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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

Vanderbilt Football Offseason Notebook: Team 3 Arrives

Commodores are showing signs of improvement ahead of annual spring game.
Miguel Beristain
Vanderbilt’s defense had two interceptions against Florida on Nov. 19, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Miguel Beristain)

Vanderbilt’s football season doesn’t kick off for another 20 weeks, but the Commodores have been hard at work this spring preparing for the most pivotal season of Clark Lea’s tenure. Lea has dubbed this spring group as “Team 3,” signifying the third year of the Lea era and the expectation of improved play this time around. Team 3 has held 15 spring practices, all leading up to the annual Black & Gold game this Saturday.

The Commodores entered the offseason with mixed feelings. The team failed to qualify for a bowl game for the 5th year in a row, suffering an embarrassing 56-0 loss to Tennessee to close out the year. Yet, the season still felt like a success — the Commodores snapped a 26-game losing streak in the SEC with back-to-back upsets against Kentucky and Florida, winning five games in a season for the first time since 2018. With spring practices serving as the first opportunity to build towards progress, Lea clarified that expectations are higher for Team 3. 

“It was important for us to recognize where we fell short a year ago and how disappointing it was to be home for Christmas,” Lea told the media [when]. “To say that we know we’re capable and to have a stated goal now, let’s get to postseason play. The beauty is we have six months to really define what that can be. We don’t want to place limitations on what that can be.”

Heading into the spring, the Commodores lost a number of notable players to the transfer portal and NFL Draft. All-SEC linebacker Anfernee Orji declared for the draft, alongside Michael Owusu and Ben Bresnahan. Key players on both sides of the ball left Vanderbilt to play for other colleges, including Ray Davis, Mike Wright and Malik Langham. 

Fortunately, Vanderbilt has plenty of new and returning talent ready to contribute next fall. 

Defense: New faces in new places

Vanderbilt brought in just one transfer this offseason: former Stanford edge rusher Aeneas DiCosmo. Dicosmo was initially recruited by Lea to join Notre Dame back in 2018, and now joins him on West End with two years of eligibility remaining. 

Pass rush was a weakness for Vanderbilt in 2022, ranking last in the SEC with 17 sacks. Lea hopes that DiCosmo, who had 1.5 sacks for Stanford last year, can help Vanderbilt apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. 

Several underclassmen look to step up into more involved roles on the defense in 2023. Lea praised sophomore defensive linemen Darren Agu and Yilanan Ouattara for their performances against the run in the spring scrimmages. Another sophomore, defensive back Jadais Richard appears locked in to replace Jeremy Lucien as a starting cornerback. Given the strong spring performances of Trudell Berry and Quantaves Gaskins, Vanderbilt could very well start an all-sophomore defensive backfield. Defensive backs coach Dan Jackson commented on the improved play of the youngest members of his group. 

“We have a lot of room to grow still, but I’ve seen a big jump in our younger players that have come in and played,” Jackson said. “You see it in the confidence. You see the game starting to slow down for them, and then you see them starting to play with aggression and making plays.”

Offense: Continuity is king

On offense, Vanderbilt’s run game will look starkly different than it did in 2022 after losing its two leading rushers, Davis and Wright, to the transfer portal. Davis and Wright accounted for 81% of Vanderbilt’s rushing yards last season. 

Returning to the backfield are junior Patrick Smith and sophomore Chase Gillepsie. They are now joined by three freshmen running backs from Texas: early enrollee Sedrick Alexander and incoming freshmen AJ Newberry and Deago Benson. This group will need time to develop consistency, but potential exists for rushing to remain a strength of Vanderbilt’s offense.

Two areas without much turnover for Vanderbilt are the offensive line and wide receiver corps. The Commodores return an experienced group on the O-line, with the first-string group combining for 38 starts last season. Lea also signed five offensive line recruits in his 2023 class, bolstering the unit’s depth and future potential. The Commodores also benefited from the return of their three leading receivers last year: Will Sheppard, Jayden McGowan and Quincy Skinner. The continuity across the offensive line and wide receivers should be helpful for quarterback AJ Swann, who can only benefit from greater familiarity with the offense. 

On the subject of quarterback play, senior Ken Seals has cemented himself as QB2 this spring. Many expected Seals to transfer after losing the starting quarterback job to Wright last summer, and ultimately falling to third string after Swann’s breakout. He elected to return to Vanderbilt and has since been a steadying leadership presence.  

Through 15 practices, Team 3 has shown great improvement, both in terms of attitude and execution. The Black & Gold game will be a great opportunity to translate that improvement to a more competitive environment, all while providing more clarity on some of the ongoing positional battles. Lea offered his thoughts on what he’s looking for this Saturday. 

“I want to see two sides that are playing in structure, playing together and putting pressure on each other,” Lea said Thursday. “I want to see the moments where we have explosive plays, I want it to be about high-level execution and winning one-on-one matchups.”

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About the Contributors
Brandon Karp, Lead Sports Analyst
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].
Miguel Beristain, Former Deputy Photography Director
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 .
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