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Know Your Enemy: The Vanderbilt Commodores.

Vandy is looking to regain relevance by hiring a hungry, innovative defensive coach. Because it worked so well last time.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our tour through the Bulldogs’ 2021 schedule with an SEC East opponent with nowhere to go but up from 2020.

Even the best things must end.

I’m a fan of Derek Mason. I make no secret of that and have said as much on this site before.

With that being said, it was time for Derek Mason to go.

2020 was a tough year for everyone in college football, but it was nowhere tougher than in Nashville, where the ‘Dores trudged lifelessly through an 0-9 campaign that was somehow even worse than the record would lead you to believe. A sizable number of players, including most of the offensive line, elected not to play the season.

Then players started transferring ere the season was even in the books. People are fond of saying that a given team has quit on its coach, and I think that’s an overused trope. In college football the players usually have a lot to play for (draft stock, pride, transfer opportunities) that exist independent of the coaching staff. But yeah, the Commodores quit on Derek Mason and his staff and it was not going to get better.

Exit Derek Mason stage left, chased to Auburn to serve as Bryan Harsin’s defensive coordinator. Enter Clark Lea, formerly defensive coordinator at Notre Dame and more formerly a student at Vanderbilt. In hiring Mason the Vanderbilt administration selected a young, energetic defensive coordinator who appeared to have a handle on the unique challenges of coaching at Vandy. It didn’t work out great, so they’ve shifted tactics to . . .hiring a young, energetic defensive coordinator who should have an even better handle on the challenges of coaching at Vandy.

Some call this sort of thing insanity. Others perseverance. In the case of the Vanderbilt brain trust it looks a little like indifference. Just hire an alumnus with an acceptable resume who won’t break the budget and call it a day. Nothing wrong with that game plan if your aim is just to have someplace for alumni to tailgate and understand that you will not be winning the SEC in this millennium.

Breaking the Seals?

If the Commodores were to unexpectedly end up in a bowl game this winter you should probably make sure you’re right with the Big Guy upstairs, because it would almost certainly be a sign of the Apocalypse. But if, for the sake of argument, the ‘Dores do overachieve this season it will be because sophomore Ken Seals takes a step forward in his second year as the starter, aided by a surprisingly solid supporting cast. Clark Lea hasn’t named a starter between Seals and his primary competition, fellow sophomore Mike Wright, a more elusive, mobile threat who likewise has a pretty live arm. But I’d honestly be a little surprised if the guy who had perhaps the most surprising QB season in the SEC last year doesn’t win the job.

Seals took his lumps in 2020, but managed to pass for 1928 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also threw 10 interceptions, in no small part because his offensive line was a patchwork from the word go due to opt outs, injuries, and transfers. Lea’s squad returns some of the guys who would have started in 2020 had they played, including Bryce Bailey (3 career starts), Cole Clemens (14 career starts), and massive (6’7, 340 pounds) offensive tackle Jonathan Stewart, who started three games in 2019. Those three guys are all physically and mentally mature fifth year seniors. If they’re able to knock the rust off and stay healthy, they form the core of what could be a not entirely awful Commodore offensive front.

Weirdly, perhaps inexplicably, they’ll be flanked by arguably the best wide receiving corps in the SEC, if not the deepest. All three primary starters from 2020, Ahmir Abdur-Rahman, Cam Johnson, and Chris Pierce return. So does starting tight end Ben Bresnahan, who pulled in 28 catches for 300 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2020. That’s the Dores’ four leading receivers and 85% of their total receiving yards back, along with an experienced QB and competent offensive line. Vandy was 14th in scoring offense and 13th in total offense in the SEC last season, but there’s no way in light of the above that they aren’t better in 2021. If they can work there way into a “last to score wins” shootout against a Tennessee, South Carolina, or Kentucky there’s every reason to believe they could be that team.

