The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

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.

Three Matchups to Watch: Vanderbilt vs. Hawaii

After an extremely promising second season Clark Lea and Team 3 will host the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors to open the 2023 campaign.
Vanderbilt+Football+gathers+around+head+coach+Clark+Lea+after+practice.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Vanderbilt Football gathers around head coach Clark Lea after practice.

For the second year in a row, Vanderbilt Football will open up its season against Hawaii. Yet, there’s something different in the air than a year ago. And no, it’s not just the abhorrent Nashville humidity that’s plagued students in their return to campus this week: it’s something else – something more positive. Hope. Hope for a bowl game. 

The logical progression from 2-10 in Clark Lea’s first year to 5-7 in his second year has the head coach and Team 3 slated for a six-win season and a chance to play postseason football in 2023. Of course, some things are easier said than done, and nothing comes easy in the SEC, making nonconference games all the more essential. 

The Commodores will host the Rainbow Warriors at FirstBank Stadium this Saturday in the hopes of replicating a similar result to last year’s 63-10 win at Hawaii. Of course, as Lea and Co. have experienced in the past, anything is possible and teams can ill-afford to overlook any matchup. There are a few key matchups that Vanderbilt will have to look out for, despite being 17-point favorites and having the stronger team on paper. Without further ado, let’s dive in. 

Vanderbilt receivers vs. Hawaii secondary

Vanderbilt returned its top four wideouts last season in Will Sheppard, Jayden McGowan, Quincy Skinner Jr, Gamarion Carter and Richie Hoskins. Joining those two will be freshmen speedsters Junior Sherrill and London Humphreys, both of whom had outstanding training camps and figure to mix in plenty. The receiver room, as referenced in our most recent mailbag, is loaded, and very likely the biggest strength of this Commodore team. Sheppard – now a senior – went for 776 yards and 9 touchdowns last season and has continued to shine for Vanderbilt. McGowan is a twitchy, exciting player out of the slot who flashed some legitimate potential last season with 453 yards and 3 touchdowns. Struggles with ball security may have plagued him, especially later in the season, but the rumor out of camp is that this no longer is a concern. Skinner Jr. was exceptional in the later part last season and was recently announced as the starter opposite of Sheppard. Carter will round out the group and provide depth as Sherrill and Humphreys continue to get acquainted with competition at the collegiate level, though there’s some expectation that that adjustment will come around sooner rather than later. 

On the opposite side of the line of scrimmage stands a Hawaii secondary with loads of experience. First enters Virdel Edwards II, who co-led the team in interceptions last season (3) with 49 tackles and 5 passes defended. The odds are high that he’ll spend plenty of time following Sheppard around, as the 6’2”, fifth-year senior has Power 5 experience from his three seasons at Iowa State to pair with his time in the Rainbow State. Opposite of Edwards II will be Cameron Stone, a recent transfer from Mountain West-rival Wyoming. The senior enjoyed his best season in 2022, recording 45 tackles, 10 passes defended and 2 interceptions, and he projects to be one of the better players on Hawaii’s defense straight away. CJ Williams, a transfer from Shasta College, figures to mix in as well and get some time at nickelback. In terms of safeties, things won’t get much easier for the Commodores, as Hawaii returned its top two. First is sophomore Peter Manuma, who figures to make an even bigger jump after a 70 tackle season saw him nab 2 interceptions, a sack and 4 passes defended. Meki Pei will join him as the last line of defense in the secondary after an impressive 2022 season saw him convert 51 tackles and knock down 3 passes. 

This game will be a matchup of strength on strength, and it’ll be interesting to see if the Commodores look to expose this strength early or attempt to establish the run game and find a softer part of the Hawaii defense. 

Vanderbilt’s offensive line vs. Hawaii’s front seven

Those who have ever spoken to me about football know my propensity to harp on the importance of winning the battle of the trenches. Even the most talented teams, loaded with wide receivers, running backs and tight ends galore, will be no match for opposing defenses if their offensive line cannot protect. It’s something that often gets overlooked by the casual football fan, but its relevance to winning cannot be overstated. Fortunately for the Commodores, the offensive line projects as a strength this year. The experience up front is relatively unprecedented in this era of transfers and early draft declarations: The Commodores starting line contains five returners from last season, all with more-than-tangible experience. LT Gunnar Hansen (junior), LG Xavier Castillo (junior), C Julian Hernancez (graduate student), RG Bradley Ashmore (senior) and Junior Uzebu (graduate student) all have 2+ years of experience with the team. Perhaps most importantly, they have something that every good offensive line needs: cohesion. They’ve all played together. When there are five players working in unison to give the quarterback time to throw and create holes for running backs, cohesion allows for effective communication, and this group has the necessary talent and experience to do so.

In the other trench is Hawaii’s front seven, a unit that had its ups and downs in 2022. Let’s start with the defensive line: Getting to the quarterback was a struggle, as the Rainbow Warriors recorded just 17 sacks all season. Pair that with the loss of program cornerstone Blessman Ta’ala, who started almost every game throughout his five year career with Hawaii, and there’s reason to believe that the defensive line is going to struggle again this season. Still, defensive coordinator Jacob Yoro will be rolling out senior John Tuitupou at defensive tackle after recording a team-high 3.5 sacks last season. Alongside him will be Kuao Peihopa, a transfer from the University of Washington who was formerly ranked as the No. 2 recruit in all of Hawaii. On the edges will be Jonah Kahahawai-Welch and Andrew Choi, seniors who recorded two sacks apiece during the 2022 year. There’s plenty of experience on the Hawaii line, and with another year under the regime of head coach Timmy Chang, there’s reason for optimism. Regardless, their work will be cut out for them as they take on this seasoned Vanderbilt group. 

If the Rainbow Warriors can get to Vanderbilt quarterback AJ Swann, it’ll alleviate some pressure off of the shoulders of the Hawaii secondary. On the flip side, if the Commodore front can give Swann time, he should have no trouble getting through his progressions and picking apart the defense. 

Players vs. the weather 

This combination is probably the least exciting of the three matchups, but I think it deserves to mentioned regardless. For our readers who are currently on campus or in Nashville, the temperature all week has been roasting hot. Saturday will be much of the same, with the temperature by kickoff having settled to approximately 90 degrees Fahrenheit at 50% humidity. That’ll feel a lot hotter when wearing pads and a helmet. While it might seem like the weather favors Hawaii as the team plays in a tropical climate year-round, that fact is far from the case. During the hottest months of the year in Hawaii, temperatures rarely surpass the high-80s. On the other hand, Nashville has been hot all summer, with temperatures reaching the high-90s as early as July. Regardless, both teams are at least partially used to playing in this heat, so the advantage shouldn’t really skew either way. 

That equalizer doesn’t change how it’ll be a scorcher on Saturday night, and both teams will need to adjust accordingly. As mentioned on The Hustler’s very first episode of Live from West End of this semester, expect a lot of substitutions on both sides, as depth will likely come more into play than a traditional game. Especially at positions like wide receiver, running back, safety and cornerbacks — which involve more running than some other positions — expect both teams to go to the bench early and often to keep their stars fresh. 

The Rainbow Warriors and Commodores will look to start on the front foot in years two and three, respectively, under their new head coaches as they kick off against each other at FirstBank Stadium on Aug. 26 at 6:30 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributor
Aiden Rutman, Senior Staff Writer
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].
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