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Vanderbilt Football 2021 Position Preview: Special Teams

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This... could be better.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Kentucky Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The easiest way to explain Vanderbilt’s special teams unit in 2020: the Commodores ranked 123rd of 127 FBS teams in Special Teams FEI.

Not everything was a disaster, mind you, but there just wasn’t anything particularly good about Vanderbilt’s special teams unit in 2020. The kicking game was not good, the punting wasn’t great, the return game was basically nonexistent, and Vanderbilt’s kickoff return team got flagged for having two players wearing the same number on the field at the same time. Yeah. That happened. (Luckily, with Clark Lea getting rid of duplicate numbers, there is a zero percent chance that the coaching staff has that specific brain fart in 2021.) We’ll note here that this wasn’t necessarily a long-term problem; Vanderbilt actually finished 58th in Special Teams FEI in 2019.

Anyway, with a new coaching staff comes a new special teams coordinator: Justin Lustig, who spent the last four years as the special teams coordinator at Syracuse.

The Kickers

Joseph Bulovas, redshirt senior: Hey, at least this is something. Bulovas handled primary kicking duties for Alabama in 2018 and 2019 before losing the job to Will Reichard, and... well, honestly, he was kind of an adventure as Alabama’s kicker, missing eight extra points (granted, on a lot of extra point attempts what with this being Alabama) and seven field goal attempts, including two inside of 30 yards. So uh, this isn’t anything that Vanderbilt fans are not familiar with. He also averaged 53.7 yards per kickoff.

Pierson Cooke, redshirt junior: Last year’s primary kicker, I would bet on Cooke continuing to handle kickoffs because frankly, he’s probably better at it than Bulovas, with an average of 60.2 yards per kickoff. That said, field goals were an adventure last season that is probably best summed up by this line from his team site profile:

Two-for-two on field goals between 30-39 yards

Which is nice, but we’re just not gonna talk about the rest of it. Cooke was 1-for-3 on field goals inside of 30 yards, which is a range in which any college kicker should be automatic, to be blunt about it. He missed a 22-yarder at the end of the first half in the LSU game. And his long for the year was 41 yards.

Will Faris, freshman: Worth noting that Faris, who ranked 34th in the Kohl’s Kicking kicker rankings, is on campus as (I’m pretty sure) a preferred walk-on. Kohl’s wrote about him:

Faris recently attended Kohl’s National Scholarship Camp in July of 2020. He has excellent leg speed! He also had an excellent showing on field goals and kickoffs in January. In the summer of 2019 he was able to score 26 points in the field goal charting phase and looked confident striking the ball all camp. Faris has a very fast leg and is able to smoothly make 55-60 yard FG’s under good conditions. Faris can play early in college!

Kicking competitions are so weird that I can’t completely discount this guy.

The Punters

Harrison Smith, redshirt junior: Smith has handled punting duties for the last two years, and he’s now on scholarship. His punting average (41 yards per punt in 2020) wasn’t great, but 18 of his 46 punts were downed inside the 20, which is good, and it kind of suggests that his punting average was held down by Derek Mason’s penchant for punting on the opponent’s side of the 50 (when a long punt will just end up being a touchback.) I would assume he has the punting duties locked down.

Jared Wheatley, redshirt sophomore: Wheatley was on scholarship coming out of high school, so I would assume the plan was for him to be the primary punter... only he hasn’t been able to unseat Smith. Last season, he handled punting duties in the Ole Miss game and averaged 33.2 yards on five punts, though four of them were downed inside the 20.

The punting average doesn’t sound great, but again, Derek Mason:

4th and 18 at Ole Miss 38: Jared Wheatley punts 31 yards

4th and 3 at Vandy 32: Jared Wheatley punts 4 yards

4th and 15 at Vandy 33: Jared Wheatley punts 55 yards

4th and 10 at Ole Miss 42: Jared Wheatley punts 33 yards

4th and 2 at Vandy 45: Jared Wheatley punts 43 yards

I think I see the problem. (It’s that punt that went four yards.) Anyway, I don’t see Wheatley displacing Smith but maybe he could move to kicker? I don’t know.

The Long Snappers

Wesley Schelling, redshirt freshman: Vanderbilt will need a new primary long snapper to replace Scott Meyer, who graduated. Schelling, who’s on scholarship, handled long snaps in the Missouri game last year and was the #6 long snapper prospect in the Class of 2020 per Kohl’s Kicking. Here, I know nothing about this so I’m just going to copy-paste what they wrote about him.

Schelling is hands down one of the most impressive snappers in the country. He has a massive frame and some of the smoothest mechanics. At the Kohl’s Underclassman Challenge as well as the Texas Showcase, he has finished with one of the highest charting scores in the country. During the Underclassman Challenge, he won the camp wide snapping competition and charted in the top 4 both days. Schelling is one of the best all around prospects in the country due to his size, athleticism and snapping ability. Not to mention he is also a top level student and someone who can play for any program in the country.

Sure.

Zach Drevno, redshirt junior: Handled long snaps in the UNLV game in 2019, a game that we would prefer to never talk about. Anyway, if I had to handicap the long-snapper competition, I would guess it’s going to be Schelling. I also very much do not know what I am talking about when I discuss long snappers. (This is true of most football things, but it is especially true here.)

A few words about the return game

Vanderbilt had four players return kicks in 2020, none of them were very effective at it, and three of them (Jayden Harrison, Donovan Kaufman, and Elijah Hamilton) are no longer in the program, with Cam Johnson (who also returned punts) being the only returnee. Given how ineffective this was in 2020, I would guess that Vanderbilt will try something different in 2021. I do not know, however, who specifically that would be.