Vanderbilt is the toughest job in the SEC, but that fact is nothing new for new coach Clark Lea. The Nashville native returns home after spending the last four years at Notre Dame, including three as the defensive coordinator. Lea played his college ball at Vanderbilt but this will be his first opportunity to work the sidelines for his alma mater in any capacity. Also, the 2021 season marks Lea’s first as a head coach at the FBS level. The Commodores have a lot to work on after last year’s 0-9 mark, so big-time improvement in the win column might be unlikely as the new staff builds the culture and resets the foundation for future success.
For every new coach, the to-do list after the initial press conference is pretty standard. The head coach has to recruit, implement scheme changes, build a staff of quality assistants and coordinators, discuss potential NFL draft impact with juniors and work on any facility or support staff requests. Needless to say, that’s a lot.
While every coach has those goals in mind, it’s never too early to look at some of the personnel concerns surrounding a program and a new coach for the upcoming year.
Here’s an early look at five personnel question marks for Lea to address in 2021:
Vanderbilt Football: 5 Priorities for New Coach Clark Lea in 2021
1. What’s the Offensive Identity?
It’s always interesting to see a team’s offensive identity when a defensive coach takes over as head coach. Considering Lea’s background on defense, he has a good idea of what systems and plays give his group the most trouble and is going to incorporate that into his offensive scheme. Former NFL assistant David Raih was hired as the team’s offensive coordinator after spending the last seven years in the NFL. Raih played under Kirk Ferentz at Iowa and later spent one season at Texas Tech working in an off-field role for Kliff Kingsbury. The two reunited in Arizona from 2019-20, so Raih has some experience in the Air Raid scheme. The hire of Joey Lynch as passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach was also a solid addition to Lea’s first staff. This spring is all about developing and installing the new offense.
2. Continue to Develop Ken Seals
You had to look hard to see positive signs out of Vanderbilt’s offense last season. Over nine SEC games, the Commodores managed only 14.8 points a game and 4.71 yards per play. Additionally, this unit posted just five plays of 40 yards or more. But the news wasn’t all bad on West End in 2020. Quarterback Ken Seals started all nine games as a true freshman and showed plenty of promise. The Texas native completed 64.6 percent of his throws for 1,928 yards and 12 touchdowns to 10 picks. Of those 10 picks, just two came over the final four games. Seals is clearly a promising piece for Lea and Raih to build an offense around this spring.
3. Rebuild Up Front
Vanderbilt’s offensive line was hit hard by opt-outs prior to the season, as at least four players expected to appear in the depth chart did not play in 2020. To illustrate how thin this group was, defensive lineman Drew Birchmeier was shifted to offensive line and started five games. This unit allowed only 19 sacks, but rushers also averaged only 3.01 yards per carry. Also, no rush went beyond 27 yards last season. It’s not clear which players that opted out will return next fall, and starting center Grant Miller transferred to Baylor. On a positive note for Lea, left tackle Tyler Steen is back to anchor this unit in 2021. However, there’s a lot of work ahead and overall uncertainty facing this group this spring under new assistant AJ Blazek.
4. The Trenches on Defense
Lea utilized a 4-2-5 approach at Notre Dame, so there will be a transition period after Vanderbilt employed a 3-4 scheme under Derek Mason. In addition to the transition period to a new scheme, the Commodores don’t have a ton of difference-makers or depth up front. Edge rusher Dayo Odeyingbo is off to the NFL, and it’s uncertain whether seniors Drew Birchmeier or Cameron Tidd will return in 2021. Malik Langham, Nate Clifton, Daevion Davis, Rashaan Wilkins Jr., and Derek Green each recorded more than 100 snaps last season and will be the starting point. Overall performance was a concern for this group in 2020, as Vanderbilt recorded only 14 sacks and allowed 191 rushing yards a game.
5. Secondary Concerns
The defensive issues for Vanderbilt in 2020 weren’t exclusive to the front of the group. A struggling pass rush and players out due to COVID and injuries each contributed to the Commodores finishing last in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. Also, opposing quarterbacks completed 73.4 percent of their throws tossed 24 touchdown throws over nine games. The cupboard isn’t bare, however. Jaylen Mahoney, Brendon Harris, Max Worship, Donovan Kaufman, Allan George, Gabe Jeudy-Lally, and B.J. Anderson are experienced options on the back end. With Lea’s expertise and track record on this side of the ball, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the secondary take a step forward in 2021.
(Photo courtesy of @VandyFootball)