- Two-a-days: Vanderbilt and Tennessee
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Date: Wednesday, September 2 2015
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Two-a-days: Vanderbilt and Tennessee

Two-a-days: Vandy and Tennessee

VANDERBILT MAY BE BETTER, BUT HOW MUCH - Last year, Vanderbilt first-year coach Derek Mason arrived in Nashville and had to hit the ground running. He says he didn't have the time he needed to evaluate the team and so he had to implement a quarterback carousel.

The Commodores opened the season on national television against Temple and were embarrassed at home.

What ensued was a 3-9 record, including a winless ledger in the SEC. It was a far cry from the nine-win seasons produced by his predecessor James Franklin, who left Vandy in favor of Penn State, the state of his nativity.

Could Vanderbilt be better this season? Perhaps. Mason has had the benefit of a regular season, an off-season, a spring practice and now a pre-season camp. He has a lot of resources he didn't have a year ago, so that's a positive.

"I'm a year older and wiser and I've grown up a little bit," said Mason. "This team has done a tremendous job of moving on."

Mason conceded that last year was a disappointment, but realizes things won't always be as bad.

"It was a comma, not a period," he said. "This football team has definitely done the things we need to do to get back on the track and be exactly what we need to be."

The quarterback situation needs to be managed better, though. Last year, Mason said he ran out of time evaluating quarterbacks and as a result, wound up playing four. This year, Mason says he has a quarterback in mind, but as of this publication, isn't saying who. The identity of the starter may not be known until game time.

We do know that it will be either Johnny McCrary, who threw for 985 yards and nine touchdowns last year, or Wade Freebeck, who threw for 376 yards and a TD a year ago. One thing is imperative, whomever gets the nod, Vandy will have to be better on offense.

Last year, the Commodores averaged 17.2 points per game. Mason said he hopes to build on the team's strengths to get better.

"You have to cater to or build an offense around what you do best," the coach said. "We had to assess our talent, our ability level and how to help quarterbacks manage the game."

There is more good news on West End. The Commodores return 20 starters which, on offense, includes a nice mix of skilled players and linemen. There has been a nice battle at receiver. Ralph Webb had 912 yards rushing and nine touchdowns last season. Tight end Steven Scheu had 525 receiving yards last year. Latevius Rayford had 350 receiving yards and a TD, but may not start versus Western Kentucky. Trent Sherfield seems to have the inside track to a starting job.

Up front, center Spencer Pulley, a senior, leads the team in consecutive starts. He will switch from guard to center this season. Henry County prodigy Andrew Jelks, a 6-6, 305 lb. offensive lineman, will miss the 2015 season with a knee injury.

Defensively, inside linebacker Nigel Bowden led the team with 78 tackles last year. He leads a defensive unit that has had some healthy competition. Case in point, Jay Woods will be starting defensive tackle after beating Nifea Lealou for the job. But both will get a lot of playing time this season.

The Commodores will have a challenging schedule for a team trying to improve on last year's mark. They open with Western Kentucky on Sept. 3, which isn't a given. Georgia will be next, then Austin Peay. Vandy will travel to Ole Miss and then a half-hour down Interstate 24 to face Middle Tennessee, which has a lot of returnees this year. Texas A&M comes to Nashville, then Vandy ends its season with a trip to Tennessee.

VOLS ARE STOKED AFTER BOWL WIN IN 2014 - There is a lot of excitement in the Tennessee camp this pre-season. And why not? The Vols finished 7-6 a year ago and easily handled Iowa 45-28 in the Taxslayer/Gator Bowl last January.

Tennessee played 23 true freshmen last year, many of whom return. There are 21 returning starters on this year's club, but for Bowling Green, it appears only 12 or 13 may be involved. However, UT coach Butch Jones cautions that all the hype and expectations are attributed to last year's team.

"I told our football today that all of the expectations that are out there are a byproduct of Team 118," Jones said. "I want to remind everyone that Team 119 has not taken any snaps, so everything that is coming their way is the way Team 118 finished the season. That's usually how rankings go. Everything is a prediction, but they look at last year's team. Well, last year's team is not here."

Still, the expectations are high, but will the Volunteers be mature enough to handle them. Josh Dobbs returns at quarterback, but this year, he starts camp as the main guy. Last year, he started five games, played in six and still threw for 1,206 yards and nine touchdowns, including a game-winning TD aerial in the South Carolina game. He also rushed for 587 yards and eight touchdowns. Dobbs says he likes knowing he's the guy this year.

