NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Clark Lea sees great potential at Vanderbilt, and the first-time head coach has been busy making changes trying to set his alma mater up for long-term success.
Yes, Lea believes winning is possible at Vanderbilt. The Commodores just have to do it their way.
“For me, it’s seizing the opportunity we have to build something different to give this program a chance to be at its potential,” Lea said.
The former Notre Dame defensive coordinator has been working to remake both the team and the culture inside Vanderbilt since being hired in mid-December. He got busy stripping numbers off players as part of a fresh start trying to redefine what it means to be a Vanderbilt player.
Lea also was helped by Vanderbilt announcing a $300 million commitment as a down payment on its investment in athletics at the end of March. Changes are necessary at a program that has been to six bowl games since the 2008 season but with only six winning seasons since 1970.
Vanderbilt went 0-9 in 2020 playing a COVID-induced Southeastern Conference-only schedule that cost Derek Mason his job. The Commodores had at least eight players opt out last season, including linebacker Dmitri Moore who transferred after a loss to Florida.
The SEC skid actually dates back to the 2019 season and currently stands at 13 straight losses.
“We can’t be afraid to be drastically different,” Lea said.
Taking away jersey numbers made for easy jokes about Vanderbilt's commitment to football. The first five jersey numbers were awarded July 20, and yes, everyone else now has a number. Junior defensive lineman Daevion Davis said he understands why Lea took that approach to teach each player about responsibility, being selfless and committed to a team.
“It was a lot more than just talking it or putting it in an Instagram caption,” Davis said. “It’s who we are now. I couldn’t thank him more for that because it’s made me a lot better player, a lot better man.”
Vanderbilt ranked ahead of only two other teams scoring just 14.8 points a game last season. Ken Seals played every game at quarterback with Mike Wright playing in six. Both stuck around to help Lea's rebuilding project. Lea also got three fifth-year seniors back on the offensive line after they opted out of 2020.
To find the right players, Lea hired an old high school teammate Barton Simmons will oversee roster development as general manager/director of personnel working with recruiting and scouting, a hands' on approach after working as a national analyst for Rivals.com and then the past decade at 247Sports.
“Barton, as an outside-the-box thinker, as someone who’s connected to recruiting but hasn’t been immersed in a recruiting operation, gives us that opportunity,” Lea said.
GOT A KICKER
Vanderbilt made history last season when Sarah Fuller, a goalkeeper on the Commodores' SEC tournament camps, kicked off in one game and then made a couple extra points in the final game of the season to become the first woman to score in a Power Five game. The Dores needed Fuller after COVID testing and tracing issues left them thin at kicker.
That shouldn't be a problem this season. Lea added not one, but two fifth-year senior kickers. Joseph Bulovas played in 26 games for Alabama. Bulovas made 75.9% of his field goals and made 134 extra points. They also have freshman Will Faris from Texas.
Vanderbilt opens the season Sept. 4 against East Tennessee State, and UConn visits Oct. 2. But the rest of the schedule is daunting with road trips to Colorado State, Florida, which is followed by a visit to South Carolina. They wrap the season at Ole Miss and at Tennessee.
The home schedule also includes Stanford on Sept. 25 followed by Georgia. Mississippi State and Missouri visit in back-to-back weeks in October followed by Kentucky on Nov. 13 in the final home game of the season.
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