Five on Five Mailbag: Football postseason thoughts

The Vanderbilt Hustler sports staff answers your questions after the conclusion of the Vanderbilt football season.

Vanderbilts+defense+had+two+interceptions+against+Florida+on+Nov.+19%2C+2022.+%28Hustler+Multimedia%2FMiguel+Beristain%29

Miguel Beristain

Vanderbilt’s defense had two interceptions against Florida on Nov. 19, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Miguel Beristain)

Vanderbilt football concluded their regular season last week after a wallopping at the hands of rival Tennessee in Week 13. Despite the loss, the Commodores showed great promise in 2022, winning five games and ending their 26-game SEC losing streak. As Clark Lea and Vanderbilt head towards the offseason, we answer all of your biggest questions in the Hustler’s third mailbag of the year.

1. Who is Vanderbilt’s quarterback moving forward? 

Anish Mago, Deputy Sports Editor: After the finish to the season we just saw from Mike Wright, I think that he has to be the correct answer here. As the Kentucky and Florida victories showed us, the blueprint for success with Wright leading the offense is real. Wright clearly does not have the arm talent that AJ Swann possesses, but he can be the centerpiece of a run-first offense that can find explosive plays on the ground, limit turnovers, and keep the other team’s offense on the sidelines. The proof is in the pudding, and I think offensive coordinator Joey Lynch needs to make a more consistent effort to tailor gameplans to capitalize on Wright’s unique skillset. Aside from the obvious rushing upside that he provides, I also firmly believe that his issues throwing the ball are overblown; Wright actually finished the season with a higher QBR and more yards per attempt than AJ Swann! Obviously, given the drastic quality difference of the defenses the pair faced, it’s unfair to Swann to make the comparison. Still, though, I believe Wright’s limitations as a passer are not as extreme as they are made out to be. 

Regardless of who Lea and co. decide to have leading the offense next year, I just hope that a similar situation to this year’s does not play out. In short, given the proven strengths of both players, playing “quarterback roulette” again seems like the strategy that would be most damaging to the program moving forward, both in terms of recruiting and on-field results. For Vanderbilt, the best outcome is the coaching staff committing to and supporting the player they decide on putting under center at the start of the 2023 season. 

Brandon Karp, Lead Sports Analyst: It rarely happens, but I have to disagree with Anish here. Mike Wright played a key role in one of Vanderbilt’s brightest stretches of football in the last decade. Wright also struggled with consistency and held back Vanderbilt’s offense when the game plan couldn’t mask his deficiencies. Both things can be true. Wright’s season stats are padded by monster performances against two non-competitive teams in Hawaii and Elon. However, his showings against capable defenses reflect a quarterback who can’t elevate a passing offense to win important games. In two of the most pivotal games of Vanderbilt’s season against Wake Forest and Tennessee, Wright mustered only 63 combined passing yards. Wright is undeniably one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the nation and he earned the starting job late this season, but I’m not confident that he gives Vanderbilt the best chance to win next year.

2. Are RB and safety the biggest needs in the portal for Vandy? If you agree, have you seen anyone that you like so far in the portal?

Bryce Smith, Sports Editor: I think the running back question will fall squarely on the shoulders of Ray Davis and whether he decides to head for the NFL or return for another season in the Black and Gold. Should Davis decide to turn pro, only Patrick Smith would be returning as a major contributor and Vanderbilt would surely look to upgrade the running back room. Elsewhere, I think the offensive line will be an area to target in the portal regardless of attrition. To that end, the decisions of secondary stalwarts Jaylen Mahoney (update: he’s back!), De’Rickey Wright and others will be crucial before deciding how hard Vanderbilt should pursue a safety in the portal. You guys seeing any options you like thus far? 

Andrew Wilf, Deputy Sports Editor: Heading into the 2022 season, the Hustler believed that Vanderbilt’s running back room would be their strongest room out of all position groups. The Commodores had a strong rushing attack this season that averaged 164.9 yards per game. Although Rocko Griffin left the team two days after the Ole Miss game, Vanderbilt fared just fine to conclude the season. Senior Ray Davis had a breakout season in 2022 that featured 1,081 yards on the ground on 232 attempts (4.7 yards per carry). Thanks to his spectacular senior season, Davis is expected to bring his talents to an NFL roster. As for Vanderbilt, their running back room for 2023 features Patrick Smith and three-star Sedrick Alexander. Smith is a speedster and weapon on the field, but neither Smith or Alexander are suited to be true bell cow running backs in 2023. To fill the void of Davis’s absence, the Commodores should look to the transfer portal to find a lead tailback. A running back that could replace Davis perfectly would be senior Kavosiey Smoke from the University of Kentucky. Aside from his familiarity with defenses in the SEC East, Smoke is a downhill runner that has a commendable resume that includes 1,583 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns and 5.4 yards per carry.

Karp: With the increased expendability of running backs at the professional level, I would expect Ray Davis to cash in on this excellent season for a shot in the NFL. Davis demonstrated he could be the lead back in an SEC offense, which isn’t something that could be said of anyone else on the current roster. Patrick Smith took a step back production-wise this year after missing time due to suspension, but he’s still absurdly quick and should find a role in this offense. Freshman Colin Gillespie also flashed potential in limited action, though he provides a similar skillset to Smith as an undersized but shifty back. I’m not sure that Vanderbilt can find a feature back in the portal, but they could certainly benefit from added depth. Disgruntled University of Miami running back Thaddeus Franklin, a former 4-star recruit with two remaining years of eligibility, could be an intriguing option to pursue. In terms of the secondary, Vanderbilt could use an infusion of talent regardless of the current personnel’s draft decisions. Stanford grad transfer Jonathan McGill, who received an offer from Vanderbilt in high school, has the talent and experience to come in and contribute right away if he were to join the Commodores.

