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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Texas A&M

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Really late night class time!

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Texas A&M
Turnover time! Daevion Davis had a great strip and steal on this play.
Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

I think it is safe to say that no one outside the players, the coaches, and their parents expected what transpired in College Station. The loss was certainly expected, but the 17-12 final score was shocking. The difficult part about assessing a week 1 game is figuring out how much of the game was due to one team doing something well or the opposition being poor. The oddities of the unknown in first games can also mean the results are not repeatable. In light of these factors, this will mostly be Topics for Further Study with no Lessons We Know Well. It is time to dive into a little late-night learning.

Lessons We Are Learning

First and foremost, Vanderbilt appears to have their QB of the present and future. Ken Seals was 20/29 passing for 150 yards with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. The first interception was some sort of miscommunication or differing route read between Seals and Cam Johnson. A play like that is expected to happen in a first game playing together. As long as it does not become a recurring problem, the pick is just a frustrating growing pain. The second interception was a throw that Seals tried to force a bit that ended up being tipped up into the air to be intercepted. He seems like a confident QB, so there will probably be some of those throughout the season and his career. The expectation is that he becomes more attuned to what he, his teammates, and the opposition are capable of to prevent these types of turnovers from happening too often. His confidence is what led to some really nice plays, too. The TD pass to Amir Abdur-Rahman was a perfect example where a ball was put into the tiniest of windows. He had 3 or 4 other throws of a quality that, since the turn of the century only Kyle Shurmur or Jay Cutler can lay claim to in a Vanderbilt uniform. Seals’s performance earned a 58.9 Total QBR which is higher than all but 4 games by Commodore QBs in 2019. Only 2 of them were against SEC opponents (Neal’s 59.5 vs LSU and Hasan’s 84.9 vs Missouri). Doing it in game one as a true freshman on the road against an SEC team makes it special. Seals did not have to do it all on his own though.

One key piece, but maybe not the most important piece, was Amir Abdur-Rahman who I am already willing to say is a very solid WR1. Seals is clearly confident in him based on how often Abdur-Rahman was targeted, especially in critical situations. 5 of the 20 completions went to #2 along with 72 of 150 yards through the air. At 6’4 and 215 pounds, AAR pairs a great frame with very good athleticism to create the type of target that any QB would love. It remains to be seen how high of a ceiling he has, but the talent is obvious. The other question remaining is how Abdur-Rahman handles facing the elite CBs many SEC teams have. He will almost certainly draw the attention of possibly the best CB in the country, Derek Stingley Jr, against LSU. Stingley is somewhat questionable after a hospitalization reportedly due to an allergic reaction made him miss LSU’s opening game against Mississippi State last week.

Lessons for Further Study

Todd Fitch and the offensive line managed to scheme and perform well enough to allow only 2 sacks. Ken Seals typically had sufficient time to find a receiving option. The same 5 started and played every snap that I noticed on the re-watch. From left to right, the alignment was Tyler Steen, Dan Dawkins, Grant Miller, Drew Birchmeier, and Connor Mignone. A lot of credit for that should go to Fitch for the plays he drew up, especially the sprint outs. The new OC should keep using his QB’s ability to throw very well on the run. The OL held up even on straight dropback passes, including a couple of attempted deep shots. After being eaten up by KJ Costello and Mike Leach’s offense, Bo Pelini will almost certainly dial up a ton of blitzes to take advantage of the cobbled together OL and inexperience of Seals. If they can replicate the Texas A&M performance, they will have far surpassed anyone’s expectations. The most any Vanderbilt fan had hoped for was a line that was bad instead of terrible. Combined, Fitch and the OL produced well above that low bar. Can they maintain or even build on that level of play?

