Kickoff is just under 24 hours away. FirstBank Stadium is going to look a lot different, and the team inside it probably will, too. In some ways, the changes might come from who is still there. Another season for important pieces on offense like Will Sheppard, Jayden McGowan, the OL, and AJ Swann to gel and get deeper into Joey Lynch’s offense could reveal things we did not see coming. New faces like London Humphreys and Junior Sherrill along with guys in expanded roles in the RB room might burst onto the scene. The defense has some giant question marks at CB after being horrible last season, but Anchor CJ Taylor and an interesting mix of bod types and skill sets at LB and DL make you wonder if the defense might actually be just enough to let the offense we think can produce lead Coach Clark Lea to a bowl game this season.
This series, now in its 8th year (who the hell has let me write like this for so long?!), normally keeps a very tight focus on the season at hand. I make 2, 3 if there is a spring ball edition, exceptions. Today’s pre-season and the season wrap up edition will use the rearview mirror and crystal ball a bit to look at where Vanderbilt football has come from and where it is going. For pre-season, I also drop the pretext of knowing anything and give the season a chance to define itself. These are just a few questions that I think and/or hope the season will eventually answer.
Does Vanderbilt and Clark Lea carry over the finish to last season (sans season finale), or is it mid- or late season before the Dores find their feet again? The schedule this season sets up for bursting out of the gate. Hawaii and Alabama A&M should be perfect opportunities to work out every operations kink and communication issue while still rotating in depth players in dominant wins. Wake Forest offers an interesting test but should be beatable without Sam Hartman under center. UNLV is another opponent that the Commodores can handle comfortably to be 4-0 before diving into SEC play with potentially the 3 most beatable SEC opponents by hosting Kentucky and Missouri before going to Florida. Unfortunately, that means things are tougher later, so a late blooming team may not have the opportunities to fight back that the 2022 Commodores did.
Does the offensive line see another big step forward? The OL got beaten, battered, and bruised last year which led to a lot of backups and reserves becoming starters or important rotation pieces. The good news is that they did not look particularly bad, so another year in the weight room and another year with Coach Blazek should only be a good thing. The only departures were Jacob Brammer, who started 11 games at RT, and Ben Cox, who started the first 5 games at LG before injury ended his season. Junior Uzebu will start at RT but actually started 5 times at LT last season after original and current LT Gunnar Hansen slid down to LG. The point is these guys have been shuffled a lot, so pray for health. If we get that, I want to see where this OL drives the offense.
Can the front seven create pressure without excessive blitzing? The answer to this question is probably where the defense is either made or broken. If opposing QBs have time to let routes develop, our CBs are probably not going to be successful. The DL is an interesting group where the lightest mix of the 2-deep, including Star, would average 258.5 pounds with ends at 242 and 227. The heaviest options would average 288.8 and include a 323-pound NT and a 305-pound DE. They can mix and match some speed and power to really test OLs. The LBs also have options with run stuffer Ethan Barr along with more athletic options in Langston Patterson, Kane Patter, Bryan Longwell, and Nick Rinaldi. Hopefully, they create havoc.
Can any of the DBs be reliably effective? BJ Anderson normally has good technique, but his agility and speed are not on part with elite SEC WRs. Tyson Russell is only 5’11 and plays like it. Trudell Berry is relatively untested, and Martel Hight is a freshman. Alan Wright did not see the field last year, and I believe it was injury related. Daveon Walker switched from WR to CB halfway through camp. It is not an inspiring group. The lack of talent there may be why Jaylen Mahoney is at safety. If he was still at corner, other teams just throw away from him. At least when he is at safety, he can move around the field to make plays. At least one, preferably two, of the guys in that first list of six need to find a way to be able to be effective, especially in situations where the other team’s options are not well-disguised, like 3rd and long or short yardage situations.
Another room looking for a standout but with more reasons to expect someone steps up is the RB room. Patrick Smith and Chase Gillespie both played or were only effective in very limited spurts. Smith carried the ball 56 times for 151 yards while Gillespie had 27 carries for 118 yards. Smith flashed a few times as a freshman but was suspended four games to start 2022 then never really found his groove. He is the expected started, so we will see if can grab that role. Otherwise, freshman Sedrick Alexander has been getting some publicity out of camp and could stake a claim. The offense may not need to lean on a star RB like Ray Davis was last season, but more weapons and ways to attack will make life hell for defenses.
On the outside, is the Fall Camp hype about how good Vanderbilt’s WRs are or how bad the DBs are? Vanderbilt has an intriguing group of WRs. Will Sheppard is the obvious WR1, and he is a very good one. Behind him, Quincy Skinner and Gamarion Carter flashed their abilities at times last season. Jayden McGowan also had an electric first half of the season before, by his own admission, his body wore down. The most interesting pieces are probably freshmen London Humphreys, who is 6’3 but also supposedly a lightning bolt, and Junior Sherrill, who is a lot like McGowan but slightly taller at 5’11 than the 5’8 McGowan. Weapons make offenses. Having more guys who can make plays will test other teams’ depth at DB both play-by-play as they lineup but also by being able to rotate bodies to keep energy levels higher.
Now, the question that is probably foremost in most Vanderbilt fans minds, what is sophomore AJ Swann? He had really good games against NIU and Ole Miss with QBRs over 75. His relief appearance against Wake, which was only 11 passes, earned a 95.4. He struggled with injuries that were thought to be concussions, which is obviously a major concern. If he can stay in games, Swann has shown ridiculous arm talent. He also had a 10-2 TD-Int ratio which is very good for a freshman, especially when the ones who possess his level of arm talent are used to being able to fit throws into whatever windows they want in high school.
Finally, what differences do we see from Clark Lea and his coordinators? OC Joey Lynch has had moments that really impressed while also falling into age-old fallacies of being too conservative. DC Nick Howell has the more difficult job on paper, but he found ways to stop some good offenses and QBs at times last year. Will Levis had a horrible day, but that may have been weather aided. Anthony Richardson was held in check until a late 4th quarter flurry when the plan was preventing quick scores. The offseason message from Clark Lea has been about going on the attack. It will be interesting to see how much that translates to schemes.
Let the learning begin…