Production clearly played a role in which Vanderbilt players were selected to represent the program at SEC Football Media Days next week at Hoover, Ala.
Running back Ralph Webb, linebacker Nigel Bowden and guard Spencer Pulley will accompany coach Derek Mason to the event, which annually attracts more than 1,000 media members from across the country.
Webb and Bowden are third-year sophomores but were among the Commodores’ top performers last season. Webb had a team-high 907 rushing yards, a school record for a freshman, and finished 14th in the conference. Bowden had a team-high 78 tackles.
Pulley is a senior offensive lineman who has been a full-time starter at guard the past two seasons but has been moved to center for this season.
Vanderbilt’s players and coaches will face the media Monday afternoon (1:30 p.m.) concurrent with those from Florida. The event runs through Thursday morning.
The complete list of players who will participate in SEC Football Media Days, released Wednesday by the SEC:
Alabama: *Reggie Ragland, Sr., LB, Kenyan Drake, Sr., RB, Ryan Kelly, Sr., OL
Arkansas: *Jonathan Williams, Sr., RB, Brandon Allen, Sr., QB, Keon Hatcher, Sr., WR
Auburn: *Jeremy Johnson, Jr., QB, Jonathan Jones, Sr., DB, Kris Frost, Sr., LB
Florida: *Jonathan Bullard, Sr., DE, Brandon Powell, So., WR, Vernon Hargreaves III, Jr., DB
Georgia: *Malcolm Mitchell, Sr., WR, John Theus, Sr., OT, Jordan Jenkins, Sr., OLB
Kentucky: *Melvin Lewis, Sr., NG, Jordan Swindle, Sr., OT, A.J. Stamps, Sr., S
LSU: *Leonard Fournette, So., RB, Vadal Alexander, Sr., OT, Kendell Beckwith, Jr., LB
Ole Miss: *Evan Engram, Jr., TE, Mike Hilton, Sr., DB, C.J. Johnson, Sr., LB
Mississippi State: *Dak Prescott, Sr., QB, Taveze Calhoun, Sr., DB, Ryan Brown, Sr., DE
Missouri: *Kenya Dennis, Sr., DB, Maty Mauk, Jr., QB, Evan Boehm, Sr., C
South Carolina: *Elliott Fry, Jr., PK, Pharoh Cooper, Jr., WR, Skai Moore, Jr., LB
Tennessee: *Joshua Dobbs, Jr., QB, Curt Maggitt, Sr., LB/DL, Cameron Sutton, Jr., DB
Texas A&M: *Mike Matthews, Sr., C, Germain Ifedi, Jr., OT, Julien Obioha, Sr., DL
Vanderbilt: *Ralph Webb, So., RB, Nigel Bowden, So., LB, Spencer Pulley, Sr., C
(* -- 'Beyond The Field: Stories of the SEC' representative)
Vanderbilt football fans won’t have to wait quite so long to see their team in action this fall.
Thursday, the Commodores’ season-opener was moved to Sept. 3, two days earlier than originally scheduled, and placed in prime time on the SEC Network. Kickoff will be 7 p.m. (CDT).
This is the fourth straight year Vanderbilt starts its season on a Thursday night.
Things have not worked out well in that regard thus far. VU opened with defeats against South Carolina (2012), Ole Miss (2013) and Temple (2014) – all at home.
Playing in primetime on Thursday night is a tremendous opportunity to show our team, our university and the city of Nashville. I'm very excited about this announcement," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said in a release from the school. "It should be a great atmosphere, with Western Kentucky coming to campus with an excellent team that finished off last year with a bowl win."
Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky have not played since 1938. The schools have faced each other just three times overall, and the Commodores have won all three.
"We are excited to once again usher in the start of college football," said Vanderbilt Director of Athletics David Williams. "The Thursday opener against Western Kentucky will serve as a tremendous showcase for our university to a national audience."
Also Thursday, kickoff time was set for Vanderbilt’s Sept. 19 game against Austin Peay. That contest will start at 3 p.m. and will be shown on the SEC Network alternate channel.
