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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: New faces, new Vanderbilt

The Commodores had a successful offseason from bringing in a strong recruiting class to signing quarterback Nate Johnson.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Clark Lea speaking to the Commodores before they play Hawaii on August 26, 2023. (Photo Courtsey of Vanderbilt Athletics).

At SEC Media Day last July, Vanderbilt football head coach Clark Lea said that the expectation for Vanderbilt was to make postseason play. Lea and the Commodores were coming off of a 5-7 record in 2022, including wins over SEC rivals Kentucky and Florida. In 2023, the Commodores needed to win just one more game than it did in 2022 to make their first bowl appearance since 2018.

Vanderbilt regressed and won just two games in 2023. The Commodores also went winless in SEC play for the second time in three seasons. In their eight SEC games combined, the Commodores were outscored by their opponents by 182 points (22.75 points per game). 

A week after losing its season finale to Tennessee, Vanderbilt fired offensive coordinator Joey Lynch and replaced Nick Howell with Lea as the team’s next defensive coordinator. The Commodores also lost starting quarterbacks AJ Swann and Ken Seals, as well as their top three receiving options in Will Sheppard, London Humphreys and Jayden McGowan. The Commodores saw other standout student-athletes leave via the transfer portal, including starting defenders Ethan Barr, De’Rickey Wright and Nate Clifton. 

While the Commodores lost 19 players to the transfer portal, they made big signings in the transfer portal. To fill the losses of Swann, Seals and Taylor, Vanderbilt brought in quarterbacks Nate Johnson and Blaze Berlowitz. Berlowitz worked with newly-signed offensive coordinator Tim Beck and off-field consultant Jerry Kill at New Mexico State last season. Johnson is the likely starter for Vanderbilt next season, after spending his last two seasons as the backup quarterback for the Utah Utes. In 2023, Johnson threw for 499 yards and 3 touchdowns. The four-star quarterback also rushed for 235 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2023 and he will look to bring a dual-threat ability to Vandebrilt’s offense like Mike Wright did in 2022. 

The Commodores also signed TCU transfer Randon Fontenette — a 6’3” safety — for an estimated value of $70,000 of NIL money and was the sixth-best safety in the portal, according to On3. Fontenette played in 12 games and had 16 tackles as a freshman for TCU. In his senior season in high school, he had 82 tackles, 4 interceptions, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick.

Vanderbilt’s shining star last season was punter Matthew Hayball, who no longer has college eligibility. The Australia native won SEC punter of the year and was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award last season. Hayball was replaced by Ohio State punter Jesse Mirco. Mirco had 50 punts in 2023, averaging 43.5 yards per attempt.

Aside from bringing in 13 players from the transfer portal, Vanderbilt retained Gunnar Hansen, Christian James, Langston Patterson, Jeffrey Ugochukwu, Kamrean Johnson, Marlen Sewell and CJ Taylor. The Commodores also made a big splash on National Signing Day when they reeled in the 40th-best signing class in the country, according to 247Sports

Vanderbilt signed 19 recruits including quarterbacks Whit Muschamp and Jérémy St-Hilaire. Muschamp and St-Hillaire will sit behind Johnson and will hope to bring their high school success to West End. Muschamp threw for 3,187 yards, 31 touchdowns and 2 interceptions during his senior season while St-Hillaire threw for 2,678 yards, 25 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in his senior season.

“J [Jérémy] and Whit both have athleticism and they’re both good in terms of moving the pocket and creating with their legs,” Lea said. “ They both can throw the ball. They’re both great competitors and I believe that their both going to find success here in the new system.”

Vanderbilt’s highest-ranked recruit was Dontae Carter, a four-star safety from Cibolo, Texas who had 140 tackles and 14 interceptions in his last two years at Byron P. Steele High School. According to On3, Carter is the second-best safety in the Class of 2024. The Texas native will look to help in fixing a defense that lost Wright, BJ Anderson and Jaylen Mahoney.

On Jan. 16, Vanderbilt Football made a big announcement about the VandyUnited plan. Vanderbilt athletics released the renderings of the premium seating opportunities that FirstBank Stadium will have to offer in 2024 and 2025, respectively. Vanderbilt’s announcement will draw excitement for fans to go to a revamped stadium, but what will be the biggest indicator of increased attendance will be Vanderbilt winning games.

In 2024, the Commodores will play a different slate of SEC teams than in previous years as the addition of Texas and Oklahoma was key in the alleviation of divisions within college football’s best conference. Vanderbilt will begin its season with nonconference matchups against Virginia Tech, Alcorn State and Georgia State. The Commodores will then play home games against Missouri and Alabama, respectively. Vanderbilt will then play Ball State, before having five SEC games to round out the season. Aside from Florida, Vanderbilt will have the hardest strength of schedule in the SEC.

Lea’s hope remains for Vanderbilt to make its first bowl appearance in six seasons. To do that, the Commodores will need to see increased improvement from an offense now led by Johnson and commanded by Beck. The Vanderbilt defense will also need to improve as Lea will look to improve a unit that allowed 279.6 yards per game in 2023, which ranked 126th in NCAAF.

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About the Contributor
Andrew Wilf
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].
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