There’s a new energy around Vanderbilt football. After a winless 2020 campaign, those following the program finally have reasons for optimism with the culture change that is happening on West End under coach Clark Lea and staff. With spring practice just around the corner, there are many storylines to follow and below are a few to keep an eye on:
Will defensive playmakers step up?
With the departures of NFL-bound stalwarts Dayo Odeyingbo and Andre Mintze, as well as a plethora of transfers like Frank Coppett and Tae Daley now gone, there is plenty of opportunity for players to make a good first impression with coach Lea and new defensive coordinator Jesse Minter.
I expect Alan George to continue to provide leadership at the CB position. We saw flashes of brilliance in the games Donovan Kaufman played in before sitting out the rest of the year due to injury/Covid, and he’s got the potential to shine even more in coach Minter and coach Lea’s schemes. Dashaun Jerkins will be back at S and bring lots of SEC experience to the secondary once again. Ultimately, the secondary is deep and brings back plenty of student-athletes at CB and S who’ve had experience, including Gabe Jeudy-Lally, Justin Harris, Brendon Harris, Maxwell Worship, BJ Anderson, Jaylen Mahoney, De’Rickey Wright, and Camden Coleman. John Howse IV and Tyson Russell are early enrollees who will look to crack the rotation for this fall.
The defensive-line seemingly has a plethora of prospects to choose from – will promising transfers Alex Williams (Ohio State), Rutger Reitmaier (Oregon), Malik Langham (Florida), and Derek Green (Oklahoma) take the next steps and become solid anchors along the line? I think everyone is excited to see how early-enrollees Terion “Tank” Sugick and Marcus Bradley look, as they will be key pieces for the future of the Commodore program. I expect at least one, if not both of them to play important roles as early as this fall.
The linebacker position needs to find answers this spring. Anfernee Orji had a very productive fall, leading the team with 66 tackles after switching from safety. His brother Alston Orji took promising steps and could be ready for a breakout spring. Elijah McAllister, who had a big 2019 season, will be back from injury and could be an x-factor for the defense this year.
The offensive line has pieces to work with
All things considered, the offensive line held its own in 2020. New offensive line coach AJ Blazek will look to improve an offensive line that was depleted from Covid and transfers. 2021 will be a year with more depth than Vanderbilt has had in recent years, providing a solid foundation for year one of the Lea era. Tyler Steen, Julian Hernandez, Bradley Ashmore, Drew Birchmeier (after switching from DL), Dan Dawkins, Brayden Bapst, and Ben Cox saw plenty of action in 2020 with Kevo Wesley and Jason Brooks Jr. also getting their feet wet. The returns of Jonathan Stewart, Cole Clemens, and Bryce Bailey after opting out of the 2020 season will bring very seasoned linemen back into the fold, setting up a very interesting spring. With talented C Grant Miller’s transfer to Baylor, it will be instrumental that the Commodores find a new center and develop cohesion among the lineman this spring. It’s incredibly encouraging to know that Ken Seals, Mike Wright, Re’mahn Davis, and other playmakers will be behind plenty of experience in 2021.
Clark Lea’s hire of David Raih as offensive coordinator is intriguing. Raih has never been an offensive coordinator but has experience working with Kliff Kingsbury collegiately and, most recently, in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals. Will Vanderbilt’s offense transition towards a pass-heavy system with Kingsbury influences allowing Ken Seals to showcase his arm talent? Will it be an offense that’s drastically different than anything we’ve seen on West End? Will the Commodores be the Arizona Cardinals of the NCAA, running an exciting and NFL-like iteration of coach Raih’s previous employer’s system?
Although many elements of the scheme will likely be kept under wraps, this spring allows the talented playmakers on the offensive side of the ball to get comfortable before kickoff this fall. One thing is for certain: the offense will be fun to watch in 2021.
With a new attitude throughout McGugin, leadership among the players is instrumental if the team is to reach the high standards coach Lea has in mind. Quarterback Ken Seals with a year of experience enters a crucial spring as he’ll have the opportunity to learn new offensive coordinator David Raih’s offense and command a potentially explosive unit. I’m looking forward to seeing veterans step up even more than they already have and which newer faces are ready for leadership roles. In addition to Ken Seals, look for Alan George, Elijah McAllister, Re’Mahn Davis, Chris Pierce, Cam Johnson, Tyler Steen, Drew Birchmeier, Donovan Kaufman, and Ben Bresnahan as just a few players who are expected to be leading the way on and off the field.
Will facility upgrade announcements (finally) occur?
Commodore Nation has been waiting on football facility upgrades for decades. Rumors and word from the athletic department have hinted at facility announcements dropping publicly during the first quarter of 2021. The start of spring practice is the perfect time to release renderings of the locker room in McGugin (already in progress) and other endeavors that will be put in place, as well as their general timelines.
Will Vanderbilt football receive its own building? Will players be the beneficiaries of a larger weight room, practice field upgrades, improved recovery/nutrition resources and/or a new players lounge? Are there extensive stadium renovations (or even a new stadium) in the works?
A facilities announcement from the athletic department would finally put away lingering doubts from fans who’ve been disappointed one too many times. The energy among Vanderbilt fans would be at an incredible high as the university and athletic department would officially be invested in excellence together. Renderings would provide concrete proof of long-overdue investment and generate feelings of momentum for those in the program, fans, alumni, and recruits.
It should be an exciting spring for Commodore football – what are you looking forward to learning about the program during this season of renewal?