Vanderbilt Football Offseason Notebook: Lea rounds out his 2022 squad

With their best recruiting class since 2013 and several new, experienced coaches, the Commodores have a high ceiling heading into the 2022 season.

Vanderbilt+head+coach+Clark+Lea+walks+along+the+sideline+before+kickoff+against+the+Ole+Miss+Rebels+on+Nov.+20%2C+2021.+%28Vanderbilt+Athletics%29

Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea walks along the sideline before kickoff against the Ole Miss Rebels on Nov. 20, 2021. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Andy Carr and Brandon Karp

As the recruiting cycle for this upcoming season comes to a close, head coach Clark Lea has put together a strong group of high school recruits, new coaches and transfers. The Vanderbilt Commodores’ 2022 recruiting class currently ranks 14th in the SEC but 32nd in the nation, their best since 2013. 

Despite a 2-10 record last year, Lea expressed excitement and overall positive feelings surrounding the offseason, largely due to successfully navigating the 85-man scholarship cap and bringing more talent to Nashville than the Commodores have seen in years. 

“We feel good about where we are and feel good about how we’ve positioned ourselves that way,” he said after National Signing Day on Feb. 2. “We were obviously really glad to be able to add some talented players and feel good about the future heading forward.”

Since Early Signing Day on Dec. 15, six additional recruits have been added to the Commodore squad. Among the newly minted recruits, five of them are three-star recruits—Daniel Martin, a 6’2”, 195-pound linebacker from Marietta, GA, is the sole four-star recruit. 

Martin announced his intent to commit to Vanderbilt at the 2022 All-American Bowl, citing his belief in Lea’s commitment to building a strong program in Nashville. The talented two-way player who also got snaps at wide receiver in high school chose to head to West End despite offers from seven other SEC schools, including the national champion Georgia Bulldogs.

Two of the newest recruits to Lea’s first class are local: cornerback Jameson Wharton (6’0”, 170 lbs.) and wide receiver Andrew Paige (6’4”, 205 lbs.), who are both from Hendersonville, Tennessee. An emphasis for Lea throughout the recruiting process has been capturing nearby talent, and with these two additions, four players in the class are from Vanderbilt’s backyard.

The now second-year head coach has stressed the importance of finding players with measurable traits this season, such as speed and length—Wharton, in particular, has both.

“Obviously we love the speed and it’s a measurable trait,” Lea said. “We know [Wharton] can run. We think he has the length, and you also see someone who has just got an underdeveloped frame.”

Another focus for Lea in recruiting has been going after talent, even if it means overloading at certain positions. One of the latest additions for the Commodores is 6’5”, 210-pound quarterback Walter Taylor from Jackson, Alabama, who will join three-star quarterbacks AJ Swann and Drew Dickey in this year’s class. With five scholarship quarterbacks on its 2022 roster, Vanderbilt will certainly have some competition for the starting role under center.

Lea spoke to the coaching staff’s desire to recruit three quarterbacks to compete with juniors Mike Wright and Ken Seals, who each got a significant amount of snaps this past season.

“We wanted to have five on the roster,” Lea said. “We feel like competition is important, and that position in and of itself is so important. So we wanted the opportunity for iron to sharpen iron and for us to have guys battle it out. We feel like we got three really talented players in the class—three that have unique skill sets and really leadership in their DNA. With Walter specifically, because he signed today, we felt like he was just too talented to pass up on him.”

Among the final two new recruits joining the Commodores this upcoming season are Leyton Nelson—a 6’4”, 275-pound offensive tackle from Orlando, Florida, who was flipped from the University of Central Florida (UCF) on Feb. 1—and Jeffrey Ugo, a 6’1”, 180-pound safety from Richmond, Texas. 

Although it was unexpected that Nelson, the Floridian, chose Vanderbilt after initially committing to UCF, Lea emphasized that there is a strong connection between the offensive tackle and Vanderbilt.

“We think [Nelson] has length and athleticism and can be a great player for us on the edge,” Lea said. “But this is one where he connected with the program at a level of us focusing on the things that are most important: the relationships, the honesty, the connections that are built that make Vanderbilt distinguished in terms of a focus on the things of substance.”

