Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain

Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ½, 304 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year with only one season of eligibility remaining to be used in 2018.
Depth chart: Mustipher will start at center for the third straight year, and, as has been the case for most of that time, his backup is to be determined.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Mustipher chose Notre Dame over the likes of Alabama, Michigan, Stanford and most other top-tier programs in the country. An Under Armour All-American, rivals.com rated him as the No. 3 prospect in Maryland, the No. 12 guard in the country and the No. 203 overall recruit.

Mustipher returns 25 starts to the Irish offensive line, all of them at center in the last two seasons. He first preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman before working as a reserve in nine games in 2015.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly named Mustipher one of three initial captains the first day of spring practice, an honor easily predicted.

“He’s got grit,” Kelly said. “He’s got all the things off the field. Engineering student who has graduated, great student, great role model, represents Notre Dame football in the manner that you would want your student-athletes. He just has an immense amount of respect from his peers, coaches, players.”

Mustipher’s growth over the last four seasons, and in particular the last few as a starter, has not been limited to earning respect from the rest of the roster, though.

“It’s been his best [offseason], obviously,” Kelly said in late March. “In terms of his numbers, we had a full staff meeting with the strength staff on Tuesday and he’s in the top three in every category physically.”

Of course, the focus of Mustipher’s performance has little to do with his work in the weight room and only somewhat pertains to his leadership.

“There’s a lot of confidence when Sam is in,” offensive line coach Jeff Quinn said in mid-April. “He’s able to direct calls and make adjustments based on what defenses are doing. [The entire offensive line] trusts Sam without a doubt, as I do. Certainly his experience is pretty evident when we flip on the film. He’s always on his A-game with the calls and various different techniques that are applied based on the situations that present themselves. He hits those marks all the time. It’s just great to have somebody that has that kind of experience.”

“Mustipher will continue to be the fulcrum on the Irish line next season, as well. [Left tackle Mike] McGlinchey and most likely [left guard Quenton] Nelson will be off to the NFL, leaving Mustipher and presumably [guard Alex] Bars as established starters, plus whoever gets the final nod at right tackle.”

Mustipher will likely become the vocal leader of the offense. As the most-established starter and an obvious choice as captain, he will do well in that role. When the going gets tough, his figurative and literal support will come from his immediate left side and fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, also a captain. The two have worked together, usually alongside each other, for five years now.

The only question around Mustipher is what happens if he twists his ankle, let alone suffers a long-term injury. Quinn identified senior Trevor Ruhland, sophomore Dillan Gibbons, Bars and incoming freshman Luke Jones as possibilities at center. None of them are centers by trade yet, but then again neither was Mustipher when he arrived at Notre Dame. If Mustipher is out for a series or a quarter, Ruhland or Gibbons would likely fill in. If the prognosis were to sideline Mustipher longer than that, then perhaps Bars would move to center and someone else could emerge at guard.

Either way, Mustipher’s health is of paramount importance to the Irish offense’s success, arguably even more so than that of starting quarterback senior Brandon Wimbush.

Mustipher’s technical ability has steadily improved throughout his collegiate career. Combined with some impressive strength, his progression makes him an intriguing draft prospect. Centers are not pursued as highly as other line positions, partly due to needing exactly half as many of them, but elite centers get noticed.

A three-year starter at Notre Dame, Mustipher’s draft fate may come down to his combine numbers as much as anything else, considering his film will almost certainly be outstanding.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 79 (theoretically) Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 77 (theoretically) Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 73 (theoretically) Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 (theoretically) John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically), Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

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    Notre Dame reveals Yankees-inspired look for 2018 Shamrock Series


    “This is 161st Street—Yankee Stadium.”

    Those are the only words included in Notre Dame and Under Armour’s initial unveiling of this year’s Shamrock Series uniforms, but not much else need be said. The jerseys will be worn Nov. 17 against Syracuse in Yankee Stadium and bear clear homages to the franchise with 27 World Series championships.

    The shoulders and pants include pinstripes, a la the New York Yankees’ home uniforms. The jersey’s primary color looks to be a dark navy blue, both in line with Notre Dame’s home uniforms and the Yankees’ color. (Contrary to most’s thoughts, the Yankees colors are navy blue, white and gray, not white and black.)