Speaking of new OC Todd Fitch, the thing I most want to see is how quickly the playbook opens. We saw flashes of the fun spread passing attack Fitch is known for employing. It makes sense that he would try to tone it down a bit in game 1 for a true freshman QB behind a questionable line. He will need to pick his spots to help the line, and Seals will have to earn the training wheels coming off. Though, the calls did seem more like a guiding hand on the first ride post training wheel removal. We all want to see the full fireworks show though. How quickly does the offense get there, if at all?

Okay, the offense has had enough time devoted to them. Vanderbilt did only score 10 points offensively. The defense also exceeded expectations. There were hopes for this unit, and they at least matched them. Ted Roof definitely had the right plan to stifle Kellen Mond. The first half was especially impressive with Texas A&M only having 99 yards passing and 23 yards rushing. Some missed tackles in the 2nd half allowed the yardages to buoy to finally tallies of 189 yards passing and 183 yards rushing. The Aggies averaged 6.8 yards per play whether they ran or passed. The defensive key was forcing 3 turnovers via fumble recoveries and a fourth via a turnover downs that also included a forced fumble. In terms of tackling, it was better than normal, but it still left something to be desired. For now, attributing some of that to the Covid-affected offseason is fair. That point can be revisited. Can the defense keep LSU from scoring or at least out of the end zone as well as they did the Aggies?

The most important part of that defensive effort was the defensive line. After being maligned for years, the men up front were rated by Pro Football Focus as the best-performing unit amongst all Power 5 teams last Saturday. Vanderbilt almost certainly does not possess the best defensive line in the Power 5. A performance of that quality shows massive improvement from years passed though. Andre Mintze and Dayo Odeyingbo were especially disruptive while Daevion Davis and Rashaan Wilkins also held down their gaps very well. There are two parts of this topic that intrigue me though. First, what level of play do they maintain over the course of the season? Second, IF they continue at or near this level, can the LBs and DBs take a big step forward as the pressure comes off them to make a lot of open field tackles?

On the back end, Donovan Kaufman played a LOT of snaps. The highly touted freshman safety from New Orleans was all over the field. He played near the line of scrimmage in run support and as help over the top in coverage. His only glaring mistake was on A&M’s first TD when he was too enthusiastic to hit Mond and took himself out of the play prematurely on a speed option. Kaufman was credited for making 5 total tackles with 3 of them being solo. For reference, safety partner Dashaun Jerkins led the team in both categories with 8 total and 4 solo. Kaufman also returned kickoffs where he made one error on a return from a ball too deep into the end zone. Like Seals, the question is how he builds on a very solid opening performance.

Moving back to the offense, the top WR position appears to be filled by Amir Abdur-Rahman, but do not count out Cam Johnson just yet. However, the RB and TE spots left by Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Jared Pinkney are bit more open. At Tight End, Ben Bresnahan had 3 catches for 28 yards with two of them being very nice plays. On one, Seals fit a ball through double coverage where Bresnahan survived two simultaneous hits to complete the catch. Another was a ball just beyond him that required a slight dive. It will be interesting to see how his role develops as the offense (hopefully) evolves.

Ja’Veon Marlow was the starting and most effective RB. He had 16 carries for 65 yards with a long of 21. Jamauri Wakefield gained 37 yards on 15 carries with a long of 12. Marlow appears to offer more shiftiness, quickness, and speed while still possessing good strength. Wakefield is a battering ram that just powers into and through holes. It should be noted Wakefield had 3 catches for 16 yards while Marlow had 2 for 4. Oh, and Keyon Henry-Brooks, who is by far the most explosive of the trio, may be back for the LSU game. How long does the even splitting of carries last? Does it become 2 sharing the load with a third used sparingly? The options and talent are there, but I think Marlow should probably be preferred to Wakefield. Henry-Brooks’s place is an unknown, but his speed should fit the spread scheme very well. He may be the first option when healthy.

Last, but far from least, Vanderbilt handled game 1 of the 10-game gauntlet very well. They kept that game closer than anyone expected. They raised the expectations of most fans. Can they maintain it with a likely pissed off LSU team coming to Nashville?