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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Hawaii

Week 0 answered nothing and raised a lot of new questions.

Syndication: The Tennessean
McGowan’s night was not just about his kick return TD.
Denny Simmons / The Tennessean / USA TODAY NETWORK

In typical Vanderbilt fashion, just when we all thought it would be an easy game, they made us sweat. The difference is these Dores under Clark Lea did not fall apart. De’Rickey Wright sealed the win with an interception, so we all get to hand wring and belly ache over a win instead of pulling out the torchforks over a loss.

Vanderbilt has the same record after 1 game as last season, but the feeling is not the same. Of course, last season they immediately got into a way-too-close game with Elon in Week 1. Does that mean the Commodores are on upset watch? Or are they going to get themselves together and unleash fury on Alabama A&M?

Lessons We Are Learning

The WRs offer a lot of different threats. The options showed up in different ways. Jayden McGowan and Will Sheppard both had 6 catches for 72 and 68 yards, respectively. Gamarion Carter and London Humphreys each only had 1 catch, but they were chunk plays. Carter’s grab went for 41 while Humphreys snagged a 32-yard TD. Richie Hoskins had 1 reception for 13 yards. Qunicy Skinner had just a single official reception for 10 yards but also hauled in a 2-point conversion. The presence of other diverse options means Sheppard can be used optimally. Slants were the bulk of his receptions because they let him use his big body to shield the ball while his long arms can get out to secure the ball. It was just one game against a weaker defense though. Their real talent will have to be tested more to trust it fully.

The other major standouts were CJ Taylor and De’Rickey Wright. They are the playmakers on a defense clearly still trying to find its way. Taylor had 9 tackles with 4 being solo and 2.5 TFLS, one of which was a sack. The Anchor also tipped one pass at the LOS. Wright got his hands on 3 Hawaii passes and came down with 2 of them. They came in crucial situations two with the first being a ridiculous toe tap catch in the end zone while the second sealed the game by giving the ball back to the Commodores able to run the clock out. Wright also had 3 tackles. They were all solo tackles meaning they saved yardage. These two are really smart plays with athletic traits to make plays on those reads. Even if the Vanderbilt defense struggles, a few stellar plays may be enough to steal some games if the offense can keep growing.

The special teams might be bi-polar. McGowan and Sheppard looked good in the return game with McGowan obviously returning a kickoff 97 yards to the house. Sheppard also had a 27-yard punt return to the Hawaii 38 to setup a 1-yard TD pass to himself that made the score 28-14. Matt Hayball was his usually perfect self, but 2 of his 3 punts were batted into the end zone by Vanderbilt players instead of being downed inside the 3. Kickoff coverage was also iffy. They only allowed 22.5 yards per return, but Hawaii started at the 27, 30, and 32 on non-touchback kickoffs. None of us have an idea what the FG kicking will look like, but the 4th down attempts make me concerned about Lea’s confidence in his kicking game.

I wanted to put this topic as the lone “Lessons We Know Well,” but I will refrain in the name of not overreacting. Vanderbilt’s corners really struggled. It was exacerbated by a decision to try and help them with numbers. The drawback of the extra bodies in coverage meant Shager had too much time to make decisions. He took full advantage. It was a choice that I hope the coaches learn from. We know how unlikely that is though. Bluntly, Anderson and Russell need to either fix the play this weekend or be replaced. Hight made some mistakes while trying to make tackles after the catch, but I would rather watch two players – Berry being the other – with 4 years of eligibility make mistakes and develop than older players who are still making the same mistakes. Actually, I think Anderson would benefit from a swap with Mahoney. Anderson’s technique is generally good, but his lack of speed negates that strength.

Lessons For Further Study

Did the offensive line forget how to move their feet? Watching the game back, they did not get run over or moved out of the way. Hawaii’s defenders often just went around them with very little resistance. Vanderbilt’s OL looked gassed from the start. You might expect that in Week 7 when the Dores will be playing Georgia after 7 straight games with Florida the week before. In Week 0 against Hawaii? It is a concern, but I keep the finger off the panic button for a few more hours.

Will Swann take another step forward? He was decent against Hawaii. The stat line was 19/30 for 258 yards with 3 TDs. He did go to his first read a lot, but completing 63% of his passes suggests that first read was a good option often enough that it might have been the right read. We might not have an answer for this after tomorrow since Alabama A&M’s defense is likely worse than Hawaii’s.

What will the defensive rotation look like in the meat of the schedule? Again, this probably goes unanswered for another week, but Nicholas Rinaldi and Langston Patterson played a lot of snaps against Hawaii. It might be load management for listed starters Kane Patterson and Ethan Barr, or it may be an indication that the plan is to rotate pretty evenly there. I can understand using Langston a lot since he offers a different skillset than Barr which might play better against offenses that do not run the ball as much. A&M is run heavy, so there may be an extra dose of Barr unless the coaches just want to test the reserves.

Does anyone step up in the RB room? Smith had 7 carries for 30 yards, which is an okay average except that one carry went for 21. Gillespie got 13 yards from 6 carries. The most effective rusher was Logan Kyle for his 13-yard end around. Vanderbilt needs to be able to run the ball much better against a defense like Hawaii or Alabama A&M.

Speaking of Kyle, can I change my pre-season vote for X-Factor from Justin Ball to Logan Kyle? He had the one carry and also forced Hawaii into 2 penalties to save big plays. The former WR is a mismatch for LBs. I think he has put on enough muscle/weight that treating him like a WR by using an extra CB to cover him is probably a bad idea for run game purposes.

What is the plan with the defensive front? Pre-season, I wanted to know if they could get pressure without blitzing too much. Vanderbilt rarely brought even 5 rushers, so the 4-man rushes did struggle to get home reliably. The problem on the re-watch was they looked like they were not really attempting to get pressure. Instead, it was a controlled rush trying to block throwing lanes and get hands up to interrupt passes. For the Run and Shoot, it makes some sense, but we might get some answers against a more traditional offense this week.