    If guessing at the design intentions of the simplistic helmet, the circular logo may be a nod toward New York City subway symbols.

    Across the front of the uniform, “Notre Dame” appears in a script unfamiliar to Irish fans. It is one typically used by the Yankees, best-identified by the lead-in tails on capital letters.

    The Irish and the Orange are scheduled to meet at 2:30 ET on Nov. 17, and broadcast on NBC.

    Notre Dame’s Opponents: Wake Forest

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    In an odd quirk of Notre Dame’s partnership with the ACC, Wake Forest shows up on the schedule two years in a row. Some remember last year’s 48-37 victory as the moment the Irish defense started to weaken in November, but it would be more accurate to say the defense lost its focus that afternoon thanks to a 48-23 fourth-quarter lead.

    Notre Dame cruised that day thanks to its running game. While that was true most of the season, it was not usually to the tune of 380 yards and an 8.3 yards per carry average. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush added 280 passing yards with a touchdown, completing 15-of-30 passes before turning the offense over to backup Ian Book, who went 8-for-8 on his way to 50 more aerial yards and another score.

    2017 REVIEW
    That blowout was extremely atypical of the Demon Deacons’ season. The only other team to trounce Wake Forest was Clemson, who casually led 28-0 in the fourth quarter before giving up two garbage time touchdowns in a similar fashion as the Irish did a few weeks later.

    Georgia Tech also beat the Deacons by two possessions, but that 38-24 loss included a 70-yard Yellow Jacket touchdown run in the final minutes.

    Not to diminish those three losses — the Tech loss especially must have felt like a missed opportunity — but the season was otherwise very much a success for Wake Forest. In an 8-5 campaign, the other two losses came by seven to Florida State and by eight to Duke as the Blue Devils scrapped for bowl eligibility.

    The Deacons won a bowl game for the second straight year, topping Texas A&M in a shootout truly worthy of the Belk Bowl. The 55-52 absurdity included 1,260 yards of total offense. Perhaps both most inexplicable and most predictable, the bookmakers predicted Wake Forest to win by three. Vegas knows, Vegas always knows.

    For a program on the rise, this is not usually a long entry, but here it should be. For that matter, it would not usually include a four-year starter at quarterback, but the Deacons are indeed now without John Wolford, second-team All-ACC last year thanks to 3,192 passing yards with a 63.9 percent completion rate and 29 touchdowns against only six interceptions.

    The critics of Notre Dame’s casual close against Wake Forest generally overlooked how accomplished and savvy Wolford was. He also added 683 yards and 10 scores rushing. Few quarterbacks in the country were more productive.

    Wolford relied on tight end Cam Serigne, first-team All-ACC thanks to 44 catches for 556 yards and nine touchdowns, and he learned to go to receiver Tabari Hines (53, 683, 7). Serigne is now working with the Carolina Panthers while Hines took a graduate transfer to Oregon.

    Defensively, the Deacons will now have to learn to live without their Nos. 2 and 3 tacklers, linebackers Grant Dawson (90 with 10.5 for loss) and Jaboree Williams (85, 14), as well as the next on that list, safety Jessie Bates (79, six). Bates missed three games due to injury, but was arguably the second-best defender on the team, hence his second round drafting by the Cincinnati Bengals.

    Wake Forest’s best defensive player was second-team All-ACC defensive end Duke Ejiofor (43 tackles with 16.5 for loss including 6.5 sacks). Throughout last season, the Irish faced a number of top-tier ends such as Ejiofor (along with Georgia’s Roquan Smith and North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb). Holding Ejiofor to only two tackles undoubtedly played a role in the Notre Dame offensive line winning the Joe Moore Award as the best offensive line in the country.

    Ejiofor’s counterpart Wendell Dunn (46 tackles, seven for loss with three sacks) left a void of his own having exhausted his eligibility.

    Junior Kendall Hinton (pictured above) actually beat out Wolford for the starting quarterback gig in 2016 when an injury ended his season after just one game. Wolford soon developed such that Hinton saw only spot action last year, namely in that loss to Clemson when Wolford was out injured.

