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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.

Football Mailbag: Can Vanderbilt start 3-1?

The Vanderbilt Hustler Sports Editors answer all your questions about the Commodores before their upcoming matchup against Northern Illinois.
Alexa White
Vanderbilt will head to Northern Illinois this weekend (Hustler Multimedia/Alexa White).

Now three weeks into the season, Clark Lea and Vanderbilt will travel to Northern Illinois for a matchup against the Huskies on Sept. 17. The Commodores kicked off their 2022 campaign with a scorching hot start after dismantling Hawaii in Honolulu, 63-10. Things have gotten less rosy since then as the Commodores limped to the finish line in a 42-31 win over Elon and then got overmatched by Wake Forest, 45-25, last week. 

Still, Vanderbilt will head to Northern Illinois with a chance to start 3-1 for the first time since 2017. A win would eclipse the Commodores win total from each of the last two seasons combined. But after an offensive meltdown and subsequent quarterback change in the team’s loss to Wake Forest, there are more questions than answers heading into Week 3. We asked you to give us a few and you delivered. So how do our writers feel about the pulse of the Commodores heading into a crucial matchup against the Huskies? 

1. How much of the AJ Swann performance is actually related to his talent and how much is just a product of the Wake defense playing laid back?

Bryce Smith, Sports Editor: Probably a little bit of both. No doubt, AJ Swann looked really good in his limited action against the Demon Deacons on Saturday. And there’s reason to believe he has the most talented arm on the team—after all, Swann was the highest rated recruit in the quarterback room by some margin, earning 4-star status as a high schooler. The Georgia native played in the Under Armour All-American game before enrolling early at Vanderbilt in January to start learning Joey Lynch’s offense. 

And by the eye test, he looked really good on Saturday. Swann was 8-11 for 146 yards and two touchdowns through the air. He got fellow freshman Jayden McGowan involved after a relatively quiet game from him and threw a touchdown pass to Will Sheppard. With that said, I’m still kind of taking this with a grain of salt until we see a little more from him—especially considering Wake’s defense was not particularly strong and the Demon Deacons were up four scores. What do we think here? 

Aiden Rutman, Sports Podcast Producer: This is a hard question to answer for sure. Wake Forest’s most glaring weakness is definitely their secondary. But they looked pretty good against Mike Wright, allowing him just 35 yards passing through two and a half quarters of play. When Swann came in, he looked excellent, completing 8 of 11 passes for 146 yards and 2 touchdowns on just three drives. Sure, they were already down by 25 by the time Swann came in, and the Demon Deacons relaxed a bit on defense, but there’s still a lot to like from Swann. I have a feeling that in the future this will be his offense to run. After all, he’s a former 4-star recruit from one of Lea’s recruiting classes, the only one in the Vanderbilt quarterback room with that title. 

Brandon Karp, Lead Sports Analyst: Although Wake’s defense looked downright disinterested at times in the fourth quarter, I don’t think you can overstate Swann’s composure and execution against a power 5 defense in the first live action of his college career. With little help from an overmatched offensive line, Swann consistently and calmly went through his progressions and made the right throw while under duress. There are plenty of qualifiers here, but the offense clearly looked reinvigorated by the young quarterback’s accuracy and decisiveness. When Lea surprisingly announced the true freshman Swann as the backup over Ken Seals, I think it was intended as a very clear message to anyone listening: Vanderbilt’s quarterback of the future could be taking the reins sooner rather than later.

2. Is it crazy to think that some of the SEC competition Vanderbilt will face is more beatable than Wake Forest?

Andrew Wilf, Deputy Sports Editor: Although the SEC is a powerhouse conference, it is clear that Vanderbilt will face weaker teams than Wake Forest this season. The Demon Deacons have an explosive offense that averaged 467.9 yards per game last season. Wake Forest’s slow mesh offense proved too much for the Commodores to overcome on Saturday. Although Vanderbilt led Wake Forest 3-0 early in the first quarter, the Commodores were pushed around for the remainder of the day.

