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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 aims to make postseason play, weighs in on Northwestern hazing incident

Looking to improve on their 5-7 record in 2022, Clark Lea, Ethan Barr, Jaylen Mahoney and Will Sheppard spoke at SEC Media Day ahead of the 2023-24 season.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Head coach Clark Lea addresses Team 3 on April 8, 2023. (Photo Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)

One day after receiving a contract extension that will go through 2029, Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea headed to the Grand Hyatt in downtown Nashville to speak at SEC Media Day on July 18. Ethan Barr, Jaylen Mahoney and Will Sheppard represented the Commodores as student-athletes.

“Vanderbilt football pursues success at the highest level and we will not back down from our mission to build the best college football program in the nation,” Lea said. “Just down the road for the past seven months, Team 3 has been training with intention in an effort to form the most capable team to this point in my tenure.”

Lea enters his third season as head coach, following a 5-7 campaign that included two SEC wins against Kentucky and Florida. The Vanderbilt alumnus emphasized the razor-thin margin of winning or losing a game in the SEC and shared his goal to reach the postseason this year.

Senior Linebacker Ethan Barr spoke at SEC Media Day on July 18, 2023. (Photo Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)

“As we stand now, in front of a clean sheet our goal is postseason play,” Lea said. “Each program member must be willing to go beyond our limits ever evolving the internal expectations for what it means to invest in our process and strengthen our culture. We simply cannot miss any opportunity to take ground on our mission.”

Lea later expressed gratitude to Chancellor Daniel Diermier and athletic director Candice Storey Lee. He explained that their devotion and developmental approach to Vanderbilt Athletics will serve as the foundation that will serve the program in the long run.

“They’re tough, competitive and compassionate leaders with great vision and a willingness always to show up and do the work,” Lea said about Diermier and Lee. “The love I have for the work we’re doing reminds me of just how unique our journey at Vanderbilt is.”

Clean up crew

Like any team, Lea spoke of how Vanderbilt hopes to make it past the regular season this year. To do that, the Commodores will need to see quarterback AJ Swann take control of the offense and the defense must limit yards and points allowed.

Swann comes into this season as the clear-cut starter. In 2022, after Mike Wright had an inadequate showing against Wake Forest, Swann was given the nod to start for the Commodores in their next week’s matchup against Northern Illinois. Swann lit up the field, passing for 255 yards and 4 touchdowns, leading Vanderbilt to a 38-28 victory. Swann’s magic quickly evaporated, though, as the young signal caller lost the next four games. He then fared an injury in the Missouri game, which sidelined him for the rest of that game and the Kentucky game a week later.

In Vanderbilt’s matchup against Kentucky, Wright led the Commodores to their first SEC win since 2019. Wright started at quarterback for the remainder of the 2022 season but transferred to Mississippi State at the end of the year. Swann enters this season with a chip on his shoulder, looking to prove to Vanderbilt nation why he is the quarterback of the future. 

Vanderbilt’s Will Sheppard spoke about the positive culture that Clark Lea has instilled on West End on July 18, 2023. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

“We have AJ Swann who is set as the starter right now,” Sheppard said at SEC Media Day. “He’s got to earn it every day just like everybody else. We have a bunch of guys after him that are very capable.”

In 2022, Vanderbilt’s Achilles heel was its defense. Vanderbilt was 125th of the 131 D1 FBS teams in total scoring defense. The Commodores allowed an SEC-worst 36 points per game. Alabama’s 55-point slaughter and Tennessee’s 56-point thrash did not help this statistic. 

Vanderbilt averaged 1.42 sacks per game, which was 119th-best among DI FBS teams. Miles Capers will look to improve Vanderbilt’s defense, specifically in regard to pressuring the quarterback. Capers, who was set to start for the Commodores in 2022, returns to action after suffering a torn ACL before the start of last season. Yilanan Quattara and Devin Lee are the projected starters for Vanderbilt’s defensive line in 2023.

Another alarming statistic was Vanderbilt’s 289.5 passing yards per game allowed, ranked 128th of 131 in DI FBS. The Commodores also ranked last among Power Five teams in yards allowed per pass, with 8.7. In 2022, Vanderbilt’s weakness was its secondary, and it still remains the biggest question mark. Vanderbilt lost starters Jeremy Lucian and Maxwell Worship to the NFL. Vanderbilt’s Jaylen Mahoney, C.J. Taylor and Tyson Russell will look to lay the foundation for turning the culture around and making Vanderbilt’s secondary much stronger than in previous years.

“We have to find the best 11 on both sides,” Lea said when asked about balancing playing the veterans and young players. “At the point at which we put the ball down against Hawai’i, we don’t stop evaluating at that point. We’ll still look for the highest level of performance. That gives those young players time to build into an impact role.”

Northwestern hazing incident 

The college football world was taken by storm on July 8 as hazing allegations surrounding the Northwestern football team were reported by the Daily Northwestern. The alleged hazing and abuse led to suicidal ideation and mental consequences for some players, according to the Daily Northwestern. When Clark Lea heard about the Northwestern hazing allegations, he said he sent a message to his players to let them know what had transpired and condemned any such behavior.

“When the experience doesn’t become a value add, then we’ve lost our way as coaches,” Lea said. “It’s our responsibility to steward an experience that gives people a launching point into their future…There’s no brotherhood that I know that starts with a level of abuse in the locker room.”

Lea mentioned that at Vanderbilt, it is crucial for players to stand up when they see something that seems unethical. Through a proactive approach, he aims to foster a culture where everyone can speak up for what they believe.

Barr said he was stunned by the scandal, specifically that nobody stopped the behavior. Barr later said that Vanderbilt’s locker room is very strong under the leadership of Lea and the entire staff. 

“I think there’s a time to mess around with each other but I think there’s a point where you can’t cross, and I think the teams that I’ve been on have found a good balance between those,” Barr said. “The Vanderbilt locker room is strong and very connected.”

Mahoney also weighed in, stating the need for coaches and players to hold each other accountable so hazing does not exist.

“That’s not the culture that we have as a football team,” Mahoney said. “We don’t allow it.”

Forging ahead

This season, Vanderbilt will be playing in First Bank Stadium without end zone seating. As part of the Vandy United campaign, construction and renovation of the football field are currently taking place. FirstBank Stadium will have new premium seating and loge boxes, a new video board and stadium acoustics system and will double its current stadium concourse in size. To Lea, this process has been the antithesis of a distraction.

This is a celebration,” Lea said. “We don’t have a tunnel right now. We’ll figure out a different way to take the field. All that stuff to me is a celebration. To me, too, as a fan, this is a great moment. There will never be another year for Vanderbilt where we’ll have this level of construction going on on our football stadium. Let’s embrace it for what it is, and it’s a launching point for us into our future, and let’s have fun with it.

Lea views the construction process with a sense of pride and as the coach to be calling plays for the Commodores until at least 2029. He described a rich future at the end of the tunnel for Vanderbilt football and FirstBank Stadium.

Vanderbilt will kick off the 2023 season with a home game against Hawaii on Aug. 26. The Commodores will then play Alabama A&M, Wake Forest and UNLV before SEC play begins. Las Vegas predicts Vanderbilt to win 3.5 games this season.

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About the Contributor
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].
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