NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Derek Mason has reason to be excited about the upcoming football season with the Southeastern Conference's top returning rusher and receiver back along with his top tight end back at Vanderbilt.
Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney all believe they can help the Commodores reach higher goals.
"I had a lot of goals that I didn't achieve so personally, team-wise," Pinkney said. "I feel that we can be better as a team, and I definitely feel that I can be better as a player."
They helped Vanderbilt go 6-7 in a season capped by a 45-38 loss to Baylor in the Texas Bowl. The Commodores have won at least five games each of the past three seasons under Mason, who got a contract extension in February, and reached two bowls in that span. They've also won three straight against in-state rival Tennessee for their longest winning streak in this series since the 1920s.
Mason must replace quarterback Kyle Shurmur after four seasons. The Vanderbilt coach does have Vaughn who ran for 1,244 yards last season and averaged 7.9 yards per carry and 103.7 yards per game to help along with Lipscomb, who caught 87 passes for 916 yards and nine touchdowns.
Vaughn is back because he didn't like what he heard about his NFL draft grade, and he also will graduate in December.
"It's a win-win situation," Vaughn said.
Lipscomb didn't reach the goals he set with his parents to trigger a decision to leave college.
"I didn't do that and I like to consider myself a man of my word, so here I am," Lipscomb said.
How high were his goals?
"They were pretty lofty," Lipscomb said. "And you know they're higher this year, so we'll keep pushing."
Some other things to know about Vanderbilt, which opens the season Aug. 31 hosting Georgia:
Mason has not hid his expectations that this is the best team he's had since arriving at Vanderbilt as he goes into his sixth season. He's 24-38 overall and 9-31 in SEC play as only the second Vanderbilt coach to take the Commodores to more than one bowl game.
WHO'S AT QUARTERBACK
Mason is looking for a starter at quarterback and letting Riley Neal, a graduate transfer from Ball State, compete with Deuce Wallace during fall practice before making a choice. Neal threw for 7,393 yards and 46 TDs in 34 games at Ball State, while Wallace backed up Shurmur in 2017 before being suspended last season. Mason isn't letting his quarterbacks talk to reporters until he picks his quarterback. Either Neal or Wallace should give new offensive coordinator Gerry Gdowski more options with their abilities to run in an offense that will be a bit more spread out.
OFFENSIVE LINE CHANGES
Mason also must find three new starters on the line with center Bruno Reagan and left tackle Justin Skule gone. Devin Cochran is expected to move to left tackle. But the Vanderbilt coach sounds pretty confident in his options, which includes graduate transfer Rowan Godwin who played last season at South Alabama. Mason says Godwin solidified for him where the Commodores will be on the line with at least nine linemen available.
BOOSTING THE DEFENSE
Two of Vanderbilt's five graduate transfers for this season are on defense in cornerback Cam Watkins, a Nashville native who started 16 games at Illinois, and defensive tackle Eddie Zinn-Turner, who had three sacks last season at Marist. Watkins can help fill the void left by New England drafting Joejuan Williams in the second round in April. Second-year coordinator Jason Tarver must shore up a run defense that ranked 94th nationally last year, allowing 194.7 yards per game.
Georgia is just the start of a very rough schedule with a visit to Purdue before hosting LSU. They also visit Mississippi, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee with visits from Missouri and Kentucky.
"We have a firm belief that we can play with everybody on our schedule," Pinkney said.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker