AN OPPOSING VIEW
Adam Sparks of the The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville is this week’s guest for “An Opposing View.”
Sparks was the Middle Tennessee beat reporter for about 10 years for The Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, Tenn., before moving over to the Tennessean, another Gannett publication, to cover the Vanderbilt beat about a year ago. So he got to see Year One of coach Derek Mason up close and personal last year. The dude deserves combat pay.
Sparks tells me he grew up in Decaturville, Tenn., as a fan of SEC sports and is a graduate of Middle Tennessee State University. According to his bio at The Tennessean, he lives with his daughter Colby in Mount Juliet, Tenn., and spends his free time as a youth soccer coach, Sunday school teacher, avid runner and lover of Southern fried foods. Good thing he likes both of those last two things.
You can follow Sparks and all things Commodore on Twitter @AdamSparks and see all his stories HERE.
Now let’s get to the view. …
1. Georgia is already labeling as bulletin board material Jake Bernstein’s comments about preferring Ralph Webb as his running back to the Bulldogs’ Nick Chubb. Sometimes the context gets lost in such statements. Is there any that needs to be applied here or did the young man mean what he said?
Sparks: There is some context, but nothing that would change what he meant. At the end of Tuesday’s press conference, a TV reporter asked Bernstein, an offensive guard, “Is Ralph Webb getting overshadowed in this game because of Nick Chubb?” Bernstein obviously made it known that he prefers to block for his own running back, Ralph Webb, than Chubb “any day.” Bernstein didn’t mean it to be critical of Chubb in any way. I just think he was taking up for his guy, the same as most linemen would do for their running back or quarterback. Plus, Bernstein said the line’s play was poor in the opener, so I think he’s pretty eager to turn that around and open up some running lanes for Webb in game two.
2. While we’re on the subject, can you give us a little run-down on Webb?
Sparks: Ralph Webb is a Gainesville native who was bypassed by his hometown Gators in recruiting. Last season, he broke Vanderbilt’s freshman rushing record with 907 yards, and he earned every inch of it. Webb had no long breakaway runs, but he ran hard against defenses loading the box and intent on keeping him in check. Webb had two 100-yard rushing games, but none in SEC play. This season, he has returned stronger and faster and ready to carry an even larger load for the offense – that is, if he can get some help elsewhere. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig labeled Webb a focal point of his “tailback-driven offense” during preseason. One new wrinkle to this year’s offense is that Webb is catching the ball out of the backfield rather than just running between the tackles.
3. Can you fill in our readers on all the actions head coach Derek Mason has taken since last season and how those moves look so far?
Sparks: Derek Mason fired his offensive and defensive coordinators and his strength coach, taking almost every facet of the team in a different direction in year two of his tenure. The two big hires came from good fortune, as offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig (Wisconsin) and strength coach James Dobson (Nebraska) both left good programs after successful stints because of head coaching changes. Once on the open market, Mason snatched them up. Mason also named himself defensive play-caller, putting his best asset into the team. Mason got the Vanderbilt head coaching job because he was one of the nation’s best defensive coordinators while at Stanford. One game into this season, the offense and defense both look better. But will that yield any more wins? Only time will tell.
4. I’m sure you get tired of answering this but do you believe Mason is seriously in danger of getting fired if things are not markedly improved this season?
Sparks: I might not use the word “markedly” because that would mean an increase of two wins or more, and I’m not sure if these Commodores can pull that off – especially after losing a winnable game to Western Kentucky. But putting a win total to the side, I think he could buy himself some more time by showing improvement on both sides of the ball, progress in recruiting and especially a strong defense under his watch. All three are possible, and I don’t get the sense that Vanderbilt is eager for another coaching search. So, yes, I believe there is a scenario where Mason could be in trouble of losing his job by season’s end, but I think there are plenty of pitfalls the team will have to encounter before then. If Vanderbilt can win a couple of non-conference games, be competitive in most SEC games and perhaps win at least one, then I could see him getting more time.
5. Saw where James Franklin’s Penn State Nittany Lions fell to Temple? How was that news received by the good folks at Vandy U?
Sparks: Vanderbilt fans have an awkward and wide-ranging perspective on Franklin, from my vantage point at least. Many are still bitter that he left, especially since he gave the impression that he was here for the long haul. For those fans, they like to see him lose. But for many, the sting is gone now and they understand that he left for a good job at a tradition-rich school in another strong conference. Do they like that he left? No. But do they accept it and move on? Yes, as best they can. I think with each season, less and less Vanderbilt fans even pay attention to Franklin.
Sparks’ prediction: I see a close game early on. I think Vanderbilt’s defense keeps Georgia in check for a while and its offense moves the ball just enough to make it interesting. Vandy will sell out to try to limit the ground game, hoping to force the Bulldogs into throwing the ball. By the second half, I think Georgia gets a little more balance and a big enough lead to feed Nick Chubb and those other backs quite a bit. Georgia pulls away in the second half. Georgia 34, Vanderbilt 17