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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Preseason

Is there a point to do this since none of us attended fall camp? Well, I spent time to write this on the way to Hawaii...

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Vanderbilt
Max Worship may be a sneaky contender for big impact if you were not tuned in to fall camp info.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt has gotten through fall camp and completed their week of Hawaii-focused prep. Head Coach Clark Lea opened practices to the media, so some info has been slowly leaking out about who has impressed…or not. All of that comes with two major caveats – it is Vandy-on-Vandy and never the same as live fire. However, between the publicly available practice reports and Vanderbilt’s posted depth chart, we do have a somewhat better idea of what to expect tomorrow. I am still staying away from the 2 more assured sections since I am taking the preliminary info with enough salt to rim the glass of many a tropical drink.

Lessons for Further Study

What does Joey Lynch’s offense schemed for Mike Wright’s skillset look like? The obvious expectation is that his legs will be a feature. There are a lot of ways to use the wheels beyond where most people’s minds usually go. Lynch could also use rollouts to give the OL some help while making teams worry that Wright could take off even if the play is designed as a pass. Jayden McGowan and Devin Boddie both have speed that can be put to use in the screen game. The more ways Lynch can find to attack areas of the field the better. Defenders getting pulled sideline-to-sideline will open lanes upfield that the running backs should be able to exploit. The potential is there for a decent offense, but the execution is still a major question mark.

But how much of that do we see against Hawaii? Vanderbilt will want to get in a good rhythm against the Rainbow Warriors, but coaches sometimes overthink things and go overly vanilla against opponents they view as lesser competition. The Commodores cannot afford to downplay anyone this year after losing to ETSU and squeaking by Colorado State and UConn. Vanderbilt fans will want to at least see the elements of the offense to be enthused about it, and the defense will need to hold the islanders at bay. Otherwise, the concerns will start pouring in, even with a win, based on how broken the Hawaii football program is.

On that note, how will these “hyenas” hunt? New DC Nick Howell has named the pack hunters as the template for how he wants the defenders to attack the ball. The depth chart might have given us some clues for the form they take. With Jaylen Mahoney at safety and De’Rickey Wright back down at the Anchor, it takes CJ Taylor out of the starting lineup, but my expectation is we will see both Wright and Taylor on the field in sub packages as pseudo-safeties with Mahoney’s coverage ability to back them up. I could be wrong though since the depth chart does not indicate anything about that deployment. The real clue in Mahoney being at safety is they value coverage skills on the back end. The benefit of having more guys who can cover, especially man-to-man, means you can be more creative and varied in who you use to rush the passer. Passing rushing and run stopping are the things this defense needs to prove it can do against a team without SEC size or quality.

Do any playmakers separate themselves from the start? The offense has some candidates in Wright, Sheppard, McGowan (though he may be too inconsistent as a freshman), Davis, and BresnaHANDS (maybe this fan club is just me at this point) to make plays. Defense needs playmakers of its own. Daevion Davis being out for now takes one option off the board, so Malik Langham really needs to step up and show out. Anfernee Orji should be expected to above and beyond at LB. Then some combination of De’Rickey Wright, Max Worship, CJ Taylor, and Michael Owusu/Darren Agu (whoever is at the Star, really) have to impact the game positively. The defense is really in dire need of someone to disrupt opposing QBs and draw enough attention to free up other rushers. If none of them can make plays against Hawaii, the season will almost certainly be capped at 3 or 4 wins. The irony here is that I may be talking myself more into being worried about the weak links than I am finding standout strengths.

On that note, what was done to sure up the glaring weaknesses last season? First and foremost, the offensive line was dangerous. Dangerous for our QBs and RBs. Jacob Brammer transferred in and was expected to start, but returners held him off. He was an all conference performer at the G5 level. Hawaii is not a good G5 team, so the guys who held him off should not have trouble with a bad Mountain West DL. On the other side of the ball, the main deficiency seemed to be athleticism. Speed is usually not something that can be developed, not from the place we appeared to be last season. New faces starting and shuffling some personnel may help though. Elijah McAllister is no longer at Star and is being used on the DL. The players in line at Star are all 240 or lighter, so that position should be quicker. Kane Patterson gives a changeup to Ethan Barr at LB. Jaylen Mahoney at safety will upgrade there, and some other new starters may have taken an extra year to get the technique down even if they were better athletes. I hate to see keep saying it, but if Hawaii makes us look slow, we are in trouble.

How does the team handle the off-the-field aspects of the trip? Clark Lea took his team out a week early to adjust to the time and put them in a very controlled environment. Yes, they have done a community service project, gone to Pearl Harbor, and had free time. The team is not in a bubble. They are on Clark Lea’s schedule though. The schedule is still abnormal. Athletes are creatures of habit. Oh, and even Vanderbilt football has not made a habit of playing in front of 9,300 or fewer people. Those factors may be viewed as a built-in excuse for a sub-par performance, but, to me, overcoming that is a major step for Clark Lea to prove he has the full attention and focus of this team.

How do the Commodores adjust on the field? Hawaii Head Coach Timmy Chang has never even been a coordinator. Yes, that point is being beat to death as a reason Lea needs to coach circles around him in this game. It does make planning difficult since systems of choice for Chang may be a bit unknown. He has probably pulled from his playing days and time on different staffs, so Lea and company have information to give them some understanding. Chang will likely still utilize concepts or personnel that are unexpected. The key spot is QB with 3 Rainbow Warriors still listed as potential starters. The defense adjusting to whichever QB is playing, even with the potential for more than one Hawaii QB to taken meaningful snaps, could be key to see the control fans expect.

Finally, let us assume everything breaks the wrong way early. I will not speak into existence the myriad of ways this game could unravel. I do not see any way Hawaii just lines up and beats us. For the hosts to win, they probably need Vanderbilt to be very poor relative to the talent that is on the team, Hawaii needs to do some very unorthodox/unexpected things to catch Lea/Howell and Lynch off guard, AND some freak plays will need to bounce their way. If we assume the worst case scenario until halftime because “first game jitters” or the like, is much or all of it fixed in the second half or do they stumble throughout? A close win will not be taken well by most, including myself. A close halftime would be bad enough fuel for the pessimists. A loss would be disaster.

As always, if you have something you want me to keep an eye on for a future edition, let me know in the comments. I will try to re-watch this game during the week, but it may be difficult to find time on vacation.