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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: First Open Date

Not having a game does not mean the Dores, or our minds, should be idle.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Alabama
Having a promising true freshman QB may be the main headline, but this team has a lot of youth (and remaining eligibility) making plays.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The term “Bye Week” is such a misnomer in the world of modern college athletics. Most professional teams will give the athletes an entire week off from formal practices and training. For college athletes, they almost always have to be on campus all week for classes anyway, and they need the extra practices as part of their developmental process. The term “Open Date” has become a common term to be more accurate.

The first Vanderbilt football open date comes at a good time after a 55-3 drubbing Tuscaloosa. The other people that benefit from the brief reprieve are those of us who try to conjure enough semi-intelligent thought to discuss the team every week. It means I do not have to re-watch a football game this week. Instead, I get to take liberties with this article series to look at a bigger picture than just this season.

Lessons We Know Well

The Commodores are a hell of a lot better football team than last season. Vanderbilt is still probably not “good,” but they are passable. The 2021 version was ugly. Last year’s two wins both came on FGs in the last 20 seconds by Joseph Bulovas against UConn and Colorado State. The 2022 put the cupcakes on the schedule to the sword. Hawaii was blown out by 53. Elon’s late push was denied. NIU was given a cushion then cut down. The results so far are nothing to celebrate, but progress is definitive and tangible. Some of us were worried this team could be vastly improved and not win any more games. Now, that improvement may be punctuated with an SEC win or two.

Something that may not be apparent looking at the roster is how few players will have to be gone next season for being out of eligibility. Some may move on if they are ready for life after football or transfer for playing time or for graduate school reasons. On offense, only Jacob Brammer will exhaust his eligibility. Even 5th year seniors like Ben Bresnahan and Gavin Schoenwald should be eligible since they used a redshirt in 2018 and get the free year for 2020. As such, they have only used eligibility for 2019, 2021, and 2022. The defensive losses are Jeremy Lucien, Myles Cecil, and Michael Owusu. Both Joseph Bulovas and Matthew Hayball will be gone, too. It is possible I miscalculated or misapplied a rule, but that is a LOT of bodies back. Roster spots need to open, but hopefully the departures are either draftees or depth pieces who are searching for playing time as their careers wind down.

Lessons We Are Learning

The roster is also not thin on eligibility, but the youngsters are making early marks. Nine players on the offensive 2-deep (including 2 guys who are ORs for the second spot) and nine players on defense (not counting CJ Taylor twice) are sophomores, redshirt freshmen, or younger. Seven of those eighteen are true freshmen. Seeing a youth movement and improving is a very promising sign. Unfortunately, success early does not always mean it is sustained. Some guys can break out then fizzle or cannot get over opponents game planning for them.

The talent and athleticism may not always be up to par, but the fundamentals are building. The Commodores are the 12th best 4th down defense in the country with opposing teams converting only 23.1% of the time. The 3rd down defense is just a touch below average in 68th at 37.3% conversions. When the field shrinks, the Dores can make plays. Conversely, when the field shrinks, the offense is at its best. Vanderbilt has not failed to convert a red zone trip into points yet, and only 2 of the 17 trips were held to FGs. The red one defense is tied for 61st with 14/17 opponent trips earning points, but three of those were FGs.

Turning towards individuals, the most impactful freshmen have been Jayden McGowan and AJ Swann. McGowan has been all over the place as a WR often used on jet sweeps along with returning kickoffs. The athleticism is undeniable. He is still learning the difference in what he could do in high school versus against FBS, and especially SEC, defenses. McGowan’s work as a pass catcher is also a work in progress, but the upside is massive. One guy who will benefit from having a multi-faceted athlete like McGowan is AJ Swann. The QB with two starts under his belt has already thrown for 576 yards through five games, and he only played in four. His QBR is 68.3 so far. For reference, Ken Seals freshman QBR was 51.0 on the way to setting Vanderbilt’s freshman passing record. Mike Wright was 34.8 last season and 42.7 this season.

Defensive standouts from the youth are coming along slower, but glimpses are there. Darren Agu and BJ Diakate have been battling with Michael Owusu for the Star role opened by the injury to Myles Capers. Jeffery Ugochukwu, Steven Sannieniola, and Ja’Dais Richard have also forced their way into battles for first off the bench at cornerback, safety, and nickelback, respectively. The trial by fire will either forge them into weapons going forward or break them. We can see some flaws and fix them. Ugochukwu was picked on by Alabama a few times, and it should have been a learning experience. Agu and Diakite could make splashes with some pash rush moves. Oh, and German freshman defensive lineman Yilanan Outtara has managed to earn some snaps, too.

Lessons for Further Study

Can the offensive line go from holding their own to creating push? Last season, the much maligned, and understandably so, unit was folded by nearly every opponent. This season, they have at least held their own in most cases. No other SEC team has allowed fewer tackles for loss per game than Vanderbilt at 3.2. Florida and Georgia are tied. They have done enough for Ray Davis to average 80.4 yards per game on the ground, which is 4th among SEC players and 44th in FBS. The team totals should improve with the returns of Rocko Davis (injury) and Patrick Smith (suspension) that started at Alabama. Vanderbilt’s QBs have also only been sacked twice in games not played against the #1 team in the country, who managed to get to AJ Swann five times. The OL has also had to shuffle a few times with Julian Hernandez and Delfin Castillo both missing time with injuries so far.

What is the response to being punched in the mouth? Alabama slammed the Commodores. Ole Miss is ranked #9 then Vanderbilt heads Between the Hedges to take on #2 Jawja. The bye week should have helped them focus after Alabama, but likely the most winnable Power 5 game comes right after Georgia when the Dores head to CoMo. Starting with a strong showing tomorrow, especially if it results in an upset, would go a long way to assuring fans this team can keep the course after getting rocked. In turn, we can be reasonably confident the players and coaches are all bought in together because the rough times are when small cracks turn into fractures. Staying steady means the cracks are either nonexistent or not allowed to propagate.

Who else steps up? I covered a lot of freshmen. The known commodities like Will Sheppard, Ray Davis, Anfernee Orji, De’Rickey Wright, and Max Worship are still doing their part. Can any of them turn the wick up even further, or will someone like a Quincy Skinner, Christian James, or Malik Langham make plays that turn this season from a step forward to a stamp in the program’s history?

Things will be to their normal in-season focus next week. The next bye week will get a similar treatment. Hopefully, there is at least one win against a Power 5 team between now and then. Maybe some of the questions will be answered. I do know more questions, good or bad, will have arisen.