Commodore Football is back today. In a sense. This morning at 7 AM the 2020 Vanderbilt football season had its first official practice. The NCAA has all sorts of interesting rules about what can be done during different periods of time. One key segment is Spring Practice, whose restrictions can be read here if you are curious. Before now, the team was limited to film study, conditioning, and walk throughs. This morning was the first time that returning players and early enrollees were able to be on the field with coaches and really working on how this team will look in the fall.
The football team will likely see a lot of change from 2019 to 2020 with both Offensive and Defensive Coordinators replaced along with changes in positional coaches at OL, LB, and CB. The offensive personnel also experienced significant turnover with Kalija Lipscomb, Jared Pinkney, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn all currently at the NFL Draft Combine in Indianapolis. All 4 quarterbacks who took snaps last season have also decided to leave the team, so JC transfer Jeremy Moussa and early enrollee freshman Ken Seals are going to battle for the lead position before freshman Mike Wright and another JC transfer (and former Kentucky Wildcat) Danny Clark join the fray.
Fans who get a later start at work, work flexible hours, have Tuesday or Thursday as their off day, or otherwise can make time will be delighted to know that every spring practice will be open to the public. According to a Vanderbilt press release, the three sessions this week will be Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7 AM with a run-time of approximately an hour and a half. They will take place at the John Rich Practice Facility off Natchez Trace with free parking available in the surface lots across Natchez Trace from the facility. In the case of inclement weather, activities will move to the nearby indoor practice facility on the corner of Perry Wallace Way (formerly 25th Avenue) and Children’s Way.
A schedule was sent to parents of current players that shows the rest of the spring practice dates. Next week, the week of March 1, is spring break and has no activities. The Commodores get back to the practice field for a simple schedule of Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday for 3 weeks with the weekday sessions the same as this week while the Saturday sessions will be 10:15 AM to noon and take place inside Vanderbilt Stadium. The second two Saturdays will be scrimmages. The last week will have a single practice on Thursday at the normal time.
Finally, spring football will culminate in the Black and Gold Spring Game. It should be noted that this is being advertised as a spring GAME, not the “spring showcases” that we have seen in the past few years. The “showcases” had varying degrees of 11-on-11 game-like action but always were more like open scrimmages with sessions timed like practice, not a game, and a lot of alterations like having pre-determined red-zone periods. Whether those things change with the name change is unknown. What is known is that the Black and Gold Spring Game will be at 7:15 PM on April 3rd, a Friday night, in Vanderbilt Stadium.
With a chance to get your eyes on practice (or just reading analysis of varying quality from those who could be there), what are the keys? The big changes were already noted, but vucommodores.com has provided some insight including quotations from those involved. New OC Todd Fitch offered these insights, “Hey we’re no-huddle, we’re spread, that’s great. But we got to play physical, we got to execute and we got to play with great fundamentals. If we don’t, it won’t be a very good offense. You can’t lose that message.” It will be interesting to see how “no-huddle” and “spread” this team is in spring ball. Breaking in a new QB could put a lot on his shoulders in that type of system, but it can also be geared to simplify his decision making process while putting receivers in position to succeed in space.
Across the ball, also-new DC Ted Roof shared that the defense might be changing a bit more than expected. He explained, “We all have to have an invested commitment in learning the language. At the same time, if there’s carryover concepts to what’s been done here in the past, it’s easier for a couple of us to learn it instead of 50-something people to learn it.” The amount of “carryover” is unknown, so curious minds will want to know whether the defense is still mostly 3-4 or moves to more 4-3 fronts. Personally, I am more interested in what the nickel packages look like since so much of college football is spread-based now, so the nickel package is often as utilized as the “base defense.”
The influence of the position coaches will not be nearly as obvious, but the relationships and interactions between players and the guys who most closely interact with them and guide their development is always fun. Players and teams do tend, as the adage says, to take on the personality of their coaches. With that said, be wary of wild speculations that just because a certain coach is bouncing around and having fun while handing out fist bumps and jokes means those players will not be disciplined. In general, try to avoid ALL wild speculation. Both sides of the ball are getting used to new coordinators. They also know each other very well and are more worried about perfecting their own systems instead of trying to scheme up ways to beat the other.
This warning is especially true for where most, if not all, eyes will go. The green non-contact jerseys of the QBs will draw even more scrutiny than usual due to the turnover and fear from the monumental struggles at the position last season. Ken Seals comes much-touted, heavily-awarded, and highly-talented. Jeremy Moussa comes in with much less fan-fare after leaving Hawai’I following a loss in the QB battle to Cole McDonald at Hawai’I in 2018. McDonald had an extra year at the school over Moussa and is now flirting with being a mid-to-late round draft pick, so Moussa is not necessarily a bust. With only the two of them and walk-on Jack Bowen on campus, Seals and Moussa should both get plenty of reps to get comfortable in Fitch’s system and with their new teammates. Oddly, Vanderbilt does not list a Quarterbacks coach on the roster, but it is almost certainly Fitch who has coached the position at many of his stops, whether in conjunction with being OC or not. Fitch and Mason should benefit from seeing what these two can offer before Wright and Clark join the battle over the summer and into fall camp.
Derek Mason needs to orchestrate a fantastic spring practice period. His time at the helm of Vanderbilt football should have ended in the minds of many fans. Every fan, on board with Mason or not, will be pouring over every word out of spring practice which should be much more plentiful due to the openness provided. And if the reports are not good? Well, just think about what is going on across the street at Hawkins Field.