Previously, the Commodores’ Sept. 12 contest against Georgia was set for 2:30 p.m. and a national broadcast on CBS.
Anyone who ever has spent time on a playground knows that it takes one to know one.
Derek Mason intends to take that notion a few steps farther. Vanderbilt’s second-year football coach is betting that it takes one to know them all.
Mason announced Monday the addition of Rayna Stewart to his staff as Director of High School Relations. Stewart, a former NFL player and a Middle Tennessee high school football coach in recent years, will serve as a liaison between the program and high schools, which will involve extensive work organizing recruiting visits (official and unofficial) and with offseason camps.
Stewart was head coach at Whites Creek High for the past two seasons and at Battle Ground Academy for two years before that. He also has spent time on two NFL staffs and been a college and high school assistant in the Chicago area.
The 41-year-old was an NFL defensive back for five NFL with three franchises, the first of which was the Oilers/Titans. His career ended in 2000.
Mason also added three entry-level coaches: Keith Abrams and Tate Benton as offensive graduate assistants, and Ryan Blakney as an offensive control quality.
EJ DellaRipa could have played football at a four-year college right out of high school.
The offensive lineman from California wanted to play big-time college football, however. So he attended junior college in order to attract attention from high-profile programs.
It worked to the point that interest in the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder continued to increase in the months since the season ended. Tuesday, he signed with Vanderbilt after having initially committed to Fresno State. Last month he also got an offer from Louisville.
The second-team all-conference player for College of the Canyons (Calif.) becomes the 19th member (and fifth offensive lineman) of the Commodores’ 2015 signing class.
“We are extremely pleased and excited to have EJ joining our football program this season," coach Derek Mason said in a release. "EJ's a talented young lineman who developed tremendously at College of the Canyons. He's an excellent addition to the 2015 signing class, our offensive line corps, and our entire roster.”
DellaRipa will enroll this summer as a sophomore and will have three years of eligibility remaining.
“EJ was an excellent player for our team, earning 10 starts at right tackle,” Ted Iacenda, his junior college coach, said. “EJ's upside is extremely high. … (He) knows what he wants and knows what it takes to see to make it happen. He's plays with a great motor, and brings both a tremendous pass blocking ability and a physical attitude to the run game.”
Patton Robinette was the first quarterback to play in Vanderbilt’s spring football game last Saturday. Afterward, he talked about the need to ‘maintain my position at the top’ of the depth chart.
Ultimately, he decided instead to focus on his long-term health.
Robinette informed coach Derek Mason on Thursday that he planned to end his college football career early. He informed his teammates Friday morning and made the decision public with an announcement on Vanderbilt’s athletics website.
Robinette's decision to leave the field was influenced by a history of injuries. Robinette spoke frequently with his parents, close acquaintances, Vanderbilt physicians and athletic trainers, and Commodore coaches before deciding to end his career.
"This has been a very difficult decision to make," Robinette said Friday. "This team means the world to me and I love playing football more than anything. It's been tough coming to a decision that is right for my family and I, and protects my health and future.
"I've been very deliberate in coming to this decision. It's difficult but I'm really excited to move forward to the next chapter of my life and really to see what the field of medicine has in store for me," Robinette added.
Robinette plans to enroll in Vanderbilt’s school of medicine this summer and will study orthopedics.
Over the past two seasons he played 16 games with five starts. He completed 57.4 percent of his passes for 1,096 yards with seven touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also rushed for 277 yards and eight touchdowns.
"Patton Robinette is one of the most fierce competitors that I've ever had the pleasure to coach," Mason said in a statement. "He's been a winner on every level and a guy that others look to for leadership. Patton leaves this football team in good hands, and has done a fantastic job of helping to create a foundation for success.
"This has been tough on Patton and his family, but we support his decision and look forward to seeing what the future in medicine holds for such an outstanding young man," Mason added.
(Photo: Getty Images)
David Williams said a football series between Vanderbilt and Stanford has been a long time coming.
