Clark Lea: “I’ve never been more energized for where we’re headed”
And just like that, the season ended. As expected, Vanderbilt concluded the 2021 season with road losses to Ole Miss and Tennessee, finishing winless in the SEC for the second straight year. And also as expected, neither game was competitive. The Commodores lost to the Rebels 31-17 before finishing with a 45-21 defeat to the rival Vols.
Still, fans can look at the scores and argue coach Clark Lea has made clear progress with Team 1 in his first year as head coach. While the last two games weren’t close, they also weren’t at the level of the 42-0 loss to Florida, or losing 45-6 to Mississippi State just over a month ago.
Mike Wright played quarterback the final two games and showed flashes that he could be an SEC caliber signal-caller. He finished with a career high 244 yards passing against the Rebels and followed it up with 198 yards passing against the Vols – including a 56-yard hail mary touchdown pass to Will Sheppard at the end of the half.
Lea had a solid game-plan to combat two high octane quick-scoring offenses by controlling the clock. Vandy possessed the ball over 38 minutes both games, almost doubling the opposition. Sophomore running back Rocko Griffin was a big factor in that by rushing for over 100 yards in both games.
Unfortunately, Lea could never stop the trend of spotting the other team an early lead. Ole Miss scored on their first drive – the 10th straight game Vandy allowed their opponent to do so—and Wright threw a pick-6 on Vanderbilt’s first drive against the Tennessee. This recurring problem will obviously need to be addressed as the team looks ahead to next season.
“Our margin for error is so small,” Lea said after the Tennessee game. “We dug ourselves a hole, and when we turned it on offensively we weren’t quite good enough on the other side to close the gap.”
Now begins the weeks and months of offseason recruiting talk and debates over how successful Lea’s first season was at Vanderbilt. The loss against ETSU to open the season was unacceptable. There was obvious progress as the season went on, but the fact remains Vandy was the only SEC team not to win a conference game, as well as the only one of 14 that is not bowl eligible.
“Obviously not good enough,” Lea said when evaluating his first season. “I would say that you look at finishing a year 2-10 — we’ve got a lot of work to do. I don’t feel like it’s for lack of effort, and certainly not for lack of spirit and energy. But just as I ask the team to change and grow, I too need to change and grow.”
It will also be interesting to monitor the quarterback situation this offseason heading into spring practice.
“I think both at times showed great promise and an ability to function at a high level at the quarterback position.” Lea said about his two sophomore quarterbacks. “Then at times, we were short of that. So I think a fight for consistency is gonna be important. I think those two guys fighting for a deeper understanding of the offense — and that’ll happen.”
As Vanderbilt finishes the season 2-10, which includes an ongoing 21 game SEC losing streak, the expectation will be some level of incremental progress next season. I’m not sure how that would be quantified, but a better record against non-conference record would be ideal. That would mean going at least 3-1 against Hawaii, Elon, Wake Forrest, and Northern Illinois. The Commodores should also expect to end the SEC losing streak and pick up at least one conference win.
The defense showed enough improvement that defensive coordinator Jesse Minter will likely be back, but addressing the offensive staff should be a high priority for Lea after the unit failed to form an identity this season. Relieving offensive coordinator David Raih of play-calling duties before the season even started was certainly an ominous sign, with that responsibility going to quarterbacks coach Joey Lynch. The result was disastrous, with the Commodores easily finishing last in the conference in yards and points per game. Lea cannot strike out on such an important hire again.
With so many young players who saw action this season, recruiting, and the transfer portal now an option, it will be interesting to see how Lea reshapes the roster over the offseason.
“I’ve never been more energized for where we’re headed,” Lea said. “I look at the guys in the room, I look at the nucleus of the team returning, I think about how much I know about what’s needed and where we need to strengthen, I’m so excited about where we’re headed. We have the opportunity for exponential growth this offseason.”