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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Fall Camp

Late night learnin’ for Game 1 of the Clark Lea era.

Syndication: The Tennessean
Bane is ready for Game 1 for Team 1.
Stephanie Amador / The Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Vanderbilt football is right about 23 hours from kicking off the 2021 season and the Clark Lea era. After 7 seasons of Derek Mason, a change was made at the top of the football program. A new chancellor at Vanderbilt along with athletic director Candice Storey Lee entering her first year with anywhere near normal operations have also brought a new energy to athletics in general but especially football. There is certainly going to be a lot of learning to do this season.

As most regular readers of Anchor of Gold will know, this weekly series is my attempt to sort through the previous game and build basically an identity profile for Vanderbilt football. We will end up developing lessons we know well, we are still learning, and for further study. To mitigate the effects of both pre-game tailgating and in-the-moment emotions, my dumb self will be re-watching each game before I get to writing. The opening edition of each season is almost always entirely lessons for further study just because new seasons bring a ton of uncertainty.

For example, one could argue Ken Seals being at least good under center is something we are learning, if not something we already know well. However, we have no idea how he will fit and function within new OC David Raih’s system. We know there are some good WRs and Ben BresnaHANDS to catch passes, but each player’s role is probably going to be shaken up with the change of offense, too. Furthermore, I really like starting each season with a clean slate. I try to keep this series as focused on this singular season as possible. With so many unknowns, this first edition is going to be intentionally broad. Expect the focus to zoom in each week with real action to discuss.

Lessons for Further Study

What does the offensive line look like this season? To me, this unit is by far the most important unit on the team, much less the offense. An offensive line that is simply “okay” would be a huge improvement from last season. Unfortunately, the reports out of fall camp have not been heaping praise on the offensive line. I wish I could say that is because of the defense they are facing, but we saw this defense last year. But…

What will this defense look like in terms of attitude? If you want to talk formations/schemes, hold on a second. You can be successful with various types of defense. Two factors nonnegotiable to success are execution and attitude. The personnel must execute their assignments instinctively and correctly. Defenders are already reacting to what the offense does, so any hesitation or missteps are death. The other factor is less definable or measurable, yet we all love to see a defense that has an aggression about them. Again, it can come in lots of ways, but attacking the ball as a unit is glorious to see. With Derek Mason, the defense was too often misplayed and passive. That combination saw the defense go from stout in 2016 to completely hapless in 2019 and 2020. Allegedly, we are supposed to have a blitz-heavy approach. Will it be executed properly?

Staying with the defense, what scheme are we going to see? Derek Mason employed various 3-4 and 3-4 adjacent schemes. Clark Lea utilized a base 4-2-5 at Notre Dame. The fall camp practice reports have listed two hybrid positions. The Anchor will be a LB/DB who serves as the 5th DB in a 4-2-5 while the Star is a DE/LB who is mostly a pass-rush specialist that may line up with his hand in the dirt or standing up. Realistically, we could see anything from a 3-2-5 to a 4-3 depending on which personnel are on the field and how they line up. Honestly, this part matters much less than the previous section. It can look a lot of different ways, but as long as the assignments are executed, and the team plays the right way, Clark Lea should be able to get something useful out of the defense. The major concern is still speed on the back end, which is hard to cover with scheme.

Which players have developed the most since last season ended? The obvious contributor names of Seals, Bresnahan, Pierce, Johnson, and Abdur-Rahman on offense along with Jerkins and, uh, okay, maybe Mahoney and George are expected to keep stepping forward. They have all been varying degrees of effective so far in their careers. Obviously, those guys will all be vital to any success Vanderbilt has this season. However, anything more than 3 wins is probably going to require a few leaps like Chris Pierce had in 2020. He went from a useful-at-times slot WR to a guy who caught TD passes in 4 consecutive games. Will Sheppard is a COVID freshman WR whose position on the depth chart suggests he may be the most likely candidate. Daevion Davis has been named a team captain. Defensively, De’Rickey Wright (Anchor), Gabe Jeudy-Lally, and Elijah McAllister are all potential breakout stars. On offense, Re’Mahn Davis is the only expected starter outside of Sheppard or the OL who could be the dark horse impact players. Well, except for...

What role will Mike Wright have? The backup QB is an elite athlete the likes of which Vanderbilt rarely has. He is lightning fast with a very strong arm. His accuracy (and potentially decision making) is the knock on him as a passer. Clark Lea still thinks he is one of the best 11 offensive players we have and has said Wright will not be limited to specific situations. Finding a way to include him in the offense as the 2nd QB will be a very tricky task. The risk of switching QBs is throwing off the rhythm of the starter while change of pace QBs also tend to tip off the defense as to what is coming, thus limiting their effectiveness. Wright needs to be on the field, but it needs to be done well.

What will be the most obvious stamp Clark Lea makes on the program? The return to a classic look for the Commodores was the first step visible to those outside McGugin. Hopefully, it is not the one we are all talking about in a few weeks. James Franklin was known for the attitude of his teams and how they broke the “Same Ol’ Vandy” stereotypes. Bobby Johnson was known for gritty teams, even if the talent and offensive firepower was typically lacking outside of the Cutler years. Derek Mason loved his 8-yard CB cushions and terrible, babbling media appearances. What will be Clark Lea’s identity as the head coach of Vanderbilt?

Where is the attitude of the team for game one? Frankly, it is ETSU. Even with a new coach and new energy, it is easy to view this as a glorified, full-contact practice. Some fans certainly are. I fully expect some people to also completely freak out if Seals has a couple bad passes early, the OL gets beat on a couple early blitzes, or the defense gets burned while blitzing. I get it. We all have ingrained fears based on Derek Mason. And basically, all of Vanderbilt football history. Those things could be alarm bells, or it could be a couple early misfires while learning new schemes. To me, the response to any of those (or other) miscues is more important to whether there are miscues. Can they adjust and grow within a game and within a season? This is not a CFP or SEC division contender. A bowl game would be a minor miracle. A certain amount of sputtering off the start is excusable. Of course, throw out the “but we can grow from this!” response if we lose to ETSU.

Yes, there are a million other factors to watch. Is Ken Seals the same as he was as a freshman, or is he going to be a top half of the SEC QB? Pick any number of “How will [Insert defender here] do at [insert basic function of defense]?” Anything that stands out will certainly be addressed going forward. If you have any angles you want me to approach, especially during the re-watch, drop them in the comments.