If there’s a hole on offense it’s at tailback, where last year’s leading rusher Keyon Henry-Brooks (120 carries for 494 yards and 2 touchdowns) transferred to Louisiana Tech. The versatile Brooks was also a weapon in the passing game, snagging 28 receptions for 258 yards, and looled ticketed for something of a breakout. Also gone is Jamauri Wakefield, a senior who transferred at the end of 2020.

But the transfer portal did give in addition to taking, in the form of Temple transfer Re’Mahn Davis, who only saw action in four games for the Owls in 2020, but rushed for 936 yards as a freshman in 2019. Sophomore bruiser Rocko Griffin returns after limited action (37 carries, 92 yards) in 2020. I expect that the Commodores will be, if not great, serviceable at tailback. Which given their experience elsewhere is a relatively minor quibble.

‘Dores to Doors in Nine Games Flat

When you hire a defensive coordinator as your head coach you expect to be at least respectable on that side of the ball. Friends, the 2020 Vanderbilt defense got no respect. The ‘Dores were 12th in the SEC in scoring defense and 13th in total defense. When you give up 37.3 points per game you’re not going to win a lot of football games. Or, in this case, you’re not going to win any. It’s probably therefore not surprising that the defense was hit even harder by the transfer stick than the Vandy offense

Again, Lea looks like a fit here in the same way Mason did. At Notre Dame he was known for a unit that played good fundamental football, didn’t give up a ton of big plays, and made great use of guys who didn’t always fit the physical blueprint for their position. That all sounds like exactly what a Vandy defense looking to return from the woodshed needs this season.

The problem is that Lea doesn’t have the same veteran returners he has on offense. On the bright side leading tackler Anfernee Orji returns at linebacker, and could be a player to build around. And fellow ‘backer Feleti Afemui returns after sitting out 2020. But up front there’s not a lot of protection for those guys, and the pass rush is an unknown quantity with edge rushers Andre Mintze and Dayo Odeyingbo gone to the NFL. Mintze led the team in sacks in 2019 (4.5) and Odeyingbo (5.5) did the same in 2020. Elijah McAllister, another player who sat out 2020 (seriously, how did they even field a team?) returns after notching 2.5 sacks and 4.5 total tackles for loss in 2019.

The defensive backfield is, well, let’s call it mysterious. Tae Daley was the only Vandy defender with more than 1 interception in 2019, tallying 3 picks. That’s great news for Virginia Tech fans, because that’s where Daley is playing the 2021 season. Randall Haynie tied with Gabe Jeudy-Lally for the team lead in 2020 with . . .1 interception. Haynie’s now at Jackson State. Jeudy-Lally actually is back, and may be the leader of the DBs, in addition to returning starting corner Allan George.

Especially Worrisome

If you thought the Vanderbilt offense and defense were swiss cheese in 2020, you have a short memory regarding their special teams. By way of reminder, things got bad enough that Vanderbilt women’s soccer player Sarah Fuller was pressed into action, and the spotlight, to handle the placekicking duties. Even before that kicker Pierson Cooke was 4 of 9 on field goal attempts and never hit from further away than 41 yards. Fuller isn’t back, but Alabama transfer Joseph Bulovas moves east and should be a creditable option if he beats out Cooke (I expect he will). Senior Harrison Smith returns after averaging 41.0 yards per punt in 2020. That’s not bad at all, and he might have a better year in 2021 if the Commodore offense doesn’t wear him out.

Bottom Line

Is Clark Lea the man to lead Vanderbilt back to a bowl? Probably not. I’m not sure that guy exists. But he is the guy who can take some disparate parts and produce some real momentum in 2021 for a program that desperately needs it. Vandy won’t finish winless in 2021. I expect they’ll win their opener against East Tennessee State. From there things get tougher. But I could see that offense catching any of about six teams on the schedule napping.

One of them will not be Georgia, who travels to Nashville on September 25th. By that point I expect Georgia to have dialed in a receiver rotation, possibly have some injured players back, and throttle the Commodores once for last year and once for this one.

Prediction: Georgia 48, Vandy 20.

Go ‘Dawgs!!!