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2021 Football Opponent Previews: Vanderbilt Commodores

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A terrible team loses a bunch of production and gets a new coaching staff. I’m sure they’ll be fine.

Florida v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Catch up on previous 2021 opponent previews!

Central Michigan

Kentucky

Southeast Missouri State

Boston College

Tennessee

North Texas

Texas A&M

I’ve said it in every preview I’ve written about Vanderbilt and I’ll say it again: It’s no fun being a Commodore football fan. Your program’s funding stinks, the recruiting stinks, and your team will always start at a massive deficit compared to any other program in the SEC.

However, it might actually be a pretty good job if you’re a football coach! Expectations are incredibly low, and even if you don’t meet them, you still get to cash an SEC coach’s check every year. For example, think about Derek Mason: The Commodore head man replaced the greatest modern coach the program ever had, never had a winning season, went to a handful of bowl games (that he lost) and still was at the school for seven years! Mediocre SEC coaches - hell, even more successful coaches - get fired quicker than that and Mason had the comfort of living in lovely Nashville, TN for almost eight calendar years while not being good at his job. And then got paid to not work there anymore! Just another reminder that whatever job you’re currently doing, you’re in the wrong line of work.

Vandy’s coaching search was fairly tame (but so are most coaching searches outside of Knoxville, TN). With a short list of offensive guys interviewing for the gig - Nevada’s Jay Norvell, Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell, and Charlotte’s Will Healy - Vanderbilt went with young Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea. On its face, this was a slightly odd choice. Typically, schools try to find the opposite of the guy they hired last time, and “first-time head coach who was a successful 3-year defensive coordinator at a private school” is the descriptor of both Lea and Derek Mason. But Lea wanted the job and was willing to take on one of the tougher builds in the country— one of the worst Power Five teams of all time with the 105th most returning production for 2021 and a super young core that didn’t win a single game last year. Good luck, Clark!

Here’s what Vanderbilt did last year:

2020 Vanderbilt Schedule Results

There’s a metric called Post-Game Win Expectancy, a metric that takes all the key predictive stats that a given game produces (a lot of the stuff that gets fed into SP+), tosses them into the air and says, “With these stats, you could have expected to win this game x% of the time.” So, given that measure, what was Vanderbilt’s best game of 2020? A defensive slugfest loss to Texas A&M in Game 1? A one-possession loss against Kentucky? No, it was actually the 7-point loss at Mississippi State where they had an 18% post-game win-expectancy, their best win-expectancy of the season.

Of note: Vanderbilt had a 0% win-expectancy against LSU, Ole Miss, Florida, Missouri, and Tennessee. That sucks, guys :(

Coaching Staff

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Notre Dame Spring Game
Clark Lea
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Clark Lea* - 1st Year - 0-0 (0-0)

*Anytime I hear Vandy’s coach referred to as “Lea” I can’t help but hear the Tenacious D song in my head. L-l-l-l-Lee Lee Leeeeee Lee Lee Lee Leeeeeeee. We’re talkin’ f***in’ Lee!

If Vanderbilt went into a lab to create their perfect head football coach they would have probably come up with all the ingredients that makes Clark Lea:

  • Nashville native, graduating from the elite Montgomery Bell Academy in 2000 (the school that the movie Dead Poet’s Society was inspired by)
  • Vanderbilt alum (played fullback for Bobby Johnson, graduating in 2004)
  • Best friends with Tim Corbin, head baseball coach for Vanderbilt (and one of the most respected athletic voices in the school), who personally recommended Lea for the job
  • One of the brightest, young defensive minds in the country

The issue of “you date the opposite of your ex” of hiring football coaches is relevant here since, as previously stated, they essentially hired a guy with a nearly identical resume as Derek Mason. But while Mason was not highly endorsed by Stanford’s David Shaw - nor did Stanford fight to keep him when he left - Brian Kelly and Notre Dame did try to renegotiate with Lea’s people to keep him on board in South Bend. For whatever that’s worth.

