As in the past, the season preview is more about putting the questions I want to be or expect to be answered over the course of the season. Sometimes, I attempt to offer some insight, but there is not much to offer. The few tidbits will be revealed because they will inform the questions asked. Remember, I try to avoid over-arching topics like state of the program or job security. This series is intended to analyze the football team as a new entity each year, even if players, schemes, or results will be used as reference. They will typically only be used for comparison, not in terms of cause-and-effect.
Feel free to posit your own questions or points of study. I watch each game live (sadly, none in person until at least November) then re-watch them to dissect the finer points as best I can. My time might be a little more limited this season with other real life responsibilities, but I will do my best to get as detailed as I can for any questions.
First and foremost, how does Vanderbilt handle a gauntlet of 10 SEC games with no OOC breathers or warmups? Normally, there is some time to regain composure and try to rally. UNLV can still thump you in your own stadium, but, save for the open date October 24th after playing 4 games, the grind is on for 11 weeks. The COVID opt outs have only exacerbated the issue. We all saw how one brutal game against Alabama turned the 2017 season on its nose. Vanderbilt opens with games at #10 Texas A&M and defending champions #6 LSU. They need to survive the opening two games as much as anything.
The biggest concern about surviving that gauntlet has to do with the flood of COVID opt outs on the offensive line. A team that was going to be breaking in a new QB (reportedly a true freshman in Ken Seals) running a new offense thanks to the replacement of whatever 8-year old smashing the “Ask Madden” button was calling plays last season with Todd Fitch now has very serious concerns about the offensive line. The starting group this Saturday night will likely be made of 2 expected starters in center Grant Miller and tackle Tyler Steen and rotational options. The listed options at left tackle, a right-handed QB’s blind side, are RS FR (no snaps played last season) Brayden Bapst and true FR Ben Cox. Of course, Steen may be there with the less experienced option going to RT where Steen was listed. Left guard is supposedly between Central Connecticut graduate transfer Connor Mignone and Drew Birchmeier who recently converted from defensive line. Possible starter but probable backup Dan Dawkins will start at RG. The starting group is piecemeal but possibly survivable. Any injuries (and they always happen to the big guys) will likely have the QB’s parents praying because it is a lot of inexperience, to take nothing away from the players they could become but are not yet.
Staying with the offense, how does Vanderbilt replace their most vaunted trio at the skill positions possibly of all time? This is really a three part question since Vanderbilt is replacing running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb, and tight end Jared Pinkney.
The running backs room is stacked with mostly unproven talent in Jamauri Wakefield, Keyon Henry-Brooks, Ja’Veon Marlow, and Rocko Griffin Jr. Can any of them step up as a workhorse or will keeping them all fresh with running back by committee provide a spark? Wakefield was expected to complement Vaughn in 2019, but he was lost to injury in the Georgia game. His career numbers are 107 carries for 475 yards and 2 TDs with 10 catches for 66 yards. Henry-Brooks took Wakefield’s spot behind Vaughn and showed some flashes in compiling 252 yards on 56 carries with 61 of them coming on a 61-yard dash against Northern Illinois. Marlow was redshirted in 2018 with limited touches under the first year of the 4-game minimum then battled injuries in 2019. He has had 15 carries for 88 yards. The key for Fitch will be using each of them to match their skills without tipping his hand based on who is in the game.
At wide receiver, the transfer loss of CJ Bolar was a gut punch. As soon as Fitch was hired, the idea of the talented Bolar, athletic Cam Johnson, and others attacking space gave Vanderbilt fans hope for the new QB to have good targets even after Lipscomb left West End. Bolar is gone though. Instead, extra load will be placed on SR Chris Pierce Jr, RS SO Amir Abdur-Rahman, Oklahoma State graduate transfer Tyrell Alexander, RS FR Devin Boddie Jr, and SR James Bostic III. Pierce has mostly been a big body in the slot who has always seemed to be on the verge of breaking out based on reports from spring or fall camp. Abdur-Rahman was actually referred to by Chris Lee as the most talented receiver on the roster last offseason or the previous offseason when Kalija Lipscomb was still at Vanderbilt. Lee did say Lipscomb was the better player at the time but that Abdur-Rahman was more talented. He missed last season due to injury, so it will be interesting to see how quickly he can get into gear. Alexander was mostly a special teamer in Stillwater. Bostic made his first contributions of his career last season with 11 catches for 112 yards, so his ceiling seems limited. Boddie is a smaller, twitchy receiver who will probably see some usage on jet sweeps and in the screen game, but his usage in a traditional passing attack is as-of-yet unknown.
The tight end replacement is the most unknown. Ben Bresnahan is the only player there to have registered a catch. He had 7 receptions for 105 yards last season. In an offense where Jared Freaking Pinkney only had 20 catches for 233 yards, it is unsurprising other tight ends did not get to show what they are capable of doing with the ball in their hands. Bresnahan did make some nice catches, including a snag for 26 yards against THEM and a diving catch for 19 yards to get a last-second FG before halftime against Ole Miss. Fitch’s use of this position group is also an unknown, but they had some good recruiting ratings. I would expect Bresnahan to be important and anything beyond that is gravy, especially since they may be asked to do a lot of blocking to help the OL.
Thankfully, the defensive side of the ball is all facing one question. What did another year of maturation and development along with a new playcaller with some scheme tweaks do for them? Almost all of the starters are back. Tae Daley did start most of last season, but he was doing so in the place of an injured Frank Coppet who is still not starting over Max Worship according to the released depth chart. Feleti Afemui opted out. Drew Birchmeier is on the offensive line now. Everyone else is the same. Some depth pieces like Caleb Peart and Cam Watkins are gone via graduation. Other players not on last years depth chart but expected to provide injury protection and some rotational depth such as Tre Douglas and Colin Anderson have transferred, though Anderson may have gotten more run with Afemui opting out. However, the timing of his announcement suggests he knew Afemui was out for the season before he made his decision.
Beyond the players, the two new coordinators will be under the microscope. What does their stamp on the progam look like? Todd Fitch is replacing Gerry Gdowski who was terrible, so, if he offers any sort of coegent gameplan, Vanderbilt fans will love him. Fitch’s style has been about spreading teams out and attacking space in the passing attack. How he approaches the presumed OL issues with an inexperienced QB will be possibly the most scrutinized part of Saturday night’s game.
On the other side, Ted Roof is a very well traveled defensive coordinator in college football. His most notable and successful stops have been Georgia Tech (twice), Duke, and Auburn. His breadth of experience has seen him run 3-4, 4-3, and even 4-2-5 base defenses. It is expected he will use a 3-4 at Vanderbilt since that is what the recruiting has been geared towards since Mason arrived. The 3-4 was his primary base at his most recent stop, Appalachian State, too, so it is not a case of asking a coordinator to run a defense that is not their primary scheme. However, Roof is almost certainly going to incorporate some wrinkles, but “wrinkles” like stunts were where Vanderbilt often got burnt last season. Hopefully, Roof will apply them more judicially and with better timing than former DC Jason Tarver did.
As with any season, we could go down the roster and ask questions about each player. How will Ken Seals (again, assuming he starts) handle being pressured so heavily, even if the OL is better than expected, because teams will always attack a young QB? How big of an impact can tackling Dimitri Moore have to keep Vanderbilt in games with key stops? Does Dayo Odeyingbo become the QB-eating, RB-swallowing monster he has the talent to be? Those topics will grow organically as the season progresses or as you all bring them up.
Now let’s go from the classroom to the grass. Let’s ride!