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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Elon

It started so well...

NCAA Football: Elon at Vanderbilt
Will Sheppard may be WR1, but Jayden McGowan is rapidly coming out of his shadow.
George Walker IV-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt has started the football season 2-0 by curb stomping a barely intact Hawaii program and cruising, mostly comfortably, to a 42-31 win over FCS Elon. It would have been nice to blow out the Phoenix the same way the Rainbow Warriors were dispatched. Instead, the offense sputtered a few times after putting up 21 points in the first quarter, and the defense allowed 21 points in the second half. Maybe I got too comfortable after the opening 15 minutes, but the margin of victory seems generous to Elon.

Lessons We Are Learning

This offense has something going, and I think Joey Lynch deserves a lot of credit. I know the competition level so far. I promise that is not being ignored. There are none of the proclamations made annually by teams like Tennessee, Texas A&M, or LSU before they get humbled by Alabama coming. The offensive line is still a large question marks, and the WR room has had limited impact outside of Jayden McGowan and Will Sheppard, who has 4 TDs but only 9 catches for 97 yards. The offensive coordinator has built and offense that employed at least 5 distinct option concepts. Each of those has little wrinkles coming off of them, too. The only real knock on him so far was simplifying the offense too much at times against Elon. Some of that was protecting Mike Wright by taking his legs out of the game with only a handful of times he even had the choice to keep the ball in his hands in the second half. If the only real concern so far is what happens when we are up 21 or more points, we should all be very happy based on the last 3 seasons.

Mike Wright is in command of the offense. His athleticism is elite at the QB position. In a pure foot race, only the fastest DBs have a chance to run with him, much less chase him down. The physical attributes are only so good if the mental side of the game is not sharp, too. The danger of running the style of offense Lynch has rolled out is you are relying so much on the QB to properly read and react. Wright has been nearly impeccable. I have certainly missed some instances, but no play this year has made me wonder what Vanderbilt’s QB was thinking. His passing progressions are still a work in progress, but the option decisions have been impressive. One great example for the entire offense was the 75-yard TD pass to McGowan where the entire offense recognized the free play, went to four verticals in unison, and executed perfectly.

The defense got away from swarming at times. When they did, some of it was going too soft in zone too early, but the other factor was loudly addressed by Clark Lea postgame. The head coach did not like how little depth was used. The linebackers and defensive line appeared to get a fair amount of rotation, but the secondary seemed to have the same bodies on the field for almost the entire game. They struggled at times, too. BJ Anderson had a couple pass interference flags and was very grabby. He has shown good coverage skills, so I have trouble believing it was about a talent gap between him and the man he was covering. Whether he was tired or actually outmatched, the DC and/or his position coach need to get the struggling player out when they supposedly have some depth, even if the depth is young and inexperienced. The pack hunting identity is this defense’s recipe for success and cannot be handicapped.

Hayball was blasting the ball again. He had 7 punts travel 346 yards, so he averaged 49.4 yards per punt. His longest was 57 yards. One punt was also downed inside the 5. The problem was Hayball outkicked his coverage quite a bit. I was not clocking hangtime, but he should probably tilt a little more towards height than distance. Five of the seven punts were returned for 71 yards with a long of 34. Give up 5 yards on the kick to force the fair catch, please.

Lessons for Further Study

The competition is ramping up tomorrow, and the Commodores have to show the backbone they lacked at times last season. Wake Forest is #23 and has back their 2021 2nd Team All-ACC QB. Vanderbilt did trail after Hawaii’s first drive, but the talent advantage was blatantly in Vanderbilt’s favor. The Dores will need to take a punch or two and fight back. The defense showed some resilience even while struggling a bit with Elon in the second half. Elon had chances to get closer but were stopped on downs at the Vanderbilt 32 and the 1.

Last week, the trenches were okay. It was better than ETSU last season, which is not saying much, yet still left something to be desired. The OL was down a starter and had to shuffle a bit to account for missing their center. Julian Hernandez is supposed to be available in some extent, so his health may go a long way to determining the level of success possible. Defensively, that line is still waiting on Devin Lee and Daevion Davis. They are getting back the German physical specimen Yilanan Ouattara, but he will probably be a second or third option. Maybe he can add some spark though as competition for playing time ramps up. Just like the rest of the game, Vanderbilt is facing a Power 5 trench battle, so they get a real chance to impress with their improvement. Or show that Vanderbilt is still a year or two away from converting improvement to significant differences in the W/L columns.

I have to circle back to one of the questions I asked preseason. Who stands up? Big games require big performances, and often turn on plays made by unusual suspects. With Wake’s defense keying on Wright, Davis/Griffin, Sheppard, and McGowan, the Commodore offense could find some big plays through Ben Bresnahan, Gavin Schoenwald, Chase Gillespie, or maybe one of the WRs like Quincy Skinner Jr. Defensively, I think it comes down to the corners. Maybe BJ Anderson can have a revenge game after struggling against Elon, or could it be Jeremy Lucien?

Is Vanderbilt hitting the turnover luckbox, or will they continue to protect the ball while also taking it away once or twice a game? Vanderbilt has put the ball on the turf a few times, but it has not gone over to the other team yet, unless you count Will Sheppard having the onside kick knocked free in the air. Meanwhile, the defense has forced 3 turnovers, all fumbles, through 2 games. It is something to keep an eye on and may continue as a product of getting lots of bodies to the ball. The offense needs to protect it a little better though.

Is it time to make a statement? A top 25 win in year 2 could catapult Clark Lea’s rebuild forward a year or three. It could also wake up some chatter about goals that seemed nearly impossible to start the season.