Film Room: Vanderbilt’s deepest position

Vanderbilt is returning nearly 80 percent of its offensive production from last season, largely thanks to a deep wide receiver corps.

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Cam Johnson and Mike Wright embrace after a touchdown in Vanderbilt’s spring game. (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Justin Hershey, Sports Editor

Vanderbilt football has endured quite a bit of change in the past nine months. A new coaching staff, new locker rooms, new jerseys, 23 transfers and 27 freshmen have set a very new scene for the Commodores’ 2021 season. But “new” has been a welcomed theme for a team that has suffered through a 3-18 record over the past two seasons.

“I think it’s important at this point to recognize the fact that in this first iteration of Vanderbilt football—what we affectionately call in our building ‘Team One’—the overwhelming majority of players were recruited to a program that no longer exists,” new head coach Clark Lea said at SEC Media Day in July.

Despite culture change in McGugin Center, nearly 80 percent of Vanderbilt’s total offensive production from last season is returning. That is the second-most in the SEC behind Ole Miss, with the Commodores’ only significant offensive subtraction being running back Keyon Henry-Brooks, who is transferring to Louisiana Tech. Ken Seals and Mike Wright will enter their second year under center with all four of their leading pass catchers from last season.

“There’s a lot of competition in the [wide receiver room],” new offensive coordinator David Raih said after practice Wednesday. “We have young guys who are out there competing and learning.”

Raih is inheriting an experienced group that features talented seniors in addition to a number of high-ceiling underclassmen. The former position coach of NFL stars Davante Adams and Larry Fitzgerald will surely have an immediate impact on a group that boasts incredible potential.

Although a large chunk of yardage returns from last season, the Commodores were far from an offensive powerhouse in 2020. The group totaled a measly 15 points per contest and ranked 114th in the nation in yards per play. 

But with a diverse profile of athletic, experienced and balanced receivers, Raih will be in charge of what is clearly Vanderbilt’s most talented position group this season—a group with the potential to lead a respectable offensive unit.

The Emergence of Chris Pierce and Amir Abdur-Rahman

Vanderbilt’s deep wide receiver corps starts with Seals’ biggest targets: Chris Pierce and Amir Abdur-Rahman. The 6’4” wideouts were the freshman’s primary deep threats last season, and in an offense that figures to feature a fair amount of downfield passing, both will be critical for the Commodore offense.

Pierce elected to return for his fifth season on West End, using his COVID-19 extra year to help Lea transition into a new era of Commodore football after a breakout 2020 campaign.

After totaling just 27 receptions in his previous three seasons combined, Pierce exploded for 25 catches and over 370 yards receiving over nine games. Seals and Pierce connected for touchdowns in five straight games in the middle of the season and the senior finished his season averaging 14.7 yards per catch.

Pierce’s ability to highpoint throws and make incredibly acrobatic catches was on full display last season. And after reeling in tough throws, he consistently showed balance when running after the catch, demonstrating a knack for staying on his feet and evading tackles to create big plays.

Similarly to Pierce, Abdur-Rahman served as a large target on the outside and over the middle. After showing incredible potential his freshman year, a season-ending knee injury held the Georgia native out of action his sophomore year. But from game one his junior year, he flashed that potential once again.

He caught four balls in the Commodores season opener at Texas A&M, including Seals’ first-ever touchdown throw. He went on to lead the team in yards per catch (15) and totaled over 400 yards receiving on the year. 

While Pierce was the outside threat, Abdur-Rahman was Seals’ go-to guy over the middle. His crisp route running and strength make him difficult for any cornerback to bring down. Seals consistently found him over the middle for first downs despite his low touchdown total.

Over the past two seasons, the Commodores totaled just 232 plays of over 10 yards. That ranks last in the SEC over that span and more than 40 behind the next SEC team, Kentucky. Nonetheless, Pierce and Abdur-Rahman racked up 22 plays of over 15 yards by themselves last season and this number is surely to grow in Raih’s spread offense.