Coach Lea’s Resume

After two stints at UCLA, Lea got a crash-course in “doing more with less” as he was tabbed linebackers coach for Dave Clawson at Bowling Green, then joined old buddy Scott Shafer with his new Syracuse staff in 2013. Those Orange teams were pretty terrible so Lea bounced to rejoin Clawson at Wake Forest. Lea then followed his DC, Mike Elko (who we just talked about in last week’s preview) and got promoted to DC once Elko chased the money to College Station. Lea’s tenure as DC was excellent: an elite-level defense in his first year followed by two Top 25 units in the following seasons. He has solid head coach grooming experience while working with Clawson and Kelly so Vanderbilt is hoping they bought low and can have Lea grow into a formidable underdog coach who understands the Vandy program better than any other candidate possibly could.

Assistant Staff

David Raih - Offensive Coordinator: Raih was an interesting hire. He played quarterback at Iowa (which is about as useful as being in the Nebraska Coast Guard) but only has college coaching experience with a lone season at Texas Tech with Kliff Kingsbury. Since then, Raih has worked in some capacity with the Green Bay Packers staff before spending two seasons as the Arizona Cardinals wide receivers coach. This hire smacks of the “Joe Brady Echo” effect where a college staff plucks a young offensive guy who’s rubbed elbows with an air-raid-minded NFL guy and hopes to implement the new-pro-style passing attack into the college ranks. I have no idea if it will work - Raih has never coordinated an offense before - but he also has the lowest of bars to clear in being able to say, “I improved the Vanderbilt offense”.

Jesse Minter - Defensive Coordinator: Similar to the Raih hire, Lea hired Minter from the Baltimore Ravens staff where he was the defensive backs coach. Unlike Raih, however, Minter has plenty of coordinating experience at the college level. Despite being 38, Minter has coordinated defenses at Indiana State and Georgia State before spending time with the John Harbaugh Ravens staff. What scheme he runs and how much say he’ll have with Lea as his boss is unclear, but much like the offense, it would be a massive warning sign if the 2021 Commodore defense was somehow worse than the 2020 version.

Justin Lustig - Special Teams Coordinator

Joey Lynch - Quarterbacks

Norval McKenzie - Running Backs

A.J. Blazek - Offensive Line

Inoke Breckterfield - Defensive Line

Jovan Haye - Defensive Ends

John Egorugwu - Linebackers

LaMar Morgan - Cornerbacks

Offense

Hooookay. So. There’s...not a lot of positive things to say about the 2020 Vanderbilt offense. Ranking 121st in the nation, the Commodores were an accurate passing team (64.6%, 29th in the country!) and that’s the only thing that wasn’t flat-out terrible. 115th running the ball, 71st passing the ball, 105th in standard downs, 90th in passing downs...there was just nothing that they could do to move the ball. Part of that was starting a freshman at quarterback but when that’s your best option, it speaks volumes to the quality of player on the roster. They were also incredibly predictable, running 60% of the time on standard downs and passing 72% of the time in passing downs, a terrible way of trying to protect a younger quarterback struggling to make anything happen. The fact that passing the ball was a “relative strength” is good for whatever passing scheme David Raih wants to develop but there’s just not a lot of proven talent when looking at this roster.

Mississippi v Vanderbilt
Ken Seals
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Quarterback - Ken Seals - Freshman

Ken Seals Stats

Ken Seals tried, man. He really busted his ass for this team and had no support to find. He was very accurate as stated above and threw catchable balls 72% of the time but he was also clearly coached to make the safe pass, and dumping the ball off a mere average of 7-yards downfield per throw is not the type of passing attack that is going to scare (or threaten) the modern defense. The fact that he wasn’t mentally broken and is still, not only playing football, but playing football for Vanderbilt speaks volumes to his dedication. For his sake, I hope the young Texan has a few good years in Nashville. Just not, you know, against Missouri.

Florida v Vanderbilt
Ja’Veon Marlow
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Running Back - Ja’Veon Marlow - Junior

Last year’s leading Commodore rusher, Keyon Henry-Brooks, apparently had enough with the losing and hit the transfer portal in February. That left Ja’Veon Marlow - all 186 yards on 46 carries - the leading returning rusher for 2021. There’s a few mid-tier 3-star guys coming to campus in the fall but Vandy will probably need to look to either Marlow or another underclassman to get the reps and present at least a semblance of a rushing attack. Incoming Temple transfer Re’Mahn Davis could also see some immediate playing time.