Vanderbilt looked beyond just high school talent in January, also adding players to this year’s class from the transfer portal. Among them are punter Matt Hayball and 6’2” cornerback Jeremy Lucien, who are transferring from FAU and UConn, respectively. Hayball and Lucien will join Kane Patterson—a former linebacker for the Clemson Tigers whose brother Logan will also be on the 2022 Commodore squad—in the transfer class. 

In addition to the wave of talented players joining them on the sidelines, next season’s Commodores will be led by a vastly reshuffled coaching staff featuring several new faces. The staff lost three members but filled their vacancies with three new coaches and three internal promotions. 

The two key departures on defense are former defensive coordinator Jesse Minter and linebackers coach John Egorugwu, a few of the architects of Vanderbilt’s strongest defensive recruiting class in years.

In line with Lea’s vision for revamped local recruitment, Minter and Egorgwu had taken positive steps in creating a culture that attracts the region’s top defensive talent. Notably, Egorugwu recruited Martin, Vanderbilt’s only four-star recruit and the Commodores’ highest-rated linebacker recruit since Alston Orji in 2018. 

Detractors will note that Vanderbilt’s 2021 defense mustered up an SEC-low nine sacks on the season—Alabama’s Will Anderson notched 18 alone—and was near the bottom of college football with 35.8 points allowed per game. 

Clearly, though, the football world sees something in these two coaches, as their new destinations aren’t exactly lateral moves. In 2022, Minter will serve as defensive coordinator for reigning College Football Playoff semifinalist Michigan, and Egorugwu will coach the linebackers for the New York Giants. 

Replacing Minter as defensive coordinator will be recent hire Nick Howell, who was originally brought in to coach defensive backs after the departure of cornerbacks coach Lamar Morgan. Howell spent the last nine years as defensive coordinator on Bronco Mendenhall’s staff at BYU and Virginia. In 2019, Virginia’s defense totaled 46 sacks on the season and carried the team to the ACC Championship Game, as well as the Capital One Orange Bowl

Two Clark Lea disciples round out the defensive staff. First is former NFL defensive lineman Larry Black Jr., who will coach the same position for the Commodores. Black spent the last three seasons as defensive line coach for Toledo, and he previously served as a graduate assistant defensive line coach at Notre Dame. It was there that he made a strong impression on then-Notre Dame defensive coordinator Lea, who believes Black will continue to thrive on next season’s coaching staff. 

Second is Nick Lezynski, who, according to reports, will replace Egorugwu and serve as linebackers coach. Lezynski played cornerback at Notre Dame and worked as a defensive analyst there with Lea from 2018 to 2020. His previous coaching stops include Lafayette, Holy Cross and UConn as a graduate assistant. At Vanderbilt, Lezynski will work with perhaps the strongest unit on defense with Martin, Patterson and the return of Anfernee Orji. 

Vanderbilt’s offensive coaching staff has undergone significant turnover as well. After finishing last in the SEC in total offense, passing yards and points per game, Lea elected to move on from former offensive coordinator David Raih. Raih had previously served as wide receivers coach for the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals but conceded playcalling duties to quarterbacks coach Joey Lynch in the middle of last season. 

Continuing his upward trend of offensive responsibility, Lynch was recently promoted to offensive coordinator and will also retain the title of quarterbacks coach. Prior to coaching quarterbacks for Vanderbilt last season, Lynch was the offensive coordinator for Colorado State and Ball State. Alex Bailey, who worked as wide receivers coach under Lynch at Ball State, will join Vanderbilt in that same capacity for the 2022 season. 

As if the coach-poaching drama on offense and defense wasn’t enough, Vanderbilt also had to fight to retain another one of their most important coaches: special teams and tight ends coach Justin Lustig. Lustig, who was recently granted a third title as associate head coach, was heavily pursued by current Penn State head coach James Franklin. 

With this season’s new roster and staff beginning to take shape, the Commodores will soon begin spring practice in anticipation of the Spring Game on April 16.