Later in the season, Vanderbilt will clash with a South Carolina team that is much less complicated to prepare for than Wake Forest. In last year’s face-off with the Gamecocks, the Commodores fell to South Carolina 21-20 but the game came down to the wire. With 43 seconds remaining in the game, South Carolina quarterback Zeb Noland saved the day for the Gamecocks by throwing a touchdown pass to end any chance of a Vanderbilt upset. Although the Gamecocks have made small improvements to their roster, such as adding quarterback Spencer Rattler, this Commodore team is tremendously stronger defensively than last season. I believe that Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Nick Howell will be able to scheme up a game plan that greatly confuses the inconsistent Rattler.

Rutman: It’s definitely weird to think of at first: The general rule of thumb of college football is SEC over ACC. While that rule remains true for a lot of teams, the ACC is no rollover, and neither are the Demon Deacons. Sam Hartman threw for four touchdowns in three quarters, and Wake Forest’s patented slow mesh offense was able to move the ball downfield with ease. In the SEC, teams like South Carolina and Missouri showed chinks in their armor. After a relatively unconvincing victory against Georgia State in Week 1 (they trailed the Bulldogs halfway through the third quarter before breaking away), South Carolina fell short against Arkansas in Week 2. Missouri looked vulnerable in their Week 2 matchup against Kansas State as their offense failed to reach the end zone. Last season, it felt like Vanderbilt’s only chance of winning games was through their four non-conference games. This year, with weak opponents like Missouri and South Carolina on the Commodore’s schedule, that fate may no longer be the case.

3. In the grand scheme of the Lea era, what would a loss this weekend mean? 

Smith: A loss this weekend would be a tough pill to swallow. Going head first into a rugged SEC schedule (see: at Alabama Week 4, at Georgia Week 7) at 2-2 would not instill a lot of confidence in the fanbase that Vanderbilt would be able to improve upon their win total from last season, or that this program is headed on the right trajectory. I know the brilliant writers above just gave their arguments for finding a winnable SEC game but if the Commodores can’t take care of a MAC team—albeit on the road—you can pretty much kiss those dreams goodbye. 


I do not think Vanderbilt will lose this football game (really hoping I don’t end up on @OldTakesExposed here). Surprisingly, some of the Commodores best performances in the Lea era have come on the road. His squad nabbed wins against Hawaii and Colorado State. They put together valiant efforts at South Carolina and at Ole Miss last year. For whatever reason, this team plays good football with their backs against the wall, and I like that trend to continue against Northern Illinois. Not to mention, the Huskies have crawled out of the gates barely beating FCS Eastern Illinois in Week 1 before losing to Tulsa in Week 2.

Anish Mago, Deputy Sports Editor: In the big picture of Clark Lea’s rebuild, a loss this weekend would not be make-or-break by any means. With that being said, a loss this weekend would certainly force us to question if Vanderbilt’s 2022 team is any different from 2021’s or 2020’s. Over the last four years, Northern Illinois has stumbled to a 15-19 record in an especially weak MAC conference. They’ve shown much of the same out of the gates this season, pairing together two subpar performances that now have them ranked at 114th of 131 FBS teams in ESPN’s power index. Their quarterback, Rocky Lombardi, is now in his fifth year and still has not been able to turn the corner as a quality college starter. They lost their best offensive weapon, RB Jeyvon Ducker, to the transfer portal; he rushed for 1,200 yards and three touchdowns last year. Without digging into the Huskies too far in this column, the answer is clear here. No, a loss this weekend at NIU would not be catastrophic for Lea’s rebuild and should not make us question if he’s the right guy for the job. But it’s certainly not a step in the right direction.

4. Why did Vanderbilt go away from all the play calls that seemed to work in the first two games? Designed QB run, Triple Option, Jayden McGowan sweep plays and even those easy little swing passes to the outside (we did finally see one Swann to McGowan in the third quarter)!?