"It's awesome, but it's a different feel that you're the guy," Dobbs said. "I feel like I've done a good job taking command of the offense and now my goal is to continue to grow, take command of the offense, so we can have a great season."

Jones hopes Dobbs has gained confidence from last year's performance.

"He's proven himself and you know what you're getting with him day in and day out," Jones said. "We challenged him this spring to become a CEO quarterback, an individual who owns the team, owns the offense and can solve problems on his own. We're excited about him."

Quinton Dormady was officially named backup for the opener Tuesday and Jones said it will be important to give him live game reps early this season. Given the offense, Dobbs may expose himself to injury, so Dormady will be at the ready.

The Vols have a key returnee at running back with sophomore Jalen Hurd, who matured as the season went on last year. He had 899 yards and five touchdowns last season, but has been a bit injury prone. Alvin Kamara, who transferred from Alabama to Hutchison Community College, where he had 1,253 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns, hopes to be a one-two punch for the Vols, a la Travis Henry and Travis Stephens or even Reggie Cobb and Chuck Webb from the late 80s. Jones said that Kamara has developed into one of the more vocal leaders of the Vol offense.

"It feels great being able to be seen through Coach Jones eyes as the voice of the offense," Kamara said. "For him to say that really means a lot and shows how hard I've been working and time I've put in."

"Defenses are going to have to be honest because Dobbs can run and he can throw and they got a taste of Jalen last year and they'll get a taste of what I can do this year," Kamara said. "Defenses are going to have to account for all three of in the backfield at the same time."

There is an abundance of talent in the receiver corps and the reinstatement of Von Pearson only makes the unit better. Marquez North suffered a minor knee sprain, but has since returned to practice. Pearson had 393 yards in catches and five touchdowns last year. North had 30 receptions for 320 yards and four touchdowns. But Alton "Pig" Howard remains a wild card. Howard has, according to Jones, had a great pre-season camp, but there are other things deficient in his preparation, which led Jones to suspend him indefinitely before the Bowling Green game, though it is suspected that Howard should be back for Oklahoma.

"This is something that's been going on for months," Jones said.

Howard had 618 yards on 54 catches with a touchdown. His yardage and receptions led the team last year. Croom will miss with a knee injury, but the receiver corps is stacked.

Defensively, much of the focus has been on Curt Maggitt and Cam Sutton. Maggitt had 38 solo tackles and 11 sacks a year ago and is touted as one of the top defensive frontmen in the nation.

" We are getting very strong leadership on the defensive side of the ball with Curt Maggitt, but we need more. He can't do it all," said Jones. "Leadership is hard. You can't just do it when it's convenient. You lead when it's difficult. You really find out about your football team when you get into these later practices. You find out what type of resiliency you have, and it challenges your leadership."

Defensive back Cam Sutton had 37 total tackles last year to go with three picks and he's been asserting himself as a leader. He thought a group was loafing, so he called them back and made them double-time it back to the playing field.

"It's an opportunity to step up and lead the team; being a leader, you don't need coaches to tell you to be a leader, you just do it," Sutton said. "A lot of leaders across the board on defense. We have a lot of guys back hungry this year."

The Vols expect big things from defensive end Derek Barnett and freshman defensive tackle Khalil McKenzie, who enters his first year as a physical specimen. He'll need to mature and learn the nuances of the position, especially against great offensive lines in the SEC, like Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas to name a few.

Jones' mantra has been to make the team one percent better every day. The one percents add up and if all goes well, the coach hopes to improve on last year's 7-6 overall mark. The Vols have eight games in the state of Tennessee this year, but some tough road games. Florida, Missouri and Alabama are included among them. But three tough battles, Oklahoma, Georgia and Arkansas, are in Neyland Stadium.

The Vols, on paper, should be favored in seven games. That leaves five games that could tilt the season into a memorable one or a disappointment. Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri will be pivotal games. If the Vols can win two of those five, they'll have a nine-win season. The schedule sets up pretty well for the Vols. Their crossovers are Bama and Arkansas and some of the bigger games, like Georgia and Alabama, come after those teams have challenging battles the week before.

Keys to the Vols success this year will center on how this team matures, handles the spotlight, the hype and the big games. If this team understands that it will likely experience deficits in the big games and adversity all season, yet rise above, this could be a special season for the Volunteers.

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