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The Vanderbilt Hustler

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.

SEC Media Day: Clark Lea takes stage in Atlanta, names Mike Wright starting quarterback

Second-year coach Clark Lea took part in SEC Media Day on Wednesday alongside Mike Wright, Anfernee Orji and Ben Breshnahan.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Clark Lea addresses the press at SEC Media Day on July 19, 2022. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Donning the new “Star V,” Clark Lea and a contingent of Commodores traveled down to Atlanta for the 2022 SEC Media Days earlier this week. Lea spoke to the press on Tuesday afternoon, accompanied by quarterback Mike Wright—who he named the starting quarterback, linebacker Anfernee Orji and tight end Ben Breshnahan. 

Lea opened the festivities with a nearly 20-minute opening statement, outpacing his fellow SEC coaches at the microphone. The second year coach went on to address the quarterback position, NIL, injury updates and expectations heading into his second year as the leader of the Vanderbilt football program. He ended by honoring Commodore legend, the late Jimmy Williams.

After a turbulent 2-10 campaign in 2021, Lea remarked on a number of takeaways from his first year at the helm of the Commodore program. He noted the correlation between his personal development and that of his team, among other lessons gleaned from year one. 

“One of the things that becomes a reality when you’re in this role is your development begets team development,” Lea said. “The better I am in my job, the better that everyone else in the program can be in theirs. I think specifically to address where I want to be better is a cohesive strategy for each game where we’re looking at the complementary aspects of playing winning football, and I’m doing everything I can to put the best competitive product on the field. I need to be on top of it in terms of empowering all three phases to interlock and to become a force on Saturdays.”

A year after kicking off the season with a stunning 23-3 home loss against East Tennessee State, Lea noted the importance of starting fast in 2022—especially as the Commodores travel to the Aloha State to face Hawaii. 

“We have to be ready before we begin,” Lea said. “I would even say a year ago one of the criticisms that I took on myself for our team was that we weren’t starting fast. Well, now we don’t have the luxury to sit around and wait. That game that will be played in Hawaii, there will be a lot of factors that go into the outcome of that game that go beyond just the talent on the field. It’s the trip. It’s the act of getting acclimated to the time change and the environment. And then it’s being prepared to throw the first punch. We will have that as part of our formula every day in camp moving forward, and we have to trust in that preparation to get us ready.” 

Wright on track

The biggest news from the press conference was Lea’s announcement of Wright as the starting quarterback heading into Vanderbilt’s opening matchup against Hawaii. Wright took over the lead role from incumbent Ken Seals halfway through the 2021 season and never looked back. The announcement marks the first time since 2018 that the Commodores will have a clear QB1 heading into training camp, when Kyle Shurmur entered into his senior season. 

The Commodores will travel to Honolulu for their “Week 0” faceoff against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors on August 27, which will be one of the first games of the college football season. After being named as the starter, Wright revealed his thoughts as the team prepares with just over a month left until opening day. 

“My focus right now is just getting this team ready,” Wright said. “We play ‘Week 0,’ we’ll have one of the first games in college football. We’re embracing that role and we’re excited for it.” 

Lea also spoke on the process of naming Wright the team’s starter prior to the beginning of training camp. 

“We [the coaching staff] had a challenging conversation at the end of spring to set a course through the summer. Our staff got together to say, ‘What is the best course forward here? What is the right thing to do to set a trajectory for our offense?’ Lea said. “The end of that conversation was communicating that Mike was going to enter the fall as the starter.” 

Wright had a tremendous impact on the Vanderbilt run game in 2021 with his improved mobility over Seals. The Commodore locker room also seemed to rally around the sophomore’s spirit, turning in some of their best performances of the year with him under center—notably against South Carolina and Ole Miss

“I think it’s all about moving the ball, right?” Lea said. “So, one way to do that is with a mobile quarterback, and Mike Wright happens to be one of the best in the country in that respect. We want him to develop as a total quarterback, which he has, and he has demonstrated leadership abilities, too, so we’re excited for him to enter the fall as our starting quarterback. He knows that he has to earn that every day.”