Rutman: I was a little befuddled by this call as well. Especially on a rainy-day where the weather called for a game script of “run, run, run,” why go away from what led the offense to 105 points through two games? From what allowed Wright to set a school record in total touchdowns? 

We talked about it at length on last week’s edition of Live From West End, and, as expected, game script played a major role. Vanderbilt captured momentum early in the first quarter after a key goal-line stop, but it didn’t last for long, as Wright threw a pick-six on the ensuing drive. The next two drives resulted in a punt and a fumble for Vanderbilt. From there, it was all Wake Forest. The Commodores fell behind 21-3 at the start of the second quarter. It becomes hard to stick to your game script after falling behind that much. You just start playing catch up. Between the early turnovers and the rain, the offense just looked nervous, something that we didn’t see at all in the first two games. 

Karp: I think Aiden’s onto something here. A few critical turnovers left the Commodores chasing Wake Forest on the scoreboard, and the team never really found any momentum after the first quarter. Wright looked hesitant as a passer and runner, failing to capitalize on the scrambling abilities that led to 247 rushing yards in his first 2 games. I think he certainly had opportunities to create more offense than what we saw on the field on Saturday. 

I’ll add that a run-oriented offense is difficult to sustain with only one running back. Ray Davis has now taken 86% of the carries in his last 2 games, and fatigue is inevitable with a workload like that. With no Rocko Griffin or Patrick Smith, Vanderbilt’s only option for a change-of-pace out of the backfield was freshman Chase Gillepsie, who didn’t contribute much on his four carries. I think a lack of run support made it difficult for Wright to find those openings on the sidelines, and, by halftime, Vanderbilt had to try something new. 

5. Vanderbilt is now depleted on RBs. When are Rocko Griffin and Patrick Smith going to be playing? 

Smith: From what Lea has said, I expect Griffin to be back this week against Northern Illinois. He’s been banged up the last two weeks and sidelined as a result, but my understanding is that the injury was minor. Vanderbilt really could have used his downhill running ability against Wake Forest. 

Smith, on the other hand, is a complete mystery. He’s someone we keyed on in the preseason as a potential breakout candidate. I absolutely love what he brings as a pass-catching back with legit wiggle. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to see him at all in 2022 and he is desperately needed right now. Reading between the lines, this absence seems to be disciplinary—another hit to the running back room after freshmen Maurice Edwards was dismissed a few weeks ago. I would hope Smith is back for Alabama (the start of the SEC season) as he won’t suit up against Northern Illinois this weekend. 

Wilf: Entering the season, Vanderbilt followers predicted the Commodores to have one of the strongest running back rooms in the SEC due to the three-headed monster in Ray Davis, Rocko Griffin and Patrick Smith. Although the running back depth chart looked strong for Vanderbilt, the preseason expectations did not go as planned. In Vanderbilt’s 63-10 victory over Hawaii, Patrick Smith did not play even though he practiced with the team for the entire week in Honolulu. Smith has still not seen the field and will not play on Saturday against NIU, as Lea continues to make no comment on the decision.

Another running back poised to make a spark in the 2022 season was junior Rocko Griffin. He rushed for 63 yards and a touchdown in the Hawaii game but has not returned to action since then. Griffin is questionable for the Northern Illinois game.

The leader of the running back room remains standing. Ray Davis, the No. 1 RB on the depth chart, continues to excel despite being faced with the task of being the bell-cow. In three games, he has rushed for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns on 47 carries. Although Davis’s consistency remains, Griffin and Smith returning is integral for the Commodores to have success in the run game in SEC play.