Vanderbilt v Kentucky
Cam Johnson
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Wide Receiver - Cam Johnson - Junior

Johnson was Vandy’s only reliable receiving threat, pairing an 80% catch rate with an excellent 7.8 yards per target and 3 touchdowns. Chris Pierce was second on the team with 371 yards and 5 touchdowns but also had a 47% catch rate. One of Vandy’s two blue-chip recruits for the 2021 class was receiver Quincy Skinner; if his pedigree is accurate, and the Vandy receiving corps has minimal improvement, expect the freshman to get plenty of targets this fall.

Defense

Unlike their offensive counterparts, the Commodore defense was actually good at some stuff: 43rd in stopping 3rd-and-short, 50th in limiting big plays on standard downs, 25th in erasing big pass plays. That also concludes the only things they were good at but, hey, that’s way better than the offense! But while they do return some of the playmakers from last year they also lose a ton of depth pieces and a few starters as well. Whether DC Minter keeps the 3-4 scheme or overhauls the approach completely, this is certainly a roster that could afford some experimentation to find what’s going to work best going forward.

Rashaan Wilkins, Jr.
vucommodores.com

Defensive Line - Rashaan Wilkins, Jr. - Junior

Dayo Odeyingbo finished 2020 with 23 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 1 pass broken up, and 1 forced fumble; he also outproduced every other defensive lineman on the team combined. Odeyingbo is now with the Indianapolis Colts so the Commodores will have to find someone to step up and replace that production. Wilkins will do his darnedest from his tackle spot, and Vandy’s other blue-chip recruit, Marcus Bradley - also a defensive tackle - will certainly have the chance for some early playing time if he wants it.

Northern Illinois v Vanderbilt
Anfernee Orji
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Linebacker -Anfernee Orji - Sophomore

Orji was third on the team is snaps and first in total tackles (28) and tackles for loss (9) so he is a legit playmaker to work around. The rest of the linebackers were less active and certainly less havoc-inducing but Orji was at least there to blow up everything he could find. His fellow starters from last year are gone so the backups - including his brother Alston - will be looked to in stepping up. Michael Mincey, a 3-star from Waycross, GA, could also potentially see some early action.

South Carolina v Vanderbilt
Jaylen Mahoney
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Defensive Back - Jaylen Mahoney - Sophomore

Mahoney was a stud, playing almost every snap the Vandy defense faced and ranked 2nd on the team in tackles. What does it say when a cornerback is second on the team in tackles? Probably not good things! Mahoney was able to pair two passes broken up with tackles for loss so he’s shown to be versatile, at the very least. I have to imagine Lea and Minter would like for him to not have to support the run as much and focus on shutting downs opponent’s #1 receiver, however.

So what does it all mean?

2021 Vanderbilt Schedule

Gary Pinkel could have salvaged a disastrous, injury-plagued 2012 SEC debut by getting to six wins and a bowl game but he lost to Vanderbilt and was on the hot-seat heading into 2013. For good measure, Pinkel also lost to a mediocre Vanderbilt in the disastrous 2015 season. Barry Odom might have very well saved his job if he had just beaten a hapless Vanderbilt on the road in 2019. But he didn’t.

Losing to Vanderbilt is bad, that’s the point I’m trying to make here, and doing so usually indicates that the season is a terrible one. Losing any football game isn’t great but Vanderbilt is the only team in the SEC that Missouri routinely out-recruits, routinely out-spends, and has a better comparative history. I’m sure the Commodores will nail a few victories against the Tigers as the years go on but, as they are currently constructed, Mizzou should beat Vandy on a frequent basis.

This game is easily categorized as “likely win” on Missouri’s schedule and I’m not nervous at all to say it. 2020 Vanderbilt was one of the worst P5 programs in all of college football history and they have one of the worst returning production numbers in the country to pair with the worst recruiting class in the SEC (but 36th overall, for what it’s worth). The Tigers should beat the absolute tar out of these guys, especially given the fact that this will be the 9th-straight game for Vandy before a Bye the next following whereas the Tigers will be coming off of their Bye week...and, of note, Eli Drinkwitz is undefeated as a head coach in games played after a Bye week.

If Missouri loses this game something has gone terribly wrong. And while “something went terribly wrong” is always a distinct possibility for Mizzou, I’m pretty confident in this matchup ending up positively for the good guys.