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.

Vanderbilt Football offseason notebook PART TWO: A starting quarterback competition and the offensive line

With spring football coming to a close, the Vanderbilt coaching staff and players have sought to create a new mindset and intention.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Vanderbilt Football gathers around head coach Clark Lea after practice.

The Vanderbilt Football team has conducted spring practices for almost a month now, with two scrimmages completed and one still to be played before spring ball concludes for the Commodores. In 2023, Clark Lea told Commodore Nation that a postseason bowl game was the standard for the season. However, Commodore fans were underwhelmed by this promise when the Commodores went 2-10, not winning a single SEC game. 

Vanderbilt suffered an exodus of 19 players to the transfer portal but made significant additions to the program from coaching changes, high school signings and transfers. With spring ball wrapping up and the 2024 season only 20 weeks out, before we know it, football season will once again be upon us. The Hustler looks at where the program is currently, what still needs to be ironed out this summer and what we think fans can expect from this team going forward. 

Battle for the starting quarterback position

When Vanderbilt first announced the addition of Utah transfer quarterback Nate Johnson, many assumed he was the shoo-in for the starter position. However, on Jan. 17, Vanderbilt announced the addition of former New Mexico State QB Diego Pavia to the team. Since the announcement of Pavia coming to West End, it appears that Lea & Co. have two contenders for the QB1 spot. Johnson is currently on campus with the team, while Pavia cannot come to campus until after his spring semester at New Mexico State is finished and he graduates.

Nate Johnson looks downfield to deliver a pass during spring practice. As photographed on April 9, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)

Despite Johnson’s advantage in being on campus for spring ball, Pavia is still a strong contender for the QB1 position. New offensive coordinator Tim Beck was Pavia’s coach at New Mexico State, where Pavia threw for 2,973 yards, 26 touchdowns and 9 interceptions in 2023. Pavia ran for 928 yards and 7 touchdowns in the 2023 season as well. 

Regardless of which of the two quarterbacks will start, the addition of both Johnson and Pavia makes it seem as if Vanderbilt is looking for a quarterback with a strong dual-threat ability on the field. Two seasons ago, Vanderbilt had a dual-threat quarterback in Mike Wright. Wright led Vanderbilt to a 5-7 record and the most successful season in the Lea era. 

While it is too early to say for certain, it seems that Pavia will be the choice of QB1 in August. Johnson has struggled with ball security this spring. With Vanderbilt going up against some of the best defenses in the nation, such as Alabama, Texas and LSU, ball security is paramount. Since turnovers are a concern for Johnson, opponents will almost certainly exploit it, and this is the last thing the Commodores need. 

“We saw some playmaking ability [by Nate Johnson] with his legs,”  Lea told The Hustler on March 30. “On film, we also saw some carelessness on the ball…that’s why you practice, so we have to keep harping on the ball security piece of it, but [Johnson has] solid playmaking ability, which is no surprise.” 

Pavia is advantageous because he has played more collegiate football than Johnson. Experience isn’t always everything, but having a quarterback on your staff who has been recognized as a conference player of the year and led a team to a 10-5 record with a bowl appearance is certainly preferable. Pavia’s experience might just be the deciding factor for a team trying to have a breakout season in the SEC. Overall, expect the race between Johnson and Pavia for the starting QB position to be a contentious one.

Where the offensive line stands

While it is certainly encouraging that Vanderbilt has added prolific scoring and play-making potential to the QB room over the offseason, in the SEC, the quarterback’s ability means little if their offensive line does not properly protect them. Last year, the Vanderbilt offense allowed 27 sacks, resulting in 175 yards lost, which ranked for the seventh-worst in the SEC. While the quarterback room had issues of its own, the time the offensive line gave the quarterback to make a play was not conducive to success. Lea realized this and hired Chris Klenakis to replace AJ Blazek as the team’s offensive line coach. 

Klenakis has three decades of experience as a collegiate coach, with 24 linemen reaching the NFL under his tutelage. Klenakis is very experienced in protecting a dual-threat quarterback. He coached at Louisville during Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign and worked with Colin Kaepernick at Nevada. 

“We’re installing a new mindset and attitude [in the offensive line], and it’s gone really well,” Klenakis said on April 16. “The [players] have been awesome to work with. They come every day, they’re coachable and they’ve [made a] good transition.”

Players from last year noted that they returned to Vanderbilt because of the coaching change. 

“[With] the new coaching changes, there was a great opportunity to come back and learn at a high level,” Gunnar Hansen, a senior left tackle, said. 

While Vanderbilt has kept many players from last season in the offensive line room, it added a notable transfer in Steven Losoya, a graduate student who played two seasons at Mississippi State and three at Middle Tennessee State. At the center position in the 2023 season for MTSU, Losoya did not allow a single sack and only conceded one hit against the QB. 

The Vanderbilt offense will continue to work to instill a new mindset and system for the 2024 season to compete against SEC opponents properly. Lea remains hopeful that last season will be remembered as difficult yet necessary for success. 

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About the Contributor
Grace Hall
Grace Hall, Deputy Sports Editor
Grace Hall (‘26) is from Belfast, Maine, and is majoring in public policy studies in the College of Arts and Science. Grace is also the vice-president of the Vanderbilt Club Field Hockey Team. When not writing for The Hustler you can find her watching the Boston Red Sox or Celtics, reading or at a concert. You can reach her at [email protected].
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