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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Fall Camp

This year football season comes around a week early!

Syndication: The Tennessean
Mike Wright brings an electric element to the offense with his legs...but will the rest of the team be as exciting or more like sticking your finger in a light socket?
Nicole Hester / The Tennessean / USA TODAY NETWORK

Yes, you are in for another four (five? HAHAHAHA) months of this nonsense. Vanderbilt takes the field for the first game of the 2022 season on August 27th in Hawaii where only about 9,000 fans will be in attendance thanks to Aloha Stadium being condemned. How bad was the stadium if even Legion Field managed to never be condemned?

The final stage of preparation for the season opener started Friday. Practices are, to the best of my knowledge Monday through Saturday 10:30 to 12:30 and are open only to the media, but the media is allowed to attend every second of every practice. The start of a new season is always an uncertain time. Even the answers fans have such as Mike Wright being the starting QB just open other questions. The normal “rules” of this series also go out the window a bit since nothing is really known about the team including the things any of us think we know, and pre-season is a good time to look at longer term items. As such, expect to see most of these topics come back in future editions except the ones whose scope is more than just the 2022 season, which will not be addressed until the bye week or end of the season. We will start with those bigger picture items.

How much improvement will there be from Team 1 to Team 2? Clark Lea has declared a reset on Vanderbilt football with the start of his tenure. The desire to put a metric ton of heartbreak and negative baggage behind him is understandable. The administration appears to be moving in a new direction with the Vandy United campaign and the subsequently released plans for football facilities, too. The ideas are nice. The intentions are clear. The execution is the key though. If you call it “Team 1” or “Team 2” yet fall victim to the same pitfalls as past Vanderbilt teams, the branding will lose its luster quickly. No sane person expected Clark Lea to have Vanderbilt contending for a division title in his second year, but improvement is important.

On that note, how do we measure improvement? Wins and losses are the obvious gauge but may not tell the whole story. A long-term rebuild (build?) will not happen overnight, and we still play in the SEC where not being a Top 25 team essentially dooms you to .500 or worse. Wins and losses are probably not the first place where improvements, even marked ones, will appear. The 2022 Commodores could be a lot better than the 2021 edition and not win any more games. While I cannot wait for the “quit accepting moral victories” crew who cannot wrap their brain around the difference in claiming moral victories and appreciating improvement, Vanderbilt’s football reality is that there is a long way to go before seasons are purely judged on the win-loss record at season’s end. Personally, I will probably be looking into the analytics like SP+ and differential stats against the competition along with how long games stay close as the main comparison points for improvement.

What does Clark Lea do differently this year? Even with the ETSU loss, the moment that sticks with me and, based on Twitter interactions, a lot of Commodore fans is the final defensive drive against South Carolina. Vanderbilt had a chance to get the first SEC win of the Clark Lea era against an opponent Vanderbilt has not beaten since 2008. The Game Penises brought in Graduate Assistant turned Graduate Player Zeb Noland for the final drive. The decision, whether by Jesse Minter or Clark Lea, was made not to bring ANY pressure on Noland. The cold-off-the-bench QB proceeded to go 5/8 for 75 yards and the game-winning TD in 59 seconds. There were other clear errors by the first year HC, such as the bizarre QB rotation against ETSU in the opener that had many flashing back to the Dorrelfense. Clark needs to grow as a HC to match whatever growth the players have made.

To start narrowing things down to this season, we know Mike Wright will be the starter at Hawaii in the opener barring anything disastrous. So how different does the offense look because this is also the Joey Lynch offense from the ground up as opposed to whatever bastardized version of David Raih’s offense Lynch went to after taking the reigns completely early in spring ball for 2021. Wright’s best skill is his blazing speed. He also appeared to have a pretty strong arm, so an offense for him should look to use his legs as a threat to pull defenders in the box then go over their heads to some of the speedier (Boddie or even McGowan) or better jump ball (Sheppard) options. The big step forward to make this offense be a real danger would be if Wright can be accurate on timing and intermediate routes that could make use of Ben BresnaHANDS and others either over the middle behind creeped up LBers or putting single-high safety looks into a bind.