Now that the programs have settled on a four-game set, Vanderbilt has plenty of time to prepare for it.
The schools will play four times — two home games each — from 2021 through 2027, per a joint announcement Wednesday, a day after their men’s basketball teams met in the third round of the NIT.
“We have been working to put this series together for quite some time," Williams, Vanderbilt's athletics director, said in a statement. "This game is a natural because Stanford is also an academic institution playing football in a strong conference.
"We have had good competition with Stanford in various other sports so it makes sense to meet in football too. Playing Stanford also increases Vanderbilt's exposure on the West Coast where we recruit student-athletes and have many alumni.”
The agreement gives Vanderbilt at least one non-conference game on the books every year through 2022.
The Vanderbilt-Stanford football series:
• Sept. 18, 2021, at Nashville
• Sept. 7, 2024, at Palo Alto, Calif.
• Sept. 6, 2025, at Nashville
• Sept. 11, 2027, at Palo Alto
Stanford is 54-13 over the past five seasons and is one of five schools from the Power 5 conferences to notch 11 wins or more four times over that stretch. The Cardinal finished 11th or better in the final AP poll each of the four seasons from 2010 through 2013.
Vanderbilt is 29-34 with two winning seasons over the same span, including 3-9 last season under first-year coach Derek Mason, who took the job after three years of serving as Stanford’s defensive coordinator.
Vanderbilt’s football history includes just one game against a Pac-12 opponent. That was Oct. 14, 1961, when it lost to UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
Vanderbilt’s spring football game Saturday began with Patton Robinette at quarterback.
That’s exactly how the fourth-year junior expects the 2015 season to start.
“You can read into it what you want,” Robinette said, “At the end of the day, I’m going to have to go out this offseason in camp to compete and maintain my position at the top. I’m going to work hard and do that.”
Coach Derek Mason and new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig sent mixed messages about where they are in their evaluation of the quarterbacks following Saturday’s event, which was the culmination of spring football. The only agreed on the fact that neither was prepared to name the starter publicly.
Mason said no decision has been made in regard to how the Commodores’ signal-callers stack up. Ludwig, on the other hand, offered that he has seen enough to know what he wants.
“There’s been some separation through spring,” Ludwig said. “It’s pretty clear in my mind the direction we’re going to go. We’re going to sit down as a staff and talk about it, talk with the quarterbacks.
“Pretty much, the guys got equal reps in this game but that’s not the plan moving forward, especially against Western Kentucky and through the season.”
Robinette, though, made it clear he’s the guy – with his words, if not necessarily with his play.
Four quarterbacks rotated in and out of the spring game, which was a controlled scrimmage that featured the offense against the defense rather than a divided roster matched in a more traditional game. Robinette went first. Then came Johnny McCrary, Wade Freebeck and — finally — Shawn Stankavage, the only one of the four who did not start at least one game last season.
Generally speaking, it was a rough day for the offense. The quarterbacks combined to throw five interceptions and their receivers dropped at least that many passes. The defense recorded seven sacks, three by sophomore safety Emmanuel Smith, and had eight tackles for loss.
A look at how Vanderbilt’s four quarterbacks did in Saturday’s annual Black and Gold Spring Game:
Patton Robinette: 6-12, 65 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT
Johnny McCrary: 2-7, 11 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs
Wade Freebeck: 4-11, 58 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs
Shawn Stankavage: 7-11, 55 yards,) TDs, 0 INTs
None of the four led a touchdown drive. In fact, the only time the offense scored was after Robinette’s interception, which linebacker Stephen Weatherly returned to the 2-yard line. Coaches gave the offense the ball at that spot — and it took three plays before running back Ralph Webb ran it in from the 1-yard line.
“Our guys got to make plays for our quarterbacks,” Mason said. “I think our quarterbacks made some good throws, but we've got to make plays for our guys so it's hard to evaluate. I've seen guys making plays for their quarterbacks all spring and today was one of those days when we just couldn't find our rhythm.
“There is no frontrunner.”
