw and punter Sam Loy, also are back.
The Commodores will look to replace several 2016 standouts who are scheduled to graduate or entered the 2017 NFL Draft, including All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham, defensive lineman Adam Butler, cornerback Torren McGaster, center Barrett Gouger and offensive tackle Will Holden.
Vanderbilt opens the 2017 season at Middle Tennessee on Sept. 2.
The Commodores will host seven games in Vanderbilt Stadium: Alabama A&M on Sept. 9, Kansas State on Sept. 16, Alabama on Sept. 23, Georgia on Oct. 7, Western Kentucky on Nov. 4, Kentucky on Nov. 11 and Missouri on Nov. 18.