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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: NIU

The defense woke up in the second half, and the offense put up more than enough points.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Wake Forest at Vanderbilt
The biggest beneficiary of the QB swap is probably Will Sheppard, who showed out against NIU.
Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I guess I need to throw out everything I have written about Mike Wright. Well, maybe I do not need to throw it away. It is all still true or potentially true. We will likely not get a chance to confirm any of it though since Mike Wright was replaced at QB by true freshman AJ Swann. I knew about the swap before most thanks to super-duper secret sources met while tailgating.

The QB change might have seemed like a mistake if you checked the score at halftime. The Commodores were down 21-14. Swann was 10/14 for 101 yards and a TD. He also had a single carry for 7 yards. The offense was being more methodical than the hurried pace often seen with Mike Wright. The lack of depth in the RB room with Rocko Griffin and Patrick Smith both being out meant Ray Davis was up to 12 carries and 2 receptions. Another player may have also gotten into the doghouse a bit, but we will get there in a bit. The same is true of what led to the halftime deficit and how that changed for the game to end as a fairly comfortable 38-28 win.

Lessons We Know Well

The growth of Vanderbilt football is very real. The exact depth of improvement is to be seen, but having more wins than all of 2021 with every win this season more impressive than any of the last-gasp FG victories last season is undeniable proof. The potential for this team to win four or five games is definitely out there now with a few other SEC teams looking vulnerable. Six still seems like it would require a lot of friendly bounces, but I doubt we have seen this team’s best yet either.

Lessons We Are Learning

The ball security concerns have stalled. The only person to put the ball on the ground was Jayden McGowan. It looks like his fumbles might have had the jet sweep plays dialed back a bit since I do not think he received the ball on any of them against NIU. McGowan also almost had another ball poked out just after his fumble, which itself could have left Vanderbilt staring own a 17- or 21-point deficit if not for a fortuitous penalty that was a complete accident, not an intentional low block. The freshman is electric, but he MUST value the ball more if he wants to continue getting it in his hands. Even just wasting a possession without giving up points could haunt Vanderbilt in a tougher game down the stretch.

Ray Davis is a freaking workhorse. Davis has 70 of the 150 Vanderbilt rushing attempts this season. He has 385 of the 869 rushing yards, too. The impressive part is his average carries have gained 9.7, 4.8, 4.8, and 5.0 yards. With Smith and Griffin out, Davis powered for 116 yards on 23 carries against the Huskies. His lowest total yards in a game is 87 (both Hawaii and Wake). If Swann can keep being effective, the boxes might get lighter. Having another backfield buddy or two available, as Smith will be this week, will also give Davis a chance to be more rested in the 3rd and 4th quarter to keep grinding out chunks of yardage instead of eking out short gains.

Will Sheppard might be molding into a true WR1. Sheppard leads the nation with 7 receiving TDs. You may want to point out that Vanderbilt has played more games than most other teams, but Sheppard is 2nd in the nation in TDs/game (1.75) behind Kris Thornton of James Madison who has 2.5 TDs/game. Sheppard looks like Swann’s favorite target, and his jump ball ability fits in with Swann’s confidence and ball placement. He is over halfway to his reception and yardage marks from last season. Of course, now, the third-year player needs to prove it against SEC competition.

Offensive coordinator Joey Lynch should also be earning back most, if not all, of the trust he lost for a disastrous 2021 offense. The dynamic between Lynch and David Raih last season was a big offseason topic. Understandable consternation about retaining Lynch who was revealed to be calling plays from some point during spring ball onwards dominated the conversation. If he was calling plays, why were “better” plays not used. Bluntly, I have no idea. This season, the offense has had a clear plan and identity. It has not been flawless, but it has had a coherent plan even with the distinct styles of Mike Wright and AJ Swann. A few things came out against NIU that were reminiscent of the Todd Fitch offense of 2020 that got so many of us excited about Ken Seals. The most obvious facet of the offense was giving the QB some chances to trust his WRs, especially Sheppard, to go make a play. The return of the 3-step-and-fire deep ball was a welcome sight with Swann laying a few balls out perfectly for his WR1 to go win.

Moving to the other side of the ball, the defense has to play a little more disciplined. The players and coaches seem to be acutely aware that the weakness of this team is speed on the backend. That understanding leads to using softer coverages. The aggression comes not from press man like most people association with “aggression” defensively but with driving hard on routes. Route identification becomes paramount, as does not getting caught driving on the same ball as a teammate. Safeties have to stay over the top, and corners need to stay aware of their leverage. Alabama will have a massive advantage in terms of athleticism. Stay within the systems, or this will be even uglier than it should.

Lessons For Further Study

AJ Swann was fantastic (81.0 Total QBR with a 90.3 Raw QBR) against NIU, but how does he do against better competition that is planning for him, not Mike Wright? He was graded as even better against Wake where his relief appearance earned a 96.7 Total QBR with no Raw score available since he did not play enough snaps to be on the leaderboards. His worst performance in every category was at Hawaii where he was only scored at a 3.9 Total QBR, but it was a VERY small sample size with only 7 pass attempts. I do not know if NIU was privy to some early info that Swann would start, but the CBS Sports Network announcers did an entire bit just before kickoff about getting Wright back on track. Swann gets to face one of the most talented defenses in the country with one of the coaches best at preparing his teams with a trip to Tuscaloosa today. Today could be ugly for the young QB but resist the urge to turn on him because this is a VERY difficult task. Failing the test today does nothing to diminish Swann’s potential.

How much boost does Patrick Smith give the offense? Being able to spell Ray Davis more often with a more dangerous back than Chase Gillespie could be massive. Smith is probably the quickest and fastest of the three headed monster of Davis, Smith, and Rocko Griffin that we all expected to see this season. Smith was apparently suspended until this game. The impact may not be immediately apparent this weekend for obvious reasons, but Smith has a chance to solidify himself as Davis’s backup with Griffin injured. Smith had 360 yards on 44 carries last year while also catching 16 passes for 84 yards. Hopefully, the distractions are behind him.

Is there a package for Mike Wright? I do not think the former starting QB will see the field barring injury, but I can understand how his legs are still useful just as they were in 2020 or early in 2021 when Ken Seals was the starter. Granted, Swann seems to be more athletic than Seals, so it may not be deemed as necessary.

Can the Dores avoid a slow start defensively? Hawaii and Elon only put up 10 first half points each. Wake scored 21 points in the first 30 minutes, but 14 came off a pick six and a fumble that gave the Demon Deacons the ball at the VU32. Then NIU rattled off TDs on all three of their first half possessions before doing the same on their first chance in the second half. The first, third, and fourth drives took 6, 7, and 3 plays each. As I mentioned earlier, Vanderbilt needs to make Alabama beat them instead of giving them easy wins.

Not to beat the dead horse, but this is going to be bad. The score is going to be ugly. This game is one where we just need to look for positive points because if anyone on this team can do good things against Alabama then they could be primed for good things against more normal competition. And, so help me God, if someone talks about accepting “moral victories” when someone is acknowledging something that went well in any fashion today, I am going to lose my mind.