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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.

Three Matchups to Watch: Vanderbilt vs. Alabama A&M

After an imperfect win over Hawaii, Vanderbilt looks to stay in the win column while also improving in the facets of the game that they struggled with last week.
Nikita Rohila
Will Shepard walks on the field during Vanderbilt’s game against Hawaii on Aug. 26, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)

The long-standing, ritually-repeated phrase in sports following an ‘ugly’ victory is the following: “A win’s a win.” While this is true, and the Vanderbilt Commodores will indeed take the field 1-0 Saturday, an up-and-down performance against Hawaii left Clark Lea’s squad with plenty of room for improvement.

Vanderbilt’s secondary was shredded in Week Zero, with Hawaii head coach Timmy Chang’s run and shoot offense marching down the field seemingly at will. If it wasn’t for safety De’Rickey Wright’s two timely interceptions, the Commodores could have very well been staring down their most disappointing start since 2021. The rest of the defense only managed to force six incompletions the rest of the night. On the other side of the ball, Ray Davis, now a Kentucky Wildcat, was clearly missed in the ground game. Vanderbilt ran the ball 26 times, accumulating just 39 yards. 

While these factors are undoubtedly cause for concern, Week Zero can be sloppy. AJ Swann threw for 258 yards and three touchdowns, showing off the skills of one of the true strengths of this team: the receivers. Will Sheppard found the endzone twice, and Jayden McGowan had six receptions to go along with 72 receiving yards. McGowan also showed off his tantalizing speed with a 96-yard kickoff return TD. 

The Commodores take the field this Saturday in a winnable home game against an FCS opponent in the Alabama A&M Bulldogs. In order for Team 3 to keep itself in the win column, there are a few key matchups that must go Vanderbilt’s way. Let’s break them down.

Swann’s feet vs. AAMU front seven 

Vanderbilt is enjoying a somewhat new experience for its football program: a solidified QB1. AJ Swann, after playing in nine games in 2022, has emerged as a star on the team. Swann now has experience and a robust understanding of Clark Lea’s offense to complement his innate arm talent. But one aspect of his game lags behind the rest: his mobility. Swann was sacked three times last week against a rather unimpressive Hawaii defense for a total loss of 26 yards. In 2022, Swann finished only one game with positive rushing yards. Swann is not expected to have the athleticism of former quarterback Mike Wright, but an ability to move around in the pocket and extend plays would significantly enhance the Vanderbilt offense. 

In Week Zero, the offense displayed an impressive group of wideouts that can alleviate pressure from Swann by getting open quickly in a scramble drill. Swann’s longest throw last Saturday came from a scramble drill. After sensing a closing pocket, Swann rolled out to his right and launched a 41-yard-floater to junior wideout Gamarion Carter. If Swann finds a way to use his feet to improvise, avoid sacks and pick up a few rushing yards to move the chains, he will add another dangerous dimension to a Vanderbilt offense that scored four touchdowns against Hawaii. 

Although Swann doesn’t have overpowering speed, Vanderbilt’s athletic advantage in the trenches may allow him to showcase his athletic potential. To put it lightly, Alabama A&M’s defense is a work in progress. The Bulldogs played one FBS opponent last year, UAB, and allowed 59 points. In FCS play, they weren’t much better, allowing 294 points over 10 games. If there was ever a game to try to add a new level to the offense, this would be the one. 

Vanderbilt running back room vs. Getting in a rhythm

Whether Swann finds a way to incorporate the run into his game or not, he certainly needs the guys that are taking his handoffs to be firing on all cylinders. After Davis’ departure, there was a question as to who would rise to the top of the running back depth chart. Clark Lea opted for the most experienced back to be taking the brunt of the snaps to start the season, slotting in junior Patrick Smith at the No. 1 spot. Smith’s performance on Saturday, although relatively quiet, was not poor. He took his seven carries for 30 yards and a score, averaging a respectable 4.3 yards per carry. 

Despite a decent outing from Smith, this is clearly a running back-by-committee. Chase Gillespie had only one fewer carry than Smith, even though he ran for 13 yards. Sedrick Alexander, a true freshman who has come to the Music City with a lot of hype, saw a measly two carries in his collegiate debut. If Vanderbilt’s offense is going to elevate itself to the next level, and perhaps be equipped to make up for some clear concerns on the defensive side of the ball, it is imperative that Lea and co. find a way to morph this somewhat disjointed committee into a three-headed monster. 

Giving all three of these players as many opportunities as possible will be key, especially Alexander, whose ceiling is incredibly high. There should never be tired legs in the game, as Smith, Gillespie and Alexander are all capable of getting going in a big way. If they can’t map out their roles now, things are going to get a whole lot more difficult when the Commodores are faced with the far-more ferocious front fours of the SEC.

Donovan Eaglin vs Vanderbilt’s front four

Smith, Gillespie and Alexander aren’t the only running backs Vanderbilt has to be worried about come kickoff with the Bulldogs. While much of the talk following last week’s outing has, understandably so, been centered around Vanderbilt’s pass defense, they gave up just 41 yards on the ground. This is, surprisingly, less than half the rushing yards they allowed against Hawaii in their 63-10 rout of the Rainbow Warriors last year. This could serve as a nice building block for a run defense that was simply gashed last season, a department that they will need to at least partially improve in to remain competitive when the schedule toughens.

This front four will get their first true test of the year in the form of Alabama A&M’s Donovan Eaglin. Eaglin is one of three Bulldogs to earn a Preseason All-SWAC pick. The explosive back transferred from Michigan State before the 2022 season and has been a force to be reckoned with. Eaglin averaged 80 yards per game last season. He also ran for 120 yards or more in four games and averaged a strong 5.2 yards per game. Eaglin will also be running behind another Preseason All-SWAC pick, offensive lineman Jonathan Williams.

Vanderbilt will have their hands full trying to bottle up Eaglin. Its line is still dealing with injury, as defensive end Darren Agu continues to rehab from a dislocated elbow (he’s expected to return next week against Wake Forest). It’ll be all hands on deck for this line (and for the linebackers as well) to find a way to slow down Eaglin and continue to build the momentum of this rushing defense. If they can do this, it will then be up to the likes of Tyson Russell, B.J. Anderson and Jaylen Mahoney to pick things up in the secondary to put the pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

The Commodores will look to stay undefeated when they kick things off with Alabama A&M at FirstBank Stadium on Sep. 2 at 6 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributors
Jonah Barbin
Jonah Barbin, Sports Podcast Producer
Jonah Barbin (‘25) is majoring in human and organizational development and cinema and media studies. In addition to writing about sports, you can catch him acting, scouring the fantasy football waiver wire, playing golf and fantasizing about what Odell Beckham Jr.’s career would have been if the Giants never traded him. You can reach him at [email protected].
Zach Philip
Zach Philip, Staff Writer
Zach Philip (‘26) is majoring in computer science and economics in the College of Arts and Science. Outside of school, he enjoys watching golf and football (go Jaguars!). He can be reached at [email protected].
Nikita Rohila
Nikita Rohila, Senior Staff Photographer
Nikita Rohila ('25) is from a small town in Arkansas and is majoring in psychology and medicine, health and society in the College of Arts and Science. She previously served as Deputy Social Media Director. During her free time, she enjoys roaming around the city and getting cinematic-style shots for her photography account! You can reach her at [email protected].
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