3. Biggest positional area of need heading into the late recruiting period?

Wilf: Vanderbilt’s defensive line struggled with production in 2022, allowing 170.8 rushing yards per game (No. 97) and 5.16 yards per rush. Although the defensive line had an underwhelming campaign in 2022, they could be even more putrid next season, with all of Vanderbilt’s current starters (Nate Clifton, Christian James, Malik Langham and Michael Owusu) expected to leave. For the rush defense to be stronger next season, Clark Lea will need to utilize the transfer portal to strengthen this position group. Darren Agu, Michael Spencer and Kevo Wesley are expected to return and could all be starters. The Commodores will also bring in De’Marion Thonas, a three-star recruit from Oklahoma, to help improve Vanderbilt’s run defense. In 2022, Vanderbilt’s run defense showed flashes of strength, but it was ultimately a liability. Maybe a younger defensive line group will help answer questions about Nick Howell’s scheme. Only time will tell. 

Mago: Looking at Vanderbilt’s roster from this season, the amount of snaps played by either seniors or 5th-year players in the secondary jumps off of the page. To name a few, starting safety Maxwell Worship and starting cornerback Jeremy Lucien are both out of eligibility, while it’s still unclear if starting cornerback BJ Anderson will return for another year on West End. While the secondary wasn’t necessarily a strength for the Commodores this year, losing such a significant amount of snaps in one unit should be slightly concerning for Vanderbilt’s coaching staff. That’s not to say Vanderbit will have nobody to replace their graduating starters, however. Sophomore Tyson Russell made the most of his opportunities this year, freshman Ja’Dis Richard got more playing time towards the end of the season, and the Commodores will be adding three-star recruit Martel Hight to the fold next year, as well. Yet, with a pressing lack of depth in the secondary, looking for late additions to the secondary could be a route we see Vanderbilt take. 

Aiden Rutman, Sports Podcast Producer: Anish is right on this one. The secondary, which struggled for a lot of the season, is losing several key starters. On the other side of the ball, Vanderbilt could lose as many as four tight ends. Ben Bresnahan and Gavin Schoenwald, the two main contributors from the group, have lost eligibility. Justin Ball and Joel Decoursey are both seniors as well. If the two of them leave, freshman Cole Spence would be the only tight end with any form of experience on the roster. 4-Star tight end—and Vanderbilt’s highest-rated recruit out of the 2023 class—Ka’Morreun Pimpton is likely to take on a large role in the offense early on. Still, given the offense’s propensity to run heavier sets with multiple tight ends, Clark Lea will have to address this lack of depth, as Pimpton is the only tight end in this year’s recruiting class.

4. What are realistic expectations for Team 3? 

Smith: Bowl game. After getting close in year 2, Clark Lea’s program should be prepped and ready to play postseason ball in 2023. The reasons are plentiful: an experienced team of returners with winning experience, another incoming class of Lea’s own recruits and a lighter schedule. Let’s focus on the third aspect. Next season, Vanderbilt will open with a much easier slate than they did this year, creating a possible runway for momentum to get a 6th win and gain bowl eligibility. Here’s the Commodores schedule before a midseason bye: Hawaii, Alabama A&M, at Wake Forest, at UNLV, Kentucky, Missouri, Florida. That group pales in comparison to the Alabama, Ole Miss, Georgia trio Vanderbilt opened SEC play with in 2022. Then, they will get Auburn (and new coach Hugh Freeze) in their SEC West crossover game—rather than Alabama as they did a year ago—in the back half of the schedule. What do you guys think? 

Rutman: I’m with Bryce on this one. After they fell just one game short this season, a bowl game (and one that isn’t through a loophole) is well within reach for the 2023 Commodores. The schedule is much lighter and I think 3-1—maybe even 4-0—is a realistic expectation for this team before they enter SEC play. Where Team 3 must differentiate itself from Team 2, however, is in the SEC portion of their schedule. To expect them to beat every middle-of-the-pack team they face would be unrealistic, but their wins over Florida and Kentucky this year will continue to act as blueprints. I see it like this: Vanderbilt did not get over the metaphorical “hump” and start winning meaningful games until Week 11 this season. I think with a year of experience under his belt, AJ Swann will lead them over the hump much earlier on. I don’t really expect them to be ranked at any point during the season, but I have this team set at seven wins.

5. When will there be tangible evidence of a refurbished football stadium—2024 or later?

Smith: For most of 2023, I reckon it will be much of the same as it was in 2022: lots of shovels and construction. That’s a welcome sign of progress as Vandy United reshapes the landscape of Vanderbilt Athletics’ footprint on campus, but the stadium will likely be the last piece of the puzzle that is finalized. The renderings thus far look great, with the Populus designers showcasing a lot of intentionality in the initial process, but I doubt we’ll see tangible results until at least 2024. 

Mago: Although the early results of Vandy United are promising, I’m not sure if 2024 is a realistic goal when looking for evidence of a refurbished football stadium. Looking at statements made by athletic director Candace Lee from last year, it seems that the first project the university will focus on is the construction of a new basketball operations center. Seeing as construction of the center has not yet started, it may be reasonable to temper expectations of the pace at which other projects, like improvements to the football stadium, take place. Though the timelines may be a bit longer than we had originally hoped, it’s extremely refreshing to see the progress Lee has made in a short time as Vanderbilt’s AD.