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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Florida

We all hate it when the teacher hands grades back late, but at least I am giving feedback late instead of not at all.

NCAA Football: Florida at Vanderbilt
It was at this moment that Florida was in danger.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt is coming off a 38-17 loss to #6 Florida. On one hand, they put up 406 yards of offense. On the other, they allowed 586. The Gators are averaging 522.3 yards per game, so that number is not quite as bad as it seems on the surface. The stark reality is that Vanderbilt is 0-7 in the SEC. Neither COVID nor the resulting SEC-only schedule are really excuses at this point. A coach should not be winless in conference play in his 7th season.

Of course, this week’s opponent is still the same one that prevented Mason’s 2019 team from going 0-fer in SEC play last season. The Commodores were supposed to play Tennessee, but the SEC office shuffled some games when Arkansas had COVID issues. Tennessee was also reported to have some of their own that might have put that game into question, so the SEC found a path to try and get each team all 10 games. Oh, and then Vanderbilt’s specialists were caught in COVID protocols, so Sarah Fuller was pulled from the women’s soccer team to be an emergency kicker option. Learning in crazy times.

Lessons We Know Well

Ken Seals keeps doing things we have never seen a Vanderbilt freshman QB do. He eclipsed John Gromos’s record of 1,483 yards. Gromos took 11 games to reach his mark, though he only attempted 224 passes that season. Seals has thrown the ball 230 times in 7 games and totaled 1,610 yards. He got there by throwing 34 times and completing 22 of them for 319 yards with 2 TDs and a late INT. By the way, the freshman has had 3 300-yard games. Only Jay Cutler (2005) and Kurt Page (1983) had more 300-yard games with 5. Seals is tied with Kyle Shurmur (2017) Austyn Carta-Samuels (2013), and Greg Zolman (2001) at 3. In the game against Florida, he came out on fire with 157 yards in the first quarter. The second quarter was a struggle, but he rebounded in the second half. The second half was decent but lacked scoring. It was just another step in the development of a young QB.

His main targets continued to come up big for him. Chris Pierce had 4 catches for 97 yards and 2 TDs. The second TD was a grown ass man catch and run that included shrugging off two Florida defenders like small children on the way to a 58-yard score. Cam Johnson held down his role as the slant and screen specialist with 7 catches for 93 yards. Amir Abdur-Rahman had some nice grabs along the sideline, including a spectacular toe tap on a comeback route, to finish the day with 5 receptions for 60 yards. Ben Bresnahan was not as busy with only 3 catches, but the 45 yards made him efficient. One of them was on 4th and 4 during what would be Vanderbilt’s next to last drive while still only down 14. The interesting part is how each of them seems to have a very defined role but will show up in other ways, though AAR is probably the one with the least variability. Cam Johnson made a one-handed catch on an absolute dime from Seals down the sideline for 35 yards, which was the 2nd in a trio of consecutive passes complete to Johnson. Pierce shows up in the screen game while mostly being a deep threat over the middle. None of them are elite athletes at this point, but they are all bringing different things to the table that stress defenses.

The big guys up front deserve a lot of credit. They are not spectacular even particularly good, but they are being effective with help from the play calling. We know what they are at this point. They are significantly better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Last season, Vanderbilt’s QBs were sacked 28 times on roughly 409 dropbacks (using passes attempted plus sacks so any dropbacks that became positive yardage scrambles are lost) for a sack percentage of 6.8%. Seals has taken all 13 sacks of a Vanderbilt QB this season on 250 combined dropbacks for a sack percentage of 5.2%. If Seals and Wright combine for the same number of dropbacks as the 2019 QBs, they would be sacked 21 times, which is 75% of the sacks allowed last season. In the running game, Vanderbilt averaged 4.1 yards per carry in 2019 and is averaging 3.2 yards per carry this season. However, the loss of Ke’Shawn Vaughn and absences of Keyon Henry-Brooks for 2 games and Ja’Veon Marlow for 4 games probably have as much of an effect on those yards per carry numbers as the offensive line changes. Peter Rossomando is doing a stellar job getting the most out of a unit that looks very little like the one Vanderbilt expected to field when the 2019 season ended.

Lessons We Are Learning

The defense is struggling to identify and get to the point of attack, but the tackling is improving. Maybe this should go in the above section, but since the cause is not something I am certain about, it stays here. Without watching plays from an All-22 look, it is hard to tell whether Vanderbilt’s defenders are often a step or three slow due to mental acuity, physical ability, or a combination of both. I have pointed out a number of times over the season where one player had a bad gap fit or play recognition, but there are also times where they just get outrun to the edge or are unable to get off a block. The good news is that in the last three games against Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Florida the tackling has finally reached an acceptable level. Guys are making the play when they give themselves a chance. It is a weird development with the number of guys being forced into larger roles than expected with transfers, injuries, and COVID’s impact. If a person is objective, the fact Vanderbilt forced Florida to punt twice was surprising. Florida has only punted three times twice this season (Missouri and Florida) while SC was the only other team to make them punt twice. The Commodores also forced one field goal on a drive that started with a short field due to a bad punt and caused then recovered a fumble. Kyle Trask also failed to throw 4 TD passes for the first time this season. I will not say it was a good defensive performance, but it was a step forward, especially after being torched by Kentucky’s very much less potent offense.

Lessons for Further Study

Was Ja’Veon Marlow struggling a product of 4 weeks without game action or something else? Marlow carried the ball 13 times for 38 yards for a paltry 2.9 yards per carry. His longest carry was only 9 yards, but removing it drops the average to 2.4 yards. Marlow was much more effective in the first two games when he ran the ball 16 times for 65 yards and 17 times for 83 yards against Texas A&M and LSU, respectively. Keyon Henry-Brooks might be back this week, but the Commodores could still really use a solid option behind KHB.

Furthermore, is Mitchell Pryor going to carve out a role for himself in the offense? He had the most yards of any Vanderbilt ball carrier with 44 yards on 13 attempts. However, Rocko Griffin did have the best yards per carry by getting 25 yards only 5 touches. It should be noted Griffin had one carry of 15 yards though, so he only gained 10 yards on the other 4 attempts. Pryor has shown a ton of strength and physicality when he runs, often carrying Florida and Kentucky defenders for 2, 3 or even 4 extra yards over the last two games. I could see him taking over Jamauri Wakefield’s presumed role, presuming Wakefield is still unavailable, in short yardage situations.

What is going to happen with Sarah Fuller? The goalkeeper turned kicker has become the talk of the sports world in the last few days as she will become the first female to dress in an SEC game, and possibly the first in the Power 5. If she plays, she will become the first female player in Power 5 history. The incredibly short transition period will make her job difficult, and I hope that the pressure of the moment is not too much. Plenty of capable kickers have faltered under pressure. Fuller would be making history, and if she allows herself to think about it, it could make whether she is capable of doing the job irrelevant. And we all know the crazies will have a field day on a poor kick of any kind.