    Hinton looked to be the presumed starter this past spring, ahead of sophomore Jamie Newman and early-enrolled freshman Sam Hartman. A dual-threat quarterback, Hinton rushed for 190 yards and a touchdown last year. He seemed ready to add wrinkles to head coach Dave Clawson’s schemes.

    In June, though, Clawson suspended Hinton for this season’s first three games due to a violation of team rules. The Deacons play the Irish in week four, so it initially appeared Hinton would be back behind center.

    That is until this preseason, as he has reportedly spent most practices working at receiver in such a way that it looks to be a long-term position change.

    The No. 31 quarterback in the country, per rivals.com, Not only did Hartman set himself up for success with his early enrollment, but his overall timing also could not have been better. Wolford is the only quarterback Clawson has relied upon during his Wake Forest tenure. The vacuum at quarterback may be overblown — hard to say no one is around when both Hinton and Newman certainly are — but it may feel that way to those around the program and Wolford the last four seasons.

    Dave Clawson (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

    Clawson’s rise up the coaching ranks has been an old-fashioned, prototypical one. From Fordham to Richmond to Bowling Green to Wake Forest, this now equals his time at Bowling Green for the longest stretch. At each stop, Clawson has gradually added wins each season until a worthwhile promotion arrived.

    With the Deacons, that progression began with back-to-back 3-9 seasons before yielding two bowl-winning years (7-6, 8-5).

    If 2018 goes well for Wake Forest, do not be surprised to hear Clawson’s name mentioned when openings begin popping up in November. There is no obvious alma mater or hometown university for him to consider, having gone to Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and originally hailing from Youngstown, N.Y.

    In a continuing effort to realize everything in football ties back to Lane Kiffin, it can be noted Kiffin cut short Clawson’s only other Power Five coaching experience when Kiffin took the head coaching gig at Tennessee. Clawson had spent the 2008 season as offensive coordinator with the Volunteers in a year assistant coaching between head gigs at FCS-level Richmond and Bowling Green.

    In other words, there is also no school where Clawson spent years as an assistant to consider as an obvious destination for him if he opts to move upward from Winston-Salem.

    A dramatic injury cut short his true freshman season, but Wake Forest receiver Greg Dortch still managed to catch all of college football’s attention for a few weeks last fall as he broke out of the gates with 722 yards and nine touchdowns on 53 receptions in eight games. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

    When then-sophomore receiver Greg Dortch dove for the end zone to score his second touchdown in a 42-32 victory over Louisville last season, he made the Irish defense’s job much easier a week later. Though Dortch went on to score twice more that day, finishing with 10 catches for 167 yards and the most receiving touchdowns in a game in Deacons history, it was the landing on a pylon that prompted abdominal surgery.

    In just six starts in eight games, Dortch caught 53 passes for 722 yards and nine touchdowns. Whoever starts at quarterback for Wake Forest, Dortch will be his favorite target.

    Aside from that, the passing game will have much to prove, but likely with time on each snap to prove it. The offensive line gave up only 20 sacks last season while paving the way for 188.9 rushing yards per game. That entire line returns this season, including first-team All-ACC center Ryan Andersen, third-team All-ACC left tackle Justin Herron and third-team All-ACC left guard Phil Haynes.

    Then-junior running back Matt Colburn ran for 904 yards and seven touchdowns with an average of 5.4 yards per carry behind that line last year. He should have little trouble boosting those stats this season.

    This remains a scheme abnormally familiar to Notre Dame fans. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel replaced Mike Elko when Elko went to South Bend for a season, but enough of Elko’s concepts remain, including the rover position, manned by senior Demetrius Kemp (63 tackles last season).

    However, it is a defense filled with personnel somewhat unfamiliar to Deacons fans. Replacing two defensive ends, two linebackers and a safety spells little but inexperience.

    In Clawson’s first three years at Wake Forest, the offense never gained more than 333 yards per game. In his first two seasons, it scored 14.8 points and 17.4 points per game before jumping to 20.4 in 2016.