Both Pierce and Abdur-Rahman finished their seasons top 20 in the SEC in yards per catch and the former NFL wide receiver coach has said he will be implementing a “pro-style offense” that will hint consistently of his background under Kliff Kingsburry—a wonderful environment for big-play receivers.

To his point, that offense was already on display in Vanderbilt’s spring game, during which the Commodores totaled more than 20 plays of 10+ yards. With this spread offense—and the mismatches that it will create—Pierce and Abdur-Rahman will have a chance to take another step forward this season. 

Possession Playmakers

Aside from the long-ball potential that Pierce and Abdur-Rahman provide on the outside, the Commodores boast a pair of traditional, possession pass catchers that Commodore quarterbacks will be able to consistently rely upon. Seniors Cam Johnson and Ben Bresnahan enter the 2021 season after leading the team in receptions last season.

Johnson, who caught a team-high 56 balls last year, is on several preseason All-SEC teams after finishing sixth in the conference in receptions in 2020. The former four-star recruit totaled over 540 yards receiving and three touchdowns during his junior season.

The Brentwood native is a prototypical slot receiver with impressive speed that will continue to create numerous mismatches this season. Despite being just barely 6’0”, Johnson has sure hands and a knack for getting behind the defense and finding space.

He is most effective in screens, quick slants, out routes and shallow post routes—anything that gets him into space is incredibly dangerous for the defense. He was also someone Seals consistently turned to on first down, as he led the team with 25 first-down receptions in 2020.

Bresnahan is also a sure bet to be one of the Commodores’ go-to possession pass-catchers. Although Pierce made his fair share of circus grabs last season, Bresnahan likely has the best hands on the team, which was evidenced by Seals trust in his tight end. Although his 28 catches yielded just 300 yards, he finished second on the team in receiving touchdowns (4) and posed a number of nightmare scenarios for defenses—especially in the red zone.

The Commodore tight end took his fair share of hits last season, especially when tracking over the middle, but rarely ever dropped a ball. With solid speed for a tight end of his size, Bresnahan was able to create enough space for Seals to fit in passes over the middle and had a particular ability to still reel in catches despite getting hit mid-catch.

Wildcards

Not only do the Commodores have a blend of useful returning talent, but they boast a set of young receivers who will certainly push the veterans for snaps. Rising sophomore Will Sheppard has already emerged as a player who may need to be on the field. The former three-star recruit held just two other Power Five offers coming out of high school, but his size and agility have already been on display this offseason.

Sheppard registered two catches for 30 yards last season before exploding for three touchdowns in the Commodores’ spring game in April. The second-year wideout has sprouted up to 6’3”, but has the quickness of a much smaller pass catcher. 

“I think I’m stepping into my own,” Sheppard said. “The game is starting to slow down for me. Coach Raih has helped me get my technique right and has developed me into a way better player than last year.”

Another pair of wildcards for the Commodores will be the freshman duo of Quincy Skinner Jr. and Gamarion Carter. Both boast quality size at 6’1” and 6’2” respectively and have shown why the wide receiver position is Vanderbilt’s deepest throughout camp.

Reports have indicated that all three have impressed thus far in the preseason and continue to push the upperclassmen for snaps. 

“[Sheppard] flashed in the spring for us and I think he has continued that growth. Now it’s about stringing together practices and being consistent,” Lea said of his second-year wideout. “With Quincy and Gamarion too—those guys have shown flashes. They have size, they have catching ability and they have speed.”

The reality remains that there are only so many snaps to go around, but this trio of quality young receivers will certainly create sustainable depth and valuable injury insurance if one of Vanderbilt’s top options is to suffer any sort of setback.

Much of Vanderbilt’s offensive success will depend on the play of its offensive line and quarterbacks, but a deep set of wide receivers is evidence of a program on the mend. Having quality young talent at the wide receiver position will continue to provide Commodore quarterbacks with plenty of options downfield deep into the Clark Lea tenure.

“We have so many different receivers that bring so many different and special gifts to the room,” Johnson said. “Right now, we are just trying to figure out how to practice, how to go hard every rep. The guys who do that are going to be the guys who rise to the top, that’s the culture we are trying to set within our room.”