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The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Press Conference Notes: Commodores plan to suit up despite 53-player threshold

With Fitch yet to take the field since being named interim head coach, roster issues have already pushed the Commodores under the 53-player threshold.
Ken Seals celebrates with Chris Pierce after a touchdown against the Florida Gators on Nov. 21, 2020. (Hustler Multimedia/Truman McDaniel)

After the Commodores’ battle with COVID-related quarantine absences led to the postponement of the Georgia contest, Vanderbilt interim head football coach Todd Fitch is ready to lead his depleted, damaged army to take on their pre-pandemic battle opponent: rival Tennessee. 

In Tuesday’s press conference, Fitch addressed concerns that Vanderbilt may not meet the 53-scholarship player threshold for Saturday’s rivalry game by expressing a commitment to play regardless of the number of scholarship players available. Earlier this season, Mississippi State played a game while under the threshold.  

“It really is the distribution of the guys that are out, whether it be illness or injury or whatever,” Fitch said. “There’s numbers that are set by the league—obviously linemen, number of quarterbacks—so really it’s how the injuries or guys that are out by position occur, and right now, we’ve got some guys down, but we feel that we can go ahead and play this thing. It’s really all about player safety and player welfare.” 

It’s about player academics too, as this week’s practice schedule had to be altered to accommodate the final exams’ schedule. 

“Today’s a heavy finals course load, so we’ll get back on the field tomorrow, on Wednesday, and finish the week out on a normal cycle,” Fitch said. 

The depth chart released on the afternoon of Dec. 7 revealed a remarkably depleted defense—not just the secondary as it’s been since first-year Donovan Kaufman’s absence, but, for instance, at the defensive end position, with only sophomore Nate Clifton listed; it listed 20 defensive players compared to the 25 in the preceding depth chart. Fitch discussed the extent of personnel variations the Commodores could have as a result. 

“You have to have flexibility within the offense or defense within whatever scheme you’re running,” Fitch said. “Are you playing a four-down or three-down [formation]? And how you’re gonna diversify that, so it’s more within the system and the package that you have to have enough depth, and you may have to feature one package more than the other due to absence of players.” 

Even of the players listed, Fitch couldn’t guarantee all would take in-game snaps, but he hinted at least a couple could return next week. 

“[Of] the guys that are not on that depth chart, I don’t see any additions this week from missing names, so to speak, on that depth chart,” Fitch said. “I think there’s an opportunity to get a couple people back heading next week, barring any other setbacks with them… but everyone on that depth chart has a chance to play.”

The various causes behind the slim depth chart include COVID-related quarantine absences, opt-outs and entries to the transfer portal. Standout senior defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo confirmed his opt-out via Twitter on Dec. 8. Although Fitch remained ambiguous on specific players, he revealed that more players than the previously reported “couple” talked to him about opting out. 

“[The missing defensive players] were not all opt-outs,” Fitch said. “[Players who talked to me] on Sunday and Monday when this all happened, when they first relieved Coach [Derek] Mason—I talked to a lot of guys, like eight or nine guys about their futures and what’s going on.” 

The interim head coach also talked about his approach regarding a player’s decision to opt out. 

“I don’t know if you try to talk anybody out of anything, but you try to make sure their rationale, what they’re thinking, what they’re trying to get done in their life… that when they do make the decisions, that they’re making them for the right reason,” Fitch said. “The player’s gotta do what’s best for him, and we’re just trying to do what’s best for our program.”

Despite the potential looming opt-outs, being shut out in the national spotlight, and losing their head coach, the Commodores’ morale has remained strong, as Fitch had nothing but praise for the team’s attitude towards supporting one another. 

“I think probably what we’ve seen develop as last week went along is we led up into that Georgia week, and as we got back on the field Sunday, this week, guys are kind of rallying around themselves,” Fitch said. “I’ve been pleased with the guys who are out there. I’ve been pleased with the leadership—Andre Mintze, I really give credit to. The last couple days, he’s really stepped up in his leadership role, and [I’m] really happy for him and proud of him.”

The coaching staff is leveraging this season’s adversity as an opportunity to instill life lessons, with an end goal of making their players happy in return. 

“You’re trying to prepare people for life,” Fitch said. “We’re trying to get their education here. You want to teach guys how to finish, because there are gonna be tough times in your life. Things happen with your job down the road, your family, whatever it is… it’s about finishing what you started.”

Todd Fitch will attempt to become the first Vanderbilt head football coach to win his first game against rival Tennessee since Fred Pancoast in 1975. The Commodores will take on the Volunteers at 3:00 p.m. CST this Saturday on SEC Network. 

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About the Contributor
Basim Naim
Basim Naim, Former Staff Writer
Basim Naim ('24) is from Birmingham, Alabama. He’s a staff writer for the Sports section and is a student in the College of Arts and Science majoring in medicine, health, and society and minoring in human and organizational development. His hometown and college-town teams — the Alabama Crimson Tide, Mississippi State Bulldogs and Vanderbilt Commodores — have him covered from men’s disc golf to baseball. He can be reached at .
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VU Soph (She/Him/Zirs)
3 years ago

Vanderbilt needs more football players who identify as women on the team in order to be more inclusive and reflective of the university as a whole. There are probably some good quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs and linewomen with prior experience in the flag football intramural league who are ready to step up.