How much time can the offensive line give Wright though? They were awful last year. It was a unit that was decimated by sit outs and injuries in 2020 that was very bad but was less terrible than expected. They went the other way and burned any warm and fuzzies about the trench battlers who struck above their weight in 2020. Their inability to block anyone made an injury to Seals almost inevitable combined with his average mobility. The 2021 OL almost made choosing Wright over Seals a no-brainer based on the named starter’s ability to extend plays and make plays when the line fails him. If they can be just bad instead of atrocious, it would be a pleasant improvement.

What other playmakers can show up for the offense? I will risk the egg on my face to say I think the RB room is a pretty solid group. They may not have a Ke’Shawn Vaughn gamebreaker type, but Re’Mahn Davis, Patrick Smith, and Rocko Griffin give the Dores a trio I really like as individuals and how they can complement each other. The receiving corps has exactly one known commodity in Will Sheppard and a whole lot of potential with short speedsters Devin Boddie and Jayden McGowan. Quincy Skinner Jr has been a name early in camp, but it is easy to look very good in shorts and shells. It would be nice for Logan Kyle to step up if Skinner is for real. AND GET THE BALL TO BEN FREAKING BRESNAHAN! PLEASE! Ahem…Gavin Schoenwald might be a serviceable pass-catching TE, too.

Defensively, the theme has been “hyenas” with the emphasis being on guys flying all over the field like a pack of hyenas. It says very little about the scheme or base defense, but I suspect the scheme and base change very little. The hybrid positions of Star (DL/LB) and Anchor (LB/S) are still in place. The defense brought in so many transfers and is shuffling a lot of bodies that were on the team last year, including a guy like Elijah McAllister who is one of the few guys I would say are legitimate high level SEC talents on this team but missed essentially all of last season with injury issues. There is some talent with De’Rickey Wright (back from off the field issues), CJ Taylor, Jeremy Lucien (potential impact transfer corner), Jaylen Mahoney, and Anfernee Orji in the secondary and linebacking corps. The DL is really the big question along with whether the staff has either found some team speed or some ways to mitigate that lack of speed by creating pressure on QBs and keeping running plays from reaching the edges.

Can special teams be an outright positive instead of occasionally biting the Commodores in the ass? The special teams will have to replace a fantastic punter in Harrison Smith and reliable punt returner in Cam Johnson. Johnson was not much of a threat last season, but that was probably mostly on opposing teams often being able to place punts to tough spots to return a kick based on field position. Obvious options are there in Boddie and McGowan to provide a threat in the return games. Smith is almost certainly replaced by FAU transfer Matt Hayball who averaged 44.4 yards per punt in 3 years at FAU with 72 out of 174 punts ending in fair catches and 66 of the 174 downed inside the 20. The overlap between fair catches and punts downed inside the 20s is unknown, but he also had 36 kicks travel 50+ yards. If the offense can get out to the 40, can Hayball pin other teams deep? And can Joseph Bulovas improve on a season he went 3-3 inside 30, 5-7 from 30-39, 5-8 from 40-49, and 1-1 over 50?

Feeling satisfied? Not me. I guess we need to circle back to the big picture since the details are so unknown as to not be worth speculation. It comes down to a couple of key Clark Lea principles. How much can positive cultural shifts bring out more in the roster and help them reach their true potential? Last season and the offseason should have given any guys who were not completely bought in the chance to leave. In attitude, this roster should be nearly completely Lea’s even if the talent and player skillsets will not be that much different than 2021.

One place we could see a big jump is in the strength and conditioning. Did a second offseason under Hourigan have enough impact to turn the tide in a game or two? Can they assert their will in a way they could not even against ETSU last season? Has the endurance reached a point where the Commodores can put the Derek Mason “deep water” mantra to use? No, this team will not look like Alabama or Georgia, but they could have taken steps to at least assert their will on Hawaii, Elon, and NIU while maybe getting the best of Wake or an SEC program or two physically.

Really, without access to fall camp, so much of this is all blind speculation on last season, the spring game, and what information the insiders float on the interwebs. It would be nice if I could see fall camp practices, but starting at 10:30 AM means even if AoG got me a credential that I would only see the Saturday practices. Then I would be bound by the media rules about what they can report since Vanderbilt has taken the very rare step of having every second of every fall camp practice open to media.

With that said, what are the major (or minor) questions you have for this season? Where have I already gone wrong this season?