    Then last season, the Deacons averaged 466 yards and 35.3 points per game. Without Wolford, regression may seem probable. If quarterback drama ensues, it likely is, but if Clawson can stabilize that position, the program should continue the overall trends of late.

    Some states would allow those interested to guess if Wake Forest will win more or fewer than 6.5 games this season. In the ACC, that is a tougher ask than it may seem, and it likely comes down to quarterback play. The schedule includes three should-be wins in a season-opening trip to Tulane and visits from Towson and Rice. Three conference contemporaries all visit the Deacons: Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Perhaps the season will come down to Thanksgiving weekend’s trip to nearby Duke, but an upset of Notre Dame, Florida State, Louisville or North Carolina State would conceivably render that concern moot by then.

    Notre Dame backup QB Ian Book’s progress removes some restrictions on starter Brandon Wimbush

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    Odd as it may sound, Brian Kelly’s increased confidence in Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book could actually lead to greater comfort with Irish senior and starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

    A year ago, neither had taken competitive snaps and the head coach had seen only Wimbush spend time with the starters. There was little trust in Book, more due to a lack of opportunity than as an actual reflection of Book. Opportunity arrived at North Carolina and in the Citrus Bowl last season.

    “Everybody is quite confident in [Book’s] ability to run our first team,” Kelly said Wednesday. “That’s no longer an effect. If you asked me last year at this time if Ian went in there with the ones, there might be some hesitation as to can he lead us.

    Obviously, both quarterbacks have now played winning football for the Irish and have had another offseason to develop only further.

    “We’re way ahead of where we were last year with both quarterbacks, certainly just by experience alone,” Kelly said. “We came into this (2017 iteration of media day), and your No. 1 and No. 2 quarterback hadn’t played.

    “That’s a different feeling for a head coach than coming in here and they’ve won football games and they’ve had success, they’ve been in the mix.”

    How does that change Wimbush’s season for his own betterment? Shouldn’t it simply mean he has a shorter leash, with a proven and competent backup behind him?

    Rather, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long are no longer petrified of losing Wimbush for a quarter or a week to injury. They can utilize the full breadth of his skills, in particular his rushing abilities.

    Last year, Wimbush had 141 carries by the NCAA’s count, but that included 24 sacks. Of the remaining 117, 49 came in the season’s first three weeks, including 21 for 201 yards and four touchdowns at Boston College. As the year progressed, Wimbush took off running less, in part because of opponent’s adjustments and in part because of Kelly’s and Long’s wishes. They recognized the lower ceiling the season would have with Wimbush sidelined by injury.

    Now, that lowered ceiling is not quite as low. Thus, there is less reason to rein in Wimbush.

    “We’re less concerned about carries with him and more interested in highlighting his strengths and being productive with him,” Kelly said.

    That ability does not mean Wimbush’s focus changes, though.

    “It’s just consistency with accuracy,” Kelly said. “He’s made progress there. He’s not where he wants to be, but he’s made significant progress even from the spring, and that’s better than what we saw during the year.

    “Incremental progress. We’re all striving for better, but again, we’ve made the progress necessary.”

    That progress theoretically opens up Notre Dame’s offense for all its weapons. As the preseason progresses, Kelly continues to add names to that list which already included senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior receiver Chase Claypool and the continuing-to-emerge sophomore converted running backs Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, not to mention a couple unproven tight ends high on potential. Add freshman receiver Kevin Austin to the tally.

    “[Austin is] a finely-conditioned athlete in the sense that he comes back the next day, recovers extremely well, knows how to take care of his body,” Kelly said. “… When we see a freshman that can handle the volume, we’re just going to push him in there. He doesn’t know 50 percent of the playbook, but he’s got that volume and that skillset. He’s a guy that can help us this year.”

    Other freshmen who have similarly impressed: offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson and cornerback TaRiq Bracy. Of course, no one can apparently match Armstrong’s endurance and positive impressions made these last few weeks.

    “Jafar is in a different category,” Kelly said. “I haven’t seen a guy like him in terms of the volume that he carries, and he doesn’t break down at all.”

