The Vanderbilt Commodores will begin the Clark Lea era on the field when the first of 15 spring practices takes place on March 17. The first-year head coach will have a lot of work cut out for him before the team's spring game on April 17 and his regular-season debut against FCS East Tennessee State on Sept 4.
The former Notre Dame defensive coordinator is hoping to turn around a program that went 0-9 in its SEC-only schedule last season and has won just one of its past 17 conference games. The good news is he has familiarity with the program after playing there three seasons at fullback. And the program returns one of the most promising freshman quarterbacks in the conference, along with four of his five top pass-catchers.
Still, with an entirely new coaching staff and major scheme changes, 2021 could be a year of growth rather than immediate results. Winning more games than last season should be attainable with four non-conference games and (hopefully) less attrition from COVID-19. But winning at least one conference game will start with solving these issues.
5 Storylines to Watch During Vanderbilt's Spring Practice
1. Clark Lea's new defense
Lea is replacing another defensive-minded coach, Derek Mason, who ran multiple defenses during his seven years on West End. He started with a 3-4 and ended up with a hybrid 3-4/4-3, which should make for an interesting transition to Lea's 4-2-5 base that he ran at Notre Dame.
This new defense will place more emphasis on defensive backs, which is the strong suit of new coordiantor Jesse Minter, who comes over from the Baltimore Ravens. And the secondary is one of the team's strongest points. Donovan Kaufman looked like a potential star before his true freshman season got cut short by a medical issue, and the Commodores return starting experience with Dashaun Jerkins, Allan George, Jaylen Mahoney, and Maxwell Worship. Brendon Harris is another highly-recruited DB worth monitoring.
Upgrading this unit, in particular, will be important after how poor Vanderbilt's pass defense was last season. The Commodores ranked 119th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (296.4), 126th in passer efficiency rating allowed (172.86), and last in completion rate allowed (73.4 percent) by nearly four points.
2. Early enrollees
One of the many joys of spring practice is seeing the newest members of the team. For Vanderbilt, seven freshmen are enrolling early and stick out in particular because they play at positions of need.
The biggest recruit is undoubtedly defensive tackle Marcus Bradley, the only four-star in Lea's class he largely inherited from Mason. The defensive line appears to be a major issue (which we'll address later), and Bradley, along with Terion Sugick, who helped recruit him, could be an impact piece. Also on the defensive side of the ball, cornerbacks John Howse IV and Tyson Russell could work their way into the rotation.
Three other early enrollees may be a ways away from contributing, but their added depth along the offensive line will be crucial after a shaky season rocked by opt-outs. Gage Pitchford is perhaps the closest to being ready to contribute, thanks to his size (6-6, 295). Delfin Xavier Castillo and Jake Ketschek could also factor at some point.
3. Who steps up at running back?
One other newcomer to keep an eye on is Temple transfer Re'Mahn Davis, who could help replace leading rusher Keyon Henry-Brooks. Henry-Brooks adequately filled in for Ke'Shawn Vaughn but entered the transfer portal and leaves the program without a returning rusher who tallied even 200 yards last season.
Expecting Davis to have an impact like Vaughn, himself a former transfer, would be excessive. But there's plenty of reason to be excited about the undersized back. He was a freshman All-American after posting 936 yards and eight touchdowns his freshman season and picked up 323 yards in four games in 2020 before transferring. Davis will have three years of eligibility left, and the NCAA is expected to clear him to play this fall.
Davis merits watching whether or not he's immediately eligible, but other backs will be featured in new offensive coordinator David Raih's attack either way. Ja'Veon Marlow is the top returning back, and freshman quarterback Mike Wright figures to be a factor in the run game, especially in the red zone. Walk-on Mitchell Pryor and sophomore Rocko Griffin also could see significant touches.
4. Year Two with Ken Seals
Few things will be more important for Vanderbilt in 2021 than the continuing development of Seals. Despite the typical growing pains of playing as a true freshman, Seals finished eighth in the SEC in passer efficiency rating (127.62) and passing yards per game (214.2) and tied for sixth with 12 touchdowns in nine games. His next challenge will be learning a new playbook.
Any improvement along the offensive line should help, as will the familiarity with the return of receivers Cam Johnson, Amir Abdur-Rahman, and Chris Pierce, plus tight end Ben Bresnahan. The last time Vanderbilt started a quarterback as a true freshman, Kyle Shurmur helped lead the Commodores to two bowl games in three seasons, so fans have reason to be optimistic about Seals' growth.
5. Generating a pass rush without Dayo Odeyingbo
Vanderbilt tied for 101st nationally with just 1.56 sacks per game last season, and the Dores are losing their top pass rusher in Dayo Odeyingbo, who Athlon Sports ranks as the eighth-best defensive end in the 2021 NFL Draft. With the loss of linebacker Andre Mintze, as well, Vanderbilt will not return any players with multiple sacks last season.
The Commodores can't be expected to be a dominant pass-rushing team this fall, but finding any potential playmakers will be crucial. They'll have to hope that Lea's new scheme will unlock players' potential because upperclassmen Nate Clifton, Daevion Davis, Derek Green, Malik Langham, and Raashaan Wilkins Jr. haven't scratched their ceiling yet.
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(Top photo courtesy of @VandyFootball)