By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Jordan Griffin laughs when recalling Vanderbilt’s first team meeting with new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver.
“He came in there with a football,” the senior linebacker said. “He threw it to everybody and said, ‘This is the most important thing on defense.’ From then on, I knew we would be attacking the ball this year. It’s all about getting turnovers.”
Tarver’s attitude carried over to Vanderbilt’s spring practice, which kicked off on Monday. The first two of 15 spring workouts will feature a split-roster approach; half the team spends the first hour on the field, while the other half hits the weight room. The sides then flip for the second hour.
Vanderbilt enters spring with a spotlight on its defense, which struggled in 2017. The Dores return just four starters from a unit that finished eighth in the SEC in total defense (393.1 yards per game allowed) and 10th in yards-per-play allowed (5.85) last fall. They ranked 12th and 13th in those categories, respectively, against SEC opponents.
That drop-off is why head coach Derek Mason – who served as his own defensive coordinator for the last three seasons – added Tarver to his staff earlier this month. Tarver has overseen defenses in both the NFL and college, serving as co-coordinator alongside Mason at Stanford in 2011. That year, the Cardinal ranked 28th nationally in total defense.
Now the duo is reunited on West End.
“Us being together the last couple of weeks, man, it’s been fun,” Mason said. “It’s been like two chemists in a lab, and all we’ve been doing is concocting defenses… It’s easy for us to communicate real fast. We look at each other, and we know exactly what we need to know.”
The Commodores know they must get better on defense to shake up the SEC in 2018. But after one practice, Griffin said Tarver is the man for the job.
“He’s a good dude,” Griffin said. “Very upbeat. I can tell after the first day, he’s going to get the best out of us as a defense. I’m just excited to keep working with him.”
• New-look staff
Alongside Tarver, Mason added three more coaches to his Vanderbilt coaching staff during the offseason. Aaron Moorhead will coach the Commodores’ wide receivers after three seasons in the same role with Texas A&M. After a three-year stint at Washington, Terrence Brown arrives in Nashville to oversee the cornerbacks, while Shawn Mennenga capped seven seasons with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns to take over Vanderbilt’s special teams.
“It just feels like, to me, this is the best staff I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Mason said.
• The return of Shurmur
Kyle Shurmur returns in 2018 as one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the SEC.
Shurmur, whose father, Pat, became head coach of the NFL’s New York Giants this offseason, has started 30 career games at Vanderbilt and closed a strong junior campaign in 2017. The senior’s 2,823 passing yards were second-most of any Commodore junior, and his 26 touchdown passes set a new program single-season record.
Shurmur enters his third season within offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s scheme and expects to return his entire offensive line from 2017.
• Replacing Ralph
For the first time in his Vanderbilt tenure, Mason must search for a starting running back. The departure of Ralph Webb, the Commodores’ record-breaking all-time leading rusher, leaves a void that must be filled in 2018. But Mason seems excited about the competition at that position this spring.
Senior Khari Blasingame is looking to bounce back from just 147 rushing yards in 2017, a drop from his 449 yards in backup duty to Webb in 2016. Electric sophomore Jamauri Wakefield (115 yards on 18 carries in 2017) is one year more experienced. The X-factor might be redshirt junior Ke’Shawn Vaughn, an Illinois transfer who had Vanderbilt coaches turning their heads as a scout-team tailback last season.
• Leadership on D
The Commodores lose three of their top five tacklers from a year ago as part of a defense that returns just four starters. Mason said that group is on the hunt for new leadership after the departure of linebacker Oren Burks and safety Ryan White, among other seniors.
Expect senior outside linebacker Charles Wright to garner a brighter spotlight in 2018. In his first year as a starter last season, Wright recorded nine sacks – the most by a Dore defender since 1994 – to rank fourth among SEC players. Senior safety LaDarius Wiley, Vandy’s leading returning tackler (88 stops), is the headliner of a secondary that loses seniors like White and corner Tre Herndon.
• The kicking game
New Vanderbilt special teams coach Shawn Mennenga inherits a unit that loses its starting kicker, Tommy Openshaw, and starting punter, Sam Loy. Freshman kicker Javan Rice has enrolled early and will participate in the spring to compete for kicking duties opposite junior Ryley Guay. But the Dores’ punting situation likely won’t take shape until the summer, when Columbia transfer Parker Thome arrives on West End.
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.