Scouting the Vanderbilt Commodores ahead of Saturday’s game

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Florida’s loss to Kentucky last weekend deflated much of the hope for the season. Now, an SEC East title is exceedingly unlikely, and a College Football Playoff appearance even less so.

But the season is far from over. The Gators aren’t even halfway to the finish line in the regular season, and after a heartbreaking result in Lexington, they have about as good of a bounce-back opportunity as possible against a Vanderbilt team that, despite its 2-3 record, is among the worst teams in the Power Five this season.

Vandy doesn’t do much of anything very well, and Florida should be able to get back into the win column with relative ease. Still, you can’t exactly look past anyone in the SEC, so here’s what the Commodores bring to the table.

Program Overview

Syndication: The Tennessean

Vanderbilt has always been sort of an odd man out in the SEC. It has been around since the league’s formation in 1932, but it has never won the conference. It’s the only private university in the SEC, and it has struggled to compete with many of the bluebloods it calls conference foes.

VU only has nine bowl appearances in program history, but the 21st Century (and the last decade in particular) have treated Commodores fans fairly well. Five of those nine bowl appearances came under the last two head coaches, and under now-Penn State coach James Franklin, the program arguably reached its peak.

In 2012 and 2013, the team won nine games (including two bowl victories) and was competitive with some of the SEC East big boys, winning at Florida for the first time since World War II in the latter year. Franklin left for Happy Valley after the 2013 season, and he was replaced by Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who found some early success.

Though he won just seven combined games in his first two years, he rallied the team to bowl appearances in 2016 and 2018. But the team stumbled to 3-9 in 2019, and in the middle of a winless 2020 season, Mason was ousted.

To replace him, Vanderbilt approached the new hire with a similar philosophy, hiring Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea.

It’s still too early to evaluate Lea’s tenure, as the team was expected to struggle this year, but there have been some rough moments in Year 1, starting from the season opener. Vandy lost a blowout to FCS opponent East Tennessee State at home, and its only wins this year came against FBS bottom-feeders Colorado State and UConn (the latter coming down to two points).

The Commodores’ only SEC game so far has been a 62-0 blanking at the hands of the Georgia Bulldogs, and their only other Power Five opponent has been Stanford, who beat them 41-23. This is a struggling team that enters Saturday’s game as more than five touchdown underdogs.

Passing game

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Vandy has one of the worst offensive units in the FBS, ranking just 120th with 315.4 yards per game. However, its relative strength is passing the ball. Quarterback Ken Seals, who started last season as a true freshman, has seen a little bit of a sophomore slump, as his passing efficiency has dropped from 128.1 last season to 106.5 this year.

He’s completing just 56.4% of his passes, and he has 894 yards to go with five touchdowns and five interceptions on the season. Seals certainly has some abilities, and he’s one of the more talented Vandy quarterbacks in recent memory.

But the passing game is still struggling. It ranks just 94th in FBS, and that’s in spite of a fairly experienced receiving corps. Sophomore Will Sheppard leads the way in catches with 27 for 288 yards and two scores, while redshirt senior Chris Pierce Jr. leads the team in yards with 290 on 24 catches. He also has a touchdown.

The Commodores have a pair of veteran slot receivers who see the field fairly interchangeably in senior Cam Johnson and junior Devin Boddie Jr. They have very similar production this season (16 catches, 135 yards, two touchdowns and 17 catches, 142 yards, one touchdown, respectively).

Florida’s secondary has shown some signs of weakness this season, but with cornerback Kaiir Elam expected to return, Vanderbilt shouldn’t be able to challenge UF too much down the field with big plays.

Rushing game

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

While neither facet of Vandy’s offense has been particularly effective this season, its rushing game is clearly the bigger problem at the moment. It ties with South Carolina at No. 103 in the FBS, and it’s averaging only 119 yards per game. However, a costly injury here didn’t help anything.

The Commodores lost starting running back and Temple transfer Re’Mahn Davis for the season against Stanford, and that was a huge hit to this offense. He had 44 carries for 211 yards and a touchdown before the injury, and since then, Vanderbilt has turned to sophomore Rocko Griffin for the bulk of the carries.

Griffin has been less productive, totaling 222 yards and a score on 55 carries. To spell him, VU has mostly turned to freshman Patrick Smith, who has 60 yards on 16 carries.

An X-factor could potentially be athletic Vandy backup quarterback Mike Wright, who sees occasional playing time and is third on the team in carries with 18. He has 105 rushing yards on the season.

While Vandy’s struggles here can be explained partially by the injury to Davis, the offensive line also isn’t doing it any favors. The left side of the offensive line and the center spot is occupied by upperclassmen, but the Commodores have sophomores starting at right guard and right tackle. Senior center Michael Warden has missed the last three games with a sprained ankle, and backup Julian Hernandez is currently starting in his place.

This is an offensive line that has allowed eight sacks so far this season, and it’s not doing a great job of creating rushing lanes up front, either.

Front seven

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

There’s really no way around it — Vanderbilt’s front seven has been a disaster so far this season. The Commodores have the nation’s No. 113 defense, and that’s largely due to the fact that its run defense ranks even worse at 115, allowing more than 200 yards per game.

That should be music to the ears of the Gators, whose dominant rushing attack was slightly interrupted in the loss to Kentucky last week. It should be able to bounce back in a big way against Vandy.

This unit doesn’t really have any standouts along the defensive line, but defensive end Nate Clifton has been the most productive, totaling 19 tackles (one for loss). Playing opposite him is Elijah McCallister, who has 11 tackles.

The interior pairing of Daevion Davis and Raashaan Wilkins Jr. is solid, with Davis being more productive (16 tackles, 0.5 sacks) than Wilkins (six tackles in four appearances).

But Vandy only has three sacks on the season, tied with several other teams for the second-worst mark in college football, and only two of those can be attributed to the front seven.

The linebacker group is significantly stronger than the front four, and led by Ethan Barr (the team’s leader in tackles with 40), who has a pick and three pass breakups on the season. Anfernee Orji has also been fairly productive playing at the weakside, leading the team in tackles for loss with six and ranking just behind Barr with 37 total tackles.

“Anchor” linebacker Michael Owusu has also been solid, totaling 19 tackles and three for loss.

This group isn’t devoid of talent, especially at linebacker, but it’s still proving to be one of the worst front sevens in the country in terms of production. UF should be able to run the ball without much issue against this team.

Secondary

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Compared to the front seven, Vandy’s secondary is doing just fine. But it’s still struggling. The Commodores are the nation’s No. 84 team against the pass, but it has a couple of playmakers in the defensive backfield.

Junior cornerback Jaylen Mahoney is one of the standouts. He has 22 tackles (three for loss) a sack and an interception this season. Meanwhile, the guy starting opposite him, junior Gabe Jeudy-Lally, has 13 tackles and a pick himself.

The safety group features a pairing of seniors led by Dashaun Jerkins and Maxwell Worship. Jerkins is the team’s third-leading tackler with 24, and he also has two pass breakups. Meanwhile, Worship is just behind Jerkins with 23 tackles. He also has 2.5 tackles for loss and an interception on the season.

While the secondary is the strength of the defense, it is allowing 242.6 yards per game. This is a good opportunity for Emory Jones to find some success through the air, especially downfield, after he struggled against Kentucky last week in that regard.

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