Vanderbilt football plays its first spring scrimmage on Saturday

The scrimmage was high-energy and featured great play by the running backs.

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Mike Wright throws a pass in Vanderbilt’s scrimmage on March 27, 2021. (Twitter/@VandyFootball)

Betsy Goodfriend, Deputy Sports Editor

Vanderbilt football’s fifth practice of the spring was extra special for players, who finally got the chance to test out what they’ve been learning under first-year head coach Clark Lea in a full-contact scrimmage.

Lea had players wear jerseys without numbers and only their name on the back. The helmets didn’t feature the Vanderbilt “Star V” logo either. During spring practice, Lea is making his players earn the right to wear their numbers and represent Vanderbilt.

Perhaps the biggest name on the team is sophomore quarterback Ken Seals. Seals started all nine games last season and set a Vanderbilt freshman record with 1,928 passing yards.

Lea and offensive coordinator David Raih rotated the quarterbacks often, signaling that the job may not be Seals’ just because he was the starter last season under former head coach Derek Mason.

Seals played in five series, then was relieved by sophomore quarterback Mike Wright and senior Jeremy Moussa with four series each. Senior walk-on quarterback Jack Bowen also ran the offense for two series.

“They all desire to be leaders,” Lea said of his quarterbacks. “They all need to grow and mature within the offense, and that means command in the huddle, command over the scheme and the timing and rhythm of the play.”

All four quarterbacks benefitted from the return of three offensive linemen that opted out of the 2020 season. Cole Clemens, Bryce Bailey and Jonathan Stewart are back with the team this season and bring experience to an offensive line that started many sophomores last season due to depth issues.

The offensive line paved the way for a couple of big runs by all three running backs. Senior Ja’Veon Marlow was the star of the day with four runs of 20-plus yards. Marlow joined the first-team offense for most of the scrimmage.

Sophomore running back Rocko Griffin and junior Re’Mahn Davis, who transferred to Vanderbilt from Temple, each found the end zone. Griffin’s touchdown came off a handoff from Seals, and he barreled through the middle of the defense to score. Late in the scrimmage, Davis had a 40-plus yard touchdown run, weaving through the front seven to break free on the outside.

“I saw toughness but even more than the runs that broke, it’s the first attempt and churning through contact to get set up a second-and-on schedule,” Lea said. “We have a tough group. It’s a good group of guys, and we hope to add some depth by the time the fall comes around.”

Lea estimated that he’s only installed about 25% of his schemes on both sides of the ball.

“We’ve just touched third down, and really a lot of the third down defense are first and second down carryover,” Lea said. “We’ll build into the third down package as we go. We haven’t done any redzone, so that was all base field stuff in terms of install.”

Even with so little of the offense installed, Vanderbilt scored five touchdowns. In addition to the rushing touchdowns, Wright took a quarterback keeper to the end zone after he found the edge.

Seals tossed a beautiful pass to sophomore wide receiver Will Sheppard in the back corner of the end zone. On the final series of the day, Wright threw a touchdown pass in a tight window to senior wide receiver Cam Johnson in the corner of the endzone.

The defense tightened up after allowing a few big runs early. Senior defensive lineman Malik Langham had the play of the day for the defense, recovering a fumble in a botched handoff from Moussa to Davis.

The front seven was able to get pressure on all four quarterbacks and earn a sack on most series, although a sack just required touching the quarterbacks, who were wearing no-contact jerseys.

Lea loved seeing the competitiveness from his defense, who got a few red zone stops.

“Early on, the first couple drives went into the tight red zone,” Lea said. “I saw a defense that was fighting for every blade of grass. That level of competitiveness, we can build on.”

Lea’s defense will be a 4-2-5 scheme to bring quicker athletes into the game. Lea was introduced to the scheme as an assistant coach at Bowling Green, and he used the packages at Notre Dame when he was the defensive coordinator from 2018-2020.

“It just becomes such a spatial game and because of the field space in college and the hashes, you need someone out there that can cover the ground,” Lea said of the 4-2-5 defense. “That’s where a lot of the big plays happen in the field space. There’s also a lot of windows in coverage, so you like length out there.”

Overall, Lea was pleased with the team’s performance.

“It’s fun for me to step back and see big picture football to help with both sides of the ball situationally,” Lea said. “We have a lot ahead of us. We have a lot of excitement. We have a lot of adversity ahead of us, too.”