6. Why isn’t Vanderbilt more aggressive on defense?

Karp: “Aggressive” is an interesting operative word here. I don’t think Vanderbilt’s defensive players have hesitated to play physical football this year. Tackling hasn’t been a huge issue, and there isn’t a deficiency in overall effort to finish plays. Collectively, however, the defense has struggled to produce consistent sacks or turnovers, which I assume is what this question is getting at. I think the lack of flashy plays is a product of limited depth and a gameplan designed to cover-up some of the unit’s weaknesses, namely its passing defense. Vanderbilt lost a key piece on the defensive line in starting edge-rusher Miles Capers, and the reshuffled front seven has struggled to generate consistent pressure on passing downs. Howell’s conservative defensive play-calls—such as keeping an extra linebacker in coverage or playing the defensive backs at a higher depth—indicate a belief that the quarterback will have too much time in the pocket. 

Mago: I tend to agree with Brandon’s response here. I think something to also note here is Howell’s background and how that has shone through in his approach to building Vanderbilt’s defensive scheme. Coming from the University of Virginia, Howell was a co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. That’s right: Howell shared his defensive play calling duties with Kelly Poppinga, now a coach at Boise State. In interviews about their time together, Howell has said that he focused primarily on the secondary, while Poppinga keyed in more on the front seven. I think that alone gives plenty of insight into why Howell has been a bit more reluctant to get creative with his front-seven and blitz packages: It’s not what he does best. Yes, Howell was hired as Vanderbilt’s defensive coordinator to organize the defense as a whole, but I don’t think that changes how he views the game and puts together gameplans. Despite a tough loss to Wake Forest, I don’t think Howell’s lack of “aggression” on defense is necessarily a bad thing at all; take huge steps forward from Jaylen Mahoney and Maxwell Worship as examples. Howell’s defense has been more willing to sit back this season, and I don’t see it changing any time soon.

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About the Contributors
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].    
Andrew Wilf
Andrew Wilf, Former Sports Editor
Andrew Wilf (’24) is Sports Editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler. He is from Livingston, N.J., and is majoring in history and minoring in business. He joined the sports staff his freshman year, previously serving as a Staff Writer, Assistant Sports Editor and Deputy Sports Editor. Beyond writing for The Hustler, he is also the host of Anchor Analysis, Commodore Clash and Live From West End. In his free time, Andrew enjoys watching the NFL and playing golf. He can be reached at [email protected].
Anish Mago
Anish Mago, Former Deputy Sports Editor
Anish Mago ('24) is from West Windsor, N.J., and is studying economics and political science in the College of Arts and Science. He previously served as a staff writer for the Sports section. When not writing for The Hustler, Anish enjoys playing basketball and rooting for all Philly sports. He can be reached at .
Brandon Karp
Brandon Karp, Senior Staff Writer
Brandon Karp ('25) is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is studying human and organizational development and political science in Peabody College. You can reach him at [email protected].
Aiden Rutman
Aiden Rutman, Sports Editor
Aiden Rutman (‘25) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in communication studies. He formerly produced The Hustler’s sports podcast, Live from West End. In addition to writing and podcasting, Aiden is an avid New York sports fan, and he loves playing sports, spending time outdoors and trying new foods. You can reach him at [email protected].
Miguel Beristain
Miguel Beristain, Senior Staff Photographer
Miguel Beristain (’24) is a philosophy and cellular and molecular biology double major in the College of Arts and Science from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. When not shooting for The Hustler, he can usually be found playing Magic the Gathering, exploring new restaurants or practicing guitar. He can be reached at .
Arianna Santiago
Arianna Santiago, Senior Staff Photographer
Arianna Santiago ('24) is from Bremerton, Wash., and studying electrical and computer engineering in the School of Engineering. When not shooting for The Hustler or for freelance work, Arianna can be found leading campus tours, organizing events for University Catholic, attempting to study and procrastinating her lab reports. You can reach her at [email protected].
Alexa White
Alexa White, Former Graphics Director
Alexa White ('23) is from Traverse City, Michigan, and is double-majoring in secondary education and English. When she isn't writing for The Hustler, she is probably teaching, reading or creating art. After graduation, Alexa plans to be an English teacher and hopes to inspire kids to love reading, writing and exploring their creativity in all forms. She can be reached at [email protected].

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1 year ago

I love the things Aiden Rutman has to say in this one!!!