The top 10 Vanderbilt football players you need to know for the 2016 season.
1. LB Zach Cunningham, Jr.
The team’s leading tackler, Cunningham came up with 103 tackles as the main man for a terrific run defense. The All-SEC performer also found ways to get behind the line on a regular basis, coming up with 4.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss building on his 67-tackle first year.
While he’s not all that big, the 6-4, 230-pounder is a fantastic hitter coming up with a midseason three-game run of 38 tackles and closed out with four straight double-digit stop games highlighted by a 14-tackle day against Texas A&M. Fast, aggressive, and always around the ball, he’s a hitting machine.
2. RB Ralph Webb, Jr.
One of the few positives on a miserable offense over the last two seasons, Webb followed up a 907-yard, four score freshman season with 1,152 yards and five scores while catching 24 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns. The Gainesville, Florida native is a phenomenal athlete – he was a Florida state high school track star – and tough enough to handle the ball over 300 times with 100-yard games in three of the last four games of the season. With no passing game to take the head off, he still came up with 90 rushing yards or more in seven of the last nine games.
3. LB Nigel Bowden, Jr.
The team’s leading tackler two years ago, he made 78 tackles with 21 stops in a two-game, but last year he made just four tackles before being knocked out for the season with issues from a concussion. The 6-1, 239-pounder is a playmaker on the inside, and while he’s not going to fly into the backfield too often, he’s an incredibly smart, tough tackler who should put up massive numbers if he’s okay. He’s a battler.
4. CB Torren McGaster, Sr.
At 6-0 and 200 pounds, he’s a strong corner who’s outstanding at making stops in the open field and great when locking on to his man. The team’s fourth-leading tackler came up with 51 tackles – 41 solo – and broke up 13 passes. While he didn’t come up with any picks, he was a strong, steady performer against the run and got the job done for a terrific pass defense.
5. S Oren Burks, Jr.
With 59 tackles, Burks finished third on the team doing more than being a last line of defense. Even though he’s built for his free safety job at 6-3 and 215 pounds, he’s like an extra linebacker at times. He was steady all season against the run and closed out with a bang – making 16 stops in his last two games – and also did his part against the pass with three picks and six broken up passes. The two-time academic all-star should get a look on the All-SEC team for his work on the field, too, as one of the league’s elite defensive backs.
6. QB Kyle Shurmur, Soph.
It might have been an ugly first season at times, but it was the time logged in needed as a true freshman to potentially take a giant leap forward. At 6-4 and 223 pounds he’s got tremendous size to go along with the type of athleticism to make him a Pennsylvania high school all-state-caliber swimmer. He only completed 44-of-103 passes for 503 yards and five scores and three picks, but even though his accuracy was non-existent at times, he closed out strong with 209 yards and three scores in the loss to Tennessee. The talent is there to come up with a night-and-day better sophomore campaign.
7. OT Andrew Jelks, Sr.
The Vanderbilt pass protection wasn’t a positive giving up 28 sacks, and while the running game was fine, it could’ve been better. Now the offense has the potential to be far stronger as long as Jelks comes back healthy and ready to roll again at left tackle. The 6-6, 303-pounder was banged up two years ago but gutted it out, and last year hurt his knee before the season started and was out for the year. An all-star as a freshman, he hasn’t been able to blossom because of his injuries. If he’s okay, he’ll be the anchor.
8. WR C.J. Duncan, Jr.
Why did the passing game struggle so much? Not having Duncan around had something to do with it. The 5-11, 203-pounder finished second on the team in receiving yards with 441 on 28 catches with four scores in 2014, averaging close to 16 yards per catch. He missed the final game of the season hurt, and missed the entire 2015 campaign after getting knocked out for the year before it even started. His injured leg is okay now, and the former quarterback should be one of the team’s most dangerous downfield targets.
9. WR Trent Sherfield, Jr.
With C.J. Duncan out last year, Sherfield became the team’s leading receiver – almost doubling the production of the No. 2 man – catching 51 passes for 659 yards and three scores. However, 16 of those catches for 240 yards and a score came in the win over Austin Peay. The 6-1, 199-pounder has good size and can get physical when attacking the ball. Also a fantastic athlete, he’s got the speed to get deep averaging almost 13 yards per catch.
10. PK/P Tommy Openshaw, Jr.
One of the team’s best all-around weapons last season, he cranked out almost 41 yards per punt forcing a whopping 30 fair catches with 27 put inside the 20. He’s got a good leg with the ability to give it a shot on field goals from beyond 50 yards, but he topped out with a 49-yarder last year in the opener against WKU. He hit 12-of-19 field goals, and didn’t even get an attempt over the last five games.