If there are two days when the “home-field advantage” is prevalent at SEC Football Media Days in Hoover, it’s the day Alabama coach Nick Saban is on the schedule (yesterday) and the day Auburn coach Malzahn arrives (today).
The last day of this year’s Media Days also included coaches of two SEC schools that had positives to point to last season but are not satisfied. Here is what the coaches of Vanderbilt and Kentucky had to say about their upcoming seasons.
Vanderbilt is not out of its depth when it comes to its roster
When you’re dealing with nautical themes like commodores and anchors, depth is a must and Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said he finally has it.
“I want you to know this is a different-looking Vanderbilt football team with maturity, depth, athleticism, leadership. It’s all in place for us,” Mason said at SEC Football Media Days 2019. “Personally, I’m looking forward to the start of preseason camp because this is the deepest squad I’ve had in my six years at Vanderbilt.”
Mason and his staff have been effective in using the graduate transfer rules to add to the roster. Unlike the player transfer portal, which can be difficult for a school with high academic hurdles like Vanderbilt, graduate transfers are an easier get.
“What we found is that when you look at the graduate transfer opportunity, that’s been spectacular for us,” Mason said. “And that’s really what I’m looking for at different times, just to fortify a roster with guys who have played ballgames. And I need that. You know, when you can bring in guys who have had close to 150-plus cumulative starts wherever they’ve been, that’s experience that you can’t buy.
Also contributing to Vanderbilt’s depth is the return of key offensive weapons from a year ago in running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, tight end Jared Pinkney and wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb.
“These three are proven in this conference and deserve your All-SEC vote,” Mason said. “Collectively, all three men came back for the final season to finish their degrees, improve their craft and lead this team.”
They will be doing so with new offensive coordinator Gerry Gdowski as well as a new starting quarterback.
“With the departure of Kyle Shurmur to the NFL, Deuce Wallace and Riley Neal are competing for the starting (quarterback) job,” Mason said. “They have similar skill sets and different strengths. Deuce is a skilled athlete. He is very familiar with our offense. Riley comes in having started 32 games at Ball State where he completed 60% of his throws for 7,400 yards.”
There, too, Mason said his team has depth.
“The fact is with Mo Hasan and Allan Walters, there’s more talent in the quarterback room today than at any other time in my tenure as head coach,” said Mason, who enters his sixth season as the head coach of the Commodores.
Mason likes what Vanderbilt brings back on the other side of the ball as well.
“Defensively, we’re bigger, longer, deeper, faster, smarter,” Mason said. “I expect this year to improve in Jason Tarver’s second year as coordinator. We have numerous returning players who saw significant playing time last season. We expect all of them to make great strides this fall.”
The Commodores will have opportunities early to make those strides. They face one of the toughest opening three-game stretches in the country – opening with Georgia at home and then traveling to Purdue followed by an open date before LSU comes to Nashville on Sept. 21.
“When you talk about the schedule, and where we’re at, I love the schedule. I really do. It gives this team a chance to test itself early. You know, you want to — if you think you have a good football team, what you want to do is be tested early,” Mason said. “We get a chance to test ourselves early – these games with Georgia, Purdue … LSU, two of those at home – I think would do this football team some good and give us a chance to see what the Commodores have in 2019.”
Kentucky out to prove last year wasn’t an anomaly
Kentucky Wildcats football posted its first 10-win regular season in four decades last year, but coach Mark Stoops said he’s not out to just have a generational-type season.
“Coming off the first 10-win season we’ve had in 41 years, we want to continue to do the good things we’re doing, continue to build on the principles, practices and systems that we’ve done to get us to that point,” Stoops said. “We’re not interested in just having one good team or one good year. We’re interested in building a program. And that’s what we’re doing.”
They will be doing it without generational-type players on both sides of the ball as running back Benny Snell and linebacker Josh Allen, National Defensive Player of the Year last year, left for the NFL.
“Benny Snell is a hard guy to replace I think mostly because of his competitive nature and his desire and his drive, fantastic player for us, but we have really good options at running back,” Stoops said. “It’s now time for guys like A.J. Rose to step up. (Wetumpka native) Kavosiey Smoke is a young guy that we are very high on. Chris Rodriguez, so we have players there that are ready to step up and fill in.”
Filling Allen’s shoes will be even more difficult, Stoops said.
“Josh is a hard guy to replace,” Stoops said. “You don’t replace him with any one guy.”
Stoops said the loss of Allen and other players on defense from a year ago creates a challenge. However, he said experience on the interior of the defensive line and inside linebacker will help.
Those players who return from a year ago do so with a hunger and a recognition of what is required to achieve 10 wins in the SEC.
“The nice thing is … our players saw what it takes,” Stoops said. “They saw the sacrifices that those players (made). They were part of it.”
Another big addition to the Wildcats’ roster is Sawyer Smith, a graduate transfer quarterback from Troy. Stoops said it’s too soon to tell what role he will play on the team.
“It is important to get Sawyer, the fact that he has experience. He’s a really talented player, but he’s also played in big games. I’m a big believer at that position you don’t know exactly what you have until you get him into a game,” Stoops said. “Sawyer’s going to be a big piece of it. How big? I don’t know. We’ll see when he gets on campus and we get to work with him. But I’m excited to have him. I’m excited to have that experience. He’s been under pressure. He’s played in big games. You’ve seen him deliver under pressure.”
Stoops shares Alabama coach Nick Saban’s concern over the liberal issuing of waivers for players in the transfer portal who don’t have to sit out a year when they transfer.
Stoops said there has to be a balance between helping those players who have a need to transfer and a policy that is in effect free agency among student-athletes.
“When kids need to transfer, there’s very good, solid reasons for that to happen. I think the human side of myself and everybody understands that and wants to support that,” Stoops said. “When it gets to total free agency, I think we all are a bit concerned about that. And, again, you get criticized, you know, either way you stand on that. You want to be human. You want to help kids. That’s what we’re here for. That’s why we’re in this business. But part of that is also being hard on kids and disciplining kids and helping them be accountable when they don’t necessarily want to, you know?”