There was one at the front of the line Saturday, though. To hear Robinette tell it, that’s the same as being the one “at the top.”
(Photo: Getty Images)
Al Smith has joined the Vanderbilt football program as director of player development, the university announced Thursday.
The former NFL linebacker and Tennessee Titans staff member will mentor players, serve as a liaison between them and academic support services and/or NFL personnel, oversee the program’s summer internship program and assist incoming players with their transition to college.
For the last five years, Smith served as president of the Tennessee Chapter of the NFL Alumni Association. He previously worked as director of player development/pro personnel and director of pro scouting for the Titans.
He was a two-time Pro Bowler in a 10-year NFL career as a linebacker with the Houston Oilers.
“Al Smith is an outstanding addition to our staff,” coach Derek Mason said in a release. “Al has tremendous experience, and will work proactively to identify and address student-athletes’ needs and provide a platform to promote positive growth for every member of the Vanderbilt football team.”
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who watched Vanderbilt’s football team last season, but Derek Mason was not prepared to be a head coach.
He made that anything-but-startling revelation to Sports Illustrated for a story that ran on the publication’s website Friday afternoon. In it, he said he felt like “an ‘out-of-touch CEO’ who needed to regain control of his company” for much of the 2014 season, when the Commodores finished 3-9 overall and went winless in conference play.
He also vowed, though, that the next season would be better.
“If you know anything about me, at any place I’ve been, you give me a year and I’ll figure it out,” Mason said.
In his first year as defensive coordinator at Stanford, the Cardinal allowed 4,441 total yards and an average of 21.9 points per game. In 2012, the total yards allowed actually increased yet ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12. The points per game fell to 17.2 and opponents’ average yards per play dropped from 5.43 to 4.73. That 2012 team also set a school record with 57 sacks.
Mason was defensive backs coach with the Minnesota Vikings from 2007-09. In 2007, opponents completed 64.2 percent of their passes and threw 15 interceptions. The next year those numbers were 61.1 and 12, respectively.
“Last year, I felt like, to be honest, everything was a blur,” Mason said. “It just happened so fast. You were just having to react, move and swerve and duck and bob and weave. Everything was coming at you.”
The SEC is probably not the best place for someone to learn on the job.
Before Mason, though, Vanderbilt athletics director David Williams hired James Franklin, who also had no experience as a head coach. That worked out well.
The difference was that Franklin made no secret of the fact that he planned to become a head coach from the time he was 18 years old and everything he did was with that in mind.
Mason, on the other hand, never tried to climb the ladder. He was pulled up. Every time he had success, he was promoted or recommended for a different position and – apparently – figured out what to do once he stepped into that role.
One thing he sorted out quickly at Vanderbilt was that it often is a bad idea to hire your friends, which he did with offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell and defensive coordinator David Kutolski. Both were fired shortly after the season.
“I had to make tough decisions,” Mason said. “There was going to be no back and forth, no bargaining.
“At the end of the day, we needed change. That change was going to be now.”
Vanderbilt fans have to hope that in some ways his second year here will be no different than his second year at other stops.
Vanderbilt has started to ramp up the contact in spring football drills.
Friday morning, the Commodores conducted their third offseason workout in pads, their third overall.
It was not full contact, though. That comes Saturday.
“(Friday) was ‘thud,’ we’re trying to keep guys up, keep guys on their feet,” coach Derek Mason said. “(Saturday) we’re going to have some situational scrimmages where we go for about 35 or 40 plays. We’re going to get after it a little bit. We want to see how these guys play under contact.”
Mason has repeatedly said throughout the week that he has been pleased with the energy level of players.
He added Friday that they have shown an ability to take what coaches have given them in the classroom, which is limited at this point, and put it into practice on the field. Now he wants to see if they can do the same when they are hitting and being hit.
“Football is a contact sport and I’ll tell you what, anytime you can have a controlled scrimmage and let your guys let it loose to see what their football acumen is in terms of tackling and being able to finish, it’s good,” Mason said. “So it’s going to be good (Saturday). I’m excited about it.”
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