Clark Lea knew he faced a rebuilding job upon returning to Vanderbilt as head coach ahead of the 2021 season, but things went even worse for the Commodores than perhaps he expected. A blowout loss to FCS foe East Tennessee State in Lea’s first game augured a difficult campaign, and Vanderbilt displayed how far it must go to compete in the SEC en route to a 2–10 record.
Heading into Lea’s second campaign, however, Vanderbilt got the luxury of having increased personnel flexibility after a full roster left the new coaching staff in a bind last year. Lea and Co. will hope that a year of continuity, further development from the Commodores’ young players and roster turnover can push Vanderbilt a bit closer to a .500 record.
Related: Athlon Sports’ College Football Top 25 for 2022
Previewing Vanderbilt’s Offense for 2022
Lea and his staff never got settled on offense last year, and that problem dated all the way back to spring practice. One week into fall camp, Lea finally decided to pull the plug on offensive coordinator David Raih and made quarterbacks coach Joey Lynch the new play-caller. Lynch returns as the play-caller this season with the formal offensive coordinator title as well after Raih’s departure.
Regardless of who called the shots last season, Vanderbilt could not settle on one starting quarterback. The battle remains open between juniors Ken Seals and Mike Wright, and that competition will stretch well into fall camp if not the regular season. Seals battled injuries and the yips behind a leaky offensive line, while the offense generally functioned better with the speedy but inaccurate Wright taking snaps.
The SEC’s worst offensive line took a hit when starting left tackle Tyler Steen entered the NCAA transfer portal and landed at Alabama, meaning the front five should be a big weakness again. If Vanderbilt can block for its quarterbacks, however, Seals and Wright could have a decent group of players around them at the skill positions. The Dores ran for just 3.5 yards per carry last season largely due to the lack of available holes to hit.
Tight end Ben Bresnahan is a three-year starter, while wide receiver Will Sheppard broke out last season as a sophomore with 43 receptions for 577 yards and four touchdowns. Starting running back Re’Mahn Davis looked like the Commodores’ best player early last fall before a toe injury ended his season after three games, and Vanderbilt owns strong depth behind him with experienced options like Patrick Smith and Rocko Griffin. Those backs, however, could benefit from more of a downfield passing game to keep defenses honest — Vanderbilt’s 34 plays of 20-plus yards ranked 126th of 130 FBS teams.
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Previewing Vanderbilt’s Defense for 2022
Although it remains unclear whether Vanderbilt can field a better offense in 2022, the defense should take a step forward. Former UConn cornerback Jeremy Lucien and former Clemson linebacker Kane Patterson are both expected to start, and senior linebacker Anfernee Orji could emerge as an NFL Draft prospect.
Multiple freshmen should play early. Still, Vanderbilt did not address its No. 1 weakness: the pass rush. The Dores tallied nine sacks last season, by far the fewest in the SEC. That put tremendous pressure on a so-so group of defensive backs, as opposing quarterbacks got all day to read coverages and make throws.
Redshirt senior defensive end Elijah McAllister will play as a traditional lineman this season rather than an outside linebacker and must take a step forward after a disappointing post-torn ACL season in 2021. True freshman Darren Agu could contribute as a pass rusher. Lea will take a bigger role in coaching the defense, so he and defensive coordinator Nick Howell will need to find creative ways to apply pressure.
Depending on the alignment, the Dores could start as many as 10 defenders who started at Vanderbilt or elsewhere last season. That alone should result in at least some progress.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2022
Previewing Vanderbilt’s Specialists for 2022
Vanderbilt’s biggest strength? Its specialists should be up to SEC standards. Starting kicker Joseph Bulovas converted 14-of-19 field goals after transferring from Alabama and made two game-winning boots. Florida Atlantic transfer Matt Hayball ranked second in Conference USA with a punting average of 45.7 yards per kick.
The return game could go from awful to respectable thanks to freshman wideout Jayden McGowan, who brings sub-4.4 speed. Coverage could improve as well thanks to an infusion of speed and athleticism from the 2022 class with potential contributors like linebackers Daniel Martin and BJ Diakite as well as defensive backs Trudell Berry, Ja’Dais Richard and Jameson Wharton. Vanderbilt ranked 12th or worse in the SEC in kick and punt return average both for and against.
Work remains for Lea and his staff as they look to build an SEC-caliber roster, and games against Alabama and Georgia should expose the Commodores once again. Lea will hope that the talented young players and transfers he brought in can at least show flashes of promise while perhaps leading Vanderbilt to two or three wins out of conference.
Lea has indicated that players are more comfortable in Year 2 after the coaching change and that they have bought in. That locker-room harmony does not hurt, but it also will not suddenly result in six wins. If Vanderbilt shows on-field improvement, it will most likely be modest rather than a full-on turnaround.
National Ranking: 94
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