    Davis, meanwhile, is working on the learning curve in that process. The former quarterback is not quite used to running routes and taking handoffs all practice, not to mention the exponentially increased number of tackles innate to the position change.

    “It’s a mindset now that his recovery is much more important for him in some instances because we know what he can do as a football player,” Kelly said.

    Sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey has missed the last few practices with an aggravated tendon in his lower leg. He will retake his spot as the starter on the edge Tuesday, per Kelly, largely as a matter of caution.

    “We wanted a full seven-to-eight days, somewhere in that range, so we didn’t risk inflaming the tendon again,” Kelly said. “We’re on that timetable. He’s weight training, conditioning.”

    In Hainsey’s absence, sophomore Josh Lugg and senior Trevor Ruhland have taken snaps at right guard with junior Tommy Kraemer moving from guard to right tackle — some of that would have been planned anyway so as to find a level of comfort mixing the starters with the backups as the season may deem necessary.

    Aside from Hainsey, the only injury of note is a case of patellar tendonitis slowing junior defensive end Daelin Hayes. Such ailments typically pop up here and there in preseason practice.

    “Nothing that’s keeping anybody out of long-term competition,” to use Kelly’s words.

    Sophomore Isaiah Robertson moved to receiver Wednesday, his second position switch this offseason after first moving from safety to rover. At rover, Robertson would have needed to jump senior Asmar Billal, sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah and freshman Shayne Simon without becoming too redundant when compared to senior nickelback Shaun Crawford. It would have been a tough needle to thread, if not a distinction without a difference all along.

    “He’s got some skills, he showed that today,” Kelly said. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing offensively, but in the blue zone showed soft hands, went up and caught the football with dexterity, didn’t feel like it was clumsy to him. It was natural. He’s a guy that will continue to progress on the offensive side.”

    Notre Dame’s Opponents: Vanderbilt

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    Derek Mason was not knocking Notre Dame, no matter what the Stadium looked like the last time an SEC team visited. (Read: Georgia.) Rather, the Vanderbilt head coach was simply pulling from the bottomless pool of coach-speak deployed at conference media days.

    “We play in the SEC. I don’t worry about going to South Bend,” Mason said last month. “Right now, I am worried about [Middle Tennessee State]. … We’re about Notre Dame when that game comes. Right now, it’s about MTSU. It’s about going to camp.”

    There was nothing negative about that. It was what any coach would and should have said in that moment. That some tried to make a story out of it just goes to show how mundane July media days often are.

    2017 REVIEW
    The Commodores began last season 3-0, including a 14-7 upset of Kansas State. In the process, they gave up 4.3 points and 198 yards per game, earning recognition as the country’s top defense to that point.

    Then Alabama came to Nashville. What followed is considered a crime in some countries.

    Vanderbilt never truly recovered from that 59-0 shellacking. If looking past the scoreboard, the contest was not even that close. The Tide gained 677 yards. The Commodores managed 78. They gained three more first downs than this scribe would have on his own.

    Vanderbilt lost its first seven SEC games, getting a respite during that streak only with a visit from Western Kentucky. To avoid a winless conference season, the Commodores took advantage of a deteriorating situation at Tennessee, notching a 42-24 victory at their rival.

    Even after acknowledging that losing streak and 1-7 conference record, it hardly depicts just how bad things got after Alabama’s work was done. The following week’s 38-24 loss at Florida looks good when compared to what came next, a 45-14 beatdown at home from Georgia. By the end of the season, Vanderbilt gave up more points than any SEC team ever had in one conference slate, allowing an average of 43 along with 472 yards per conference game.

    In retrospect, the disaster tied to the schedule as much as anything else. SEC teams play two games a year against the opposite division. Drawing the eventual national champion Tide, let alone to open conference play with Nick Saban’s powerhouse, was unfortunate. Even a down Ole Miss program is nothing to take lightly.

    This list starts with Vanderbilt career-rushing leader Ralph Webb, who finished last season with 831 yards and 10 touchdowns. The offense also now looks to replace two of its top-three receivers, Trent Sherfield (50 receptions for 729 yards and five touchdowns) and CJ Duncan (52, 517, 5). Webb added 188 more receiving yards.

