Commodore Brunch Week One: Flashes of progression

Vanderbilt blocked two punts and scored six touchdowns in Vanderbilt’s 47-13 defeat over Alabama A&M.
Sedrick Alexander ran for 87 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday (Vanderbilt Athletics).
Sedrick Alexander ran for 87 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday (Vanderbilt Athletics).
Vanderbilt Athletics

Box scores never show the full picture.

On Saturday night, Vanderbilt beat the SWAC’s Alabama A&M Bulldogs 47-13. The Commodores picked up the slack in the second half of the game but started in lackluster fashion. They scored just 12 points in the first half to a defense that allowed 47.5 points combined to the last two FBS teams they played. 

“I’m proud of the way that we battled through adversity, and [we’re] happy to come away with the win,” head coach Clark Lea said.

Quarterback AJ Swann’s performance is a prime example of the box score not telling the entire story. The sophomore scored just one touchdown in the first half and threw a costly interception in the Alabama A&M endzone. He also struggled with decision-making, noticeably holding the ball for too long. Against SEC defenses, the pocket pressure will come at Swann in the blink of an eye.

However, Swann ended the night with 194 passing yards and a 52% pass completion rate. He looked like a different player after the halftime break, making confident throws and smart decisions. To win against a solid FBS opponent like Wake Forest next week, Swann will not have the luxury of waiting until halftime to play inspiring football.

Quarterback AJ Swann embraces tight end Josh Palmer after Vanderbilt defeated Alabama A&M on Sept. 2, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Nour Abida). (Nour Abida)

“[AJ’s performance was] not consistent enough for where we want to go,” Lea said. “One of the things I want for him is to be able to relax…We’re still young in this season, so we need to give some room for those guys to grow through their experience, but I was really pleased with how he bounced back in the second half and had fun playing.”

The Vanderbilt offense came out firing in the second half and continued to keep the foot on the gas. It tore through the Alabama A&M defense, scoring 35 second half points. Aside from one punt and a missed field goal attempt, Vanderbilt scored on all of its drives.

The Commodores had moments of sloppy play, but a 34-point victory means that many things must have gone right. On to this week’s bittersweet brunch menu.

(Special teams) spice

Vanderbilt scored 47 points on Saturday night and had its best defensive performance in over a year, allowing just 13 points to the Alabama A&M Bulldogs. Yet, The Vanderbilt offense was sleeping in the first half and — despite showing signs of improvement — the Vanderbilt defense still allowed big plays such as a 62-yard touchdown. 

Vanderbilt’s special teams, on the other hand, was absolutely flawless.

“Our special teams unit came up big again this week,” head coach Clark Lea said. “We had two blocks and a couple of nice returns so that continues to be a strength.”

Third-year special teams coordinator Justin Lustig has helped build Vanderbilt’s special teams room from one of the SEC’s worst to top 10 in the nation. Last week, sophomore Jayden McGowan scored Vanderbilt’s first kick-return touchdown since 2013 against Hawaii. This week, the Commodores picked up right where they left off. The special teams group invigorated FirstBank Stadium the entire night with exciting punt blocks and kick returns.

Tied at 3-3 midway through the first quarter, Alabama A&M went three-and-out and elected to punt. Vanderbilt’s Bryan Longwell blocked the punt and the football bounced all the way to the Alabama A&M endzone, resulting in Vanderbilt’s first safety in three seasons.

Vanderbilt wasn’t finished hijacking Alabama A&M’s punt coverage after this play, though. In the fourth quarter, Langston Patterson blocked an Austin McCready punt and gave the Vanderbilt offense the ball on the Alabama A&M 23-yard line. The Commodores scored on the ensuing possession, boosting their lead to 40-10.

The Commodores also excelled in the return game, gaining 165 yards in kick returns and punt returns combined. Will Sheppard had a 39-yard punt return and McGowan had a 29-yard kickoff return. Freshmen London Humphreys and Martel Hight got in on the action as well, both running for over-20-yard returns.

Lustig’s group is Vanderbilt’s strength, and I expect many games to be won by Vanderbilt’s unprecedented special teams prowess.

Fresh sprout

Many freshmen do not see the field in their first year of college. From being not as physically fit to needing a year to understand the playbook, a common norm among college football players is to redshirt their first years. For Sedrick Alexander, that option was never a consideration. 

Alexander — the third running back on the depth chart — sits behind veteran Patrick Smith and sophomore Chase Gillespie. Late in the second half against Alabama A&M, Alexander came into the game. He made the most of his opportunity, rushing for 87 yards on 12 carries. The freshman began the fourth quarter with a 17-yard touchdown run, the first of his collegiate career. On Vanderbilt’s next possession, Alexander eluded three defenders and punched in a 10-yard touchdown run. He emphatically ended his performance with a hurdle that had FirstBank Stadium in awe.

Alexander provides a fresh set of legs and toughness to Vanderbilt’s running back by committee. His dynamic performance will likely provide him with more snaps as the season continues. 

“I’m just happy for myself, my family and my team,” Alexander said. “My running back room has been taking care of me and making sure I’m doing the right things [and] have helped me with my techniques. I’m just blessed to be in the position I am in.”

Dessert

Vanderbilt’s defense allowed just 13 points on Saturday, but its secondary and lack of pass rush remains a big concern. The Commodores were unable to put much pressure on the quarterback, having just two sacks against Alabama A&M. 

Vanderbilt’s inefficient pass rush is correlated with its secondary issues. When opposing quarterbacks have more time in the pocket, it is easier for them to find open receivers. Although Vanderbilt’s pass rush needs serious improvement, it does not excuse the poor play from the secondary in the past two games. Whether it be the chunk plays allowed against Hawaii to the 62-yard touchdown Vanderbilt surrendered to Alabama A&M in the third quarter, the margin for error against Wake Forest and SEC schools is much slimmer. 

The Commodores will look to improve to 3-0 on Saturday and have their best start to a season since 2017. To do so, they will need to beat the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem. Last year, the Commodores were humbled by the Demon Deacons 45-25, but this year’s Wake Forest team looks a lot different. The Demon Deacons lost star quarterback Sam Hartman to the transfer portal and now has Mitch Griffis commanding the offense. Griffis had a strong presence under center in Week One, though, throwing for 329 yards and 3 touchdowns against Elon.

Wake Forest utilizes a unique slow mesh offense, which confused the Vanderbilt secondary last season. Vanderbilt’s recent experience against this offense may help Lea and Co. gameplan coverages to use in the matchup. This matchup will be a telling test for the Vanderbilt defense, especially as SEC play is right around the corner. 

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About the Contributors
Andrew Wilf, 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].
Nour Abida, Staff Photographer
Nour Abida ('25) is majoring in political science and medicine, health and society with a minor in Spanish in the College of Arts and Science. She is from Tunis, Tunisia. You can reach her at [email protected].
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