Wright spent part of his offseason competing at the Manning Passing Academy alongside some of the nation’s best signal callers. The junior noted the effect that the camp had on his development during his portion of the press conference. 

“It was an amazing opportunity for me. You’re with quarterbacks from all over the country. I was rooming with Hendon Hooker from the ‘orange school.’ I learned about throwing the ball and let the coaches clean up anything they see. It was a great time,” Wright said. 

Inherent in the promotion of Wright though is the public announcement of Ken Seals as the team’s backup. Seals, who started all nine of the Commodores games in 2020 as a true freshman, had an up-and-down sophomore season that resulted in his eventual benching. The Texas native mulled a transfer over the offseason, before renewing his commitment to Vanderbilt—a rarity for backup quarterbacks in the transfer portal era. For now, Vanderbilt will keep Seals as a readied option waiting in the wings should something happen to Wright during training camp or the season. Lea spoke to the press on the difficulty of the decision for his coaching staff. 

“Obviously that conversation is easy with Mike and harder with Ken. I want to just give credit to Ken Seals, because, in an era right now where nine out of 10 times, that player that’s getting the disappointing news makes a choice to move on, Ken Seals set his jaw and made the determination that he was going to earn it every day,” Lea said.

Injury, NIL and newcomer updates

The long slog of the SEC schedule left the Commodores battered and bruised heading into the offseason, giving them a chance to rehab and recover over the last few months. Captain Daevion Davis was one of a number of Vanderbilt starters hampered by injury, having torn his ACL in November. Lea updated the media on the senior’s status on Tuesday. 

“Daevion is recovering from injury, and he’s fighting his way back. He has done a great job at being on top of his rehab. He has attacked that just like he attacks everything in life,” Lea said. “We’ll be excited to get him back. He’s a leader for us. He was a captain for us a year ago. He’s part of the heartbeat of our program, and so we certainly value Daevion both as a player and a person.”

Lea was also asked about incoming freshman Daniel Martin, who rated as the highest recruit in Vanderbilt’s 2022 class, according to 247Sports. The linebacker from Marietta, Georgia, arrived on campus early and figures to be in the mix for playing time as early as this season for the Commodores. 

“[Martin’s] skills are apparent. We knew that in recruiting. Just like any freshman, he needs room to grow and develop, so we’re gonna give him that room. But we’re excited to see him come back after a summer of training and obviously experience through the spring where he got to know the structures of the defense and how we operate. That will give him a great launching point heading into fall camp. He’s athletic, he’s long, he has got range,” Lea said 

In a shifting college football landscape, the Commodore head coach also addressed Vanderbilt’s place within the NIL market. The athletic department has notably been slower to create a dedicated initiative mirroring their SEC peers, instead seemingly focusing their attention on the Vandy United fundraising efforts. However, Lea noted the possibilities moving forward for his program in the NIL era, specifically locally. 

“We have a great partnership with the city of Nashville,” Lea said. “Obviously, we’re right in the hub of a lot of activity, specifically with where our campus sits. We’ve definitely seen benefits in that. I think as we continue to strengthen our team and strengthen our brand as Vanderbilt football in this city, we’ll continue to reap the rewards of being in such a fruitful ground. Certainly, we value our relationship with Nashville, and we think that, in that NIL landscape, our location strengthens us.”

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About the Contributor
Bryce Smith
Bryce Smith, Former Sports Editor
Bryce Smith ('23) is majoring in human and organizational development in Peabody College with a minor in business. Bryce previously wrote for SBNation before joining The Hustler. Hailing from Chicago, Bryce is a die-hard Bears and Cubs fan who is also hoping that the Bulls and Blackhawks may one day rekindle their dominance. He can be reached at [email protected].    
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