    On the other side of the ball, the Green Bay Packers may immediately rely on linebacker Oren Burks (82 tackles with seven for loss and three passes broken up), drafted in the third round, while Vanderbilt’s interior defense looks to replace not only him, but also defensive tackles Nifae Lealao (23 tackles with four for loss) and Jonathan Wynn (23 tackles with 1.5 sacks).

    Just to add a cherry on top of Mason’s sundae, the Commodores also need to revamp their kicking game, as both their kicker and punter have moved on.

    This is a longer entry than usually expected, and its four headliners come at positions of need considering some of the aforementioned losses. Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn ran for 4.7 yards per carry and nine touchdowns in his two seasons at Illinois before transferring. A four-star recruit, Vaughn may have the talent to legitimately replace Webb.

    Receiver Alex Stump never caught on (pun intended) at Ohio State, but as another highly-touted recruit he is presumably expected to step right into the depleted depth chart, perhaps along with four-star freshman Camron Johnson.

    Defensive tackle Louis Vecchio arrives from Penn fresh off two consecutive years of first-team All-Ivy honors. Again noting the above attrition, Vecchio should start.

    Mason is not on a hot seat, but it could quickly get warm. Last year’s SEC results were that bad and served to underscore the fact that he has not even reached .500 in conference play in any of his first four years.

    Vanderbilt has gone 0-5 against the top 10 under Mason and 2-14 against the top 25, one of those victories being week three against Kansas State last year (No. 18 at the time) and the other coming in the 2016 season finale against Tennessee (No. 24).

    If anything can keep Mason’s job status comfortable despite what will inevitably be another tough year in the SEC, it would be topping the Volunteers for a third-straight time.

    With 30 career starts to his name, Vanderbilt senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur has one last chance at finishing a season with a winning record. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

    Four-year starter and son of New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur, quarterback Kyle Shurmur completed 57.9 percent of his passes last year, throwing 26 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. If he can find some new go-to targets at receiver, an appropriate coda to his collegiate career seems possible.

    That said, the Commodores should rely on the run and Vaughn. Why? They return 97 career starts along the offensive line. Last year they averaged just 107 rushing yards per game and 3.7 per carry, so improvement should not be hard to find.

    While his computers do not anticipate the rushing game to progress much (114.7 projected yards per game), Phil Steele does posit, “This should be the most productive offense in Mason’s five seasons.” To give that context, the points per game number to beat would be last year’s 24.6 and Mason’s highest yards per game comes in at just 356 in 2016. That framing shows Steele’s praise to be marginal, at best.

    Charles Wright (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

    First-year defensive coordinator Jason Tarver has his work cut out for him. If anything goes right there this season, presume the credit ties to senior outside linebacker Charles Wright, whose 43 tackles with nine sacks, was enough to earn him second-team All-SEC honors last year.

    Wright’s recognition came in spite of Vanderbilt giving up 31.3 points per game across the season. That was more than a touchdown worse than the 2016 Mason-coordinated defense managed, despite improving its yards per game numbers by 15.

    Relatively speaking, optimism may be warranted. Much of that hope comes at the rest of the state’s expense.

    Bookmakers set the metric of success on the Commodores’ season at 4.5 wins. Two of those should come before visiting Notre Dame when both Middle Tennessee and Nevada visit. To end September, Vanderbilt hosts Tennessee State, a third hypothetical victory.

    SEC play again begins in earnest in an ugly fashion, traveling to Georgia and then hosting Florida. (The Commodores host South Carolina between facing the Irish and *insert plural form of Tennessee State mascot here*.) (Yes, that remaining placeholder was intentional. If fun cannot be poked at the Fighting Tennessee States, then where can it be?) There is a very real chance Vanderbilt can come out of that two-game rough stretch at no worse than 3-4.

    From there, two wins could exist: at Kentucky, at Arkansas, bye week before heading to Missouri, vs Mississippi and vs Tennessee.

    A bowl game may be a reach, but Mason should be able to survive back-to-back 5-7 seasons if both include victories over the Volunteers.

    P.S. The Tigers. The Tennessee State Tigers.