Press Conference Notes: Lea gives QB, injury updates, looks ahead to Northern Illinois

Clark Lea addressed the media on Tuesday ahead of his team’s trip to face Northern Illinois.

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Arianna Santiago

RB Ray Davis avoids Wake Forest LB Ryan Smenda at First Bank Stadium, captured on Sept. 10, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Arianna Santiago)

Bryce Smith, Sports Editor

Clark Lea addressed the media on Tuesday afternoon following his team’s loss to Wake Forest on Saturday. The head coach spoke about going on the road for the upcoming matchup against Northern Illinois, bouncing back from a loss and getting back to the team’s identity. 

Vanderbilt struggled offensively against the Demon Deacons, turning the ball over three times in the loss. The Commodores were held to just 294 yards of offense—their lowest output of the season. 

“The story of the game is the turnovers,” Lea said. “I liked the competitive spirit we started with. There were sparks on all three phases—the fourth-down stop was a chance to grab some early momentum. It kind of unraveled in that moment where we threw a pick-six and turned around, and it’s a one-play touchdown [for Wake]. And then another fumble that leads to the second score very early in the second quarter.”

Despite the offensive struggles, Lea mentioned the strength of his defense in stopping the Wake Forest slow-mesh offense. The Commodores’ defense held the Demon Deacons to 38 points on Saturday, but the second-year head coach didn’t think his offense was able to complement the defense enough to keep the score even lower.

“I felt the defense held the line heading into halftime. We had a number of possessions there that we were able to hold Wake Forest out of the end zone, and that gave us a shot coming out in the second half. We didn’t start well enough to really put a dent in the score,” Lea said. “There were some individual performances that were good. There were some flashes of play again in all three phases that I thought were representative of who we want to be, but we’re not that program yet that can inflict the damage that we inflicted on ourselves and come out of it.”

Part of complementing that defense involves sticking to the team’s run-first identity, which Lea felt was lacking on Saturday. As defenses have begun to stack the box to counter the Commodore rushing attack, Lea emphasized the necessity to get the perimeter passing game working. 

“It’s about having the counter-punches to get the box to expand a little bit. We have good tailbacks that we can hand the ball [to]. We have a physical offensive line that creates separation. The first run of the game—the first play of the game for us—we hit a run just by separating the first and second levels and Ray [Davis] was able to find the vertical cut and get going. So, those are plays that we can lean on and still have a dynamic run game. It’s just when we sense that the safeties are down and the apex players are in and involved, we’ve got three one-on-ones on the perimeter. Now, we need to find a way to get the ball out and to get that box stretched so that we can reignite the run game.”

Vanderbilt's offense struggled all afternoon against a stout Wake Forest unit. (Arianna Santiago/Hustler Multimedia)
Vanderbilt’s offense struggled all afternoon against a stout Wake Forest unit. (Arianna Santiago/Hustler Multimedia) (Arianna Santiago)

Lea also gave updates on several Commodores who have been on the injured reserve this season, including Devin Lee who hasn’t played yet this season.

“The expectation is that he’s going to be available, and I know he’s excited. I’m excited. It’s been a long road for him, and whatever he gives this weekend, we’ll celebrate and build on it,” Lea said. 

In other injury news, the head coach listed running back Rocko Griffin as day-to-day and starting wide receiver as Quincy Skinner Jr. “up in the air.” Julian Hernandez, who hasn’t played in either of the last two games, is expected to suit up on Saturday. 

“I was hopeful for Julian a week ago, but he wasn’t responding quite to the level that we needed him to be to be out there and feel confident and comfortable to play him. He’s further along this week and my expectation is that he’ll be available in some capacity,” Lea said.  

Vanderbilt will head to DeKalb, Illinois, this weekend to face off against the Northern Illinois (NIU) Huskies. The Huskies, of the Mid-American Conference (MAC), come into the contest with a record of 1-1 on the season.

“They’re a good team. This is a program that has been at the top of the MAC conference for a long time,” Lea said. “They’ve won over 70% of their home games over the last 10 years. This weekend will be a 10-year celebration of their Orange Bowl team. I mean, a year ago, Northern Illinois opened the season at Georgia Tech and won. They’ve beat eight Power Five teams since 2009.” 

After benching starting quarterback Mike Wright midway through the loss to Wake Forest, Lea affirmed that the junior will maintain the starting job heading into Week 3 against NIU. Backup AJ Swann was 8-11 for 146 yards and 2 touchdowns in relief of Wright on Saturday. Lea mentioned that playing both quarterbacks is not a strategy that Vanderbilt wants to consistently deploy.

“[Wright] had a number of really special performances for us this season. He knows, and I’ve said this before, it’s ‘an earn it everyday mindset’ for each position we play. That’s all a part of the build of this program,” Lea said. “But, I’m excited for Mike to come on this week and to get dialed in to what Northern Illinois presents as a challenge and where we can be better.”