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VOL. 44 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 25, 2020

Why not Vandy in an upside-down year?

Well, there are plenty of reasons, but crazier things keep happening

By Tom Wood

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In a year that has seen everybody’s world turned upside down, what other surprises does 2020 have in store? How about a Southeastern Conference football championship run for Vanderbilt?

Before you laugh, consider all that’s happened in this year of the deadly global pandemic. Every aspect of life has been deeply affected. Implausible? Check. Incomprehensible? Check. Reality? Check.

So why not one more topsy-turvy 2020 sports shocker?

While Vanderbilt winning its first SEC championship has long odds and is extremely unlikely, don’t tell that to the Commodores, who kick off this very strange, Coronavirus-shortened season on the road Saturday against No. 10 Texas A&M at 6:30 p.m.

“It’s been a crazy 2020 for every single person out there. Whether you play sports, write articles or (do) interviews, it’s been an unprecedented year,” says Vandy senior linebacker Andre Mintze, a third-team preseason All-SEC selection.

“I don’t want to talk about having pregame jitters but I’m just excited to play the game that we all love. (The anticipation is) kind of like Christmas but it’s a little more physical. So yeah, very excited. I’m looking forward to it and I’m – I don’t know – I’m ready, to say the least. I’m just ready.”

Because of health crisis concerns, the SEC reduced this season from 12 games to 10, all against SEC competition. That means the Commodores will face six AP Top 25 teams this fall.

Following the trip to Texas A&M, the Commodores host defending national champion and No. 6 LSU on Oct. 3, then South Carolina, Missouri, Ole Miss and Mississippi State before closing out the season against No. 24 Kentucky, No. 5 Florida (Nov. 21), No. 16 Tennessee and No. 4 Georgia.

VU wide receiver Cam Johnson, a junior from Brentwood Academy, says he and teammates relish the challenge of a conference-only schedule and enter the 2020 season with a chip on their shoulders.

“At Vanderbilt you sort of always come out with a chip on your – our – shoulder. We always sort of feel like we’re … not really given enough credit for anything we do,” Johnson explains.

“We feel like we have a chance to come in with an all-SEC schedule and prove we belong here and that we are one of the better teams in the SEC and that last year was not an indictment on sort of who we are. So I think that personally everybody has a chip on their shoulder going into every season, just sort of to prove who we are and what we’re about. And this year is no exception.”

Low expectations

Vanderbilt will need a huge year from senior linebacker Dayo Odeyingbo, a preseason second team All-Southeastern Conference selection.

-- Photos Courtesy Of Vanderbilt Athletics

The Commodores, coming off a 3-9 season –1-7 in the SEC – are once again a last-place choice (along with Arkansas) in most SEC East preseason media polls. Notably, SI.com and several CBS Sports prognosticators forecast an 0-10 record for Vanderbilt in the SEC’s revised schedule.

“You can’t worry about what’s on the outside,’’ says coach Derek Mason, who is 27-47 overall and 0-2 in bowl appearances as he enters his seventh season at the helm of the Commodores.

“You’ve got to focus on what’s on the inside. And everybody’s starting at the same starting line. As I look at where we’re at right now, everybody’s zero-zero.

“Again, you want to make sure that you can execute and do the things that you need to do to play good football in all three phases. And that’s everybody’s goal. But that’s what we can control and it starts in practice. ... And as you get to game time, I tell these guys, ‘You’re truly going to play the way you practiced.’

“So for us, as long as we strain in practice, as long as we can continue to be focused and accountable to these schemes and, really, one another, we’re going to be fine. So we’re going to look to start fast. That’s where our mindset is and right now that’s what we can control, so let’s control it.”

Mason’s players have a world-against-us mentality.

“We see some things that people put out about preseason polls and where people are going to finish in the SEC and that definitely puts a chip on our shoulders,” Johnson adds. “But we also sort of try to focus on ourselves and not allow outside media to sort of dictate how we see ourselves.”

Adds Mintze: “As a team, it would be foolish not to say that we have something to prove. Every single time we step onto the field, there’s something to prove. There’s a goal that we are all trying to attain, which is winning – winning downs, winning one-on-one matchups, winning the game ultimately.

Mike Wright of Fayetteville, Georgia, is one of two freshmen pushing for the starting quarterback job.

-- Photos Courtesy Of Vanderbilt Athletics

“So going into this season, to say that we are not thinking about just performing at a high level and outperforming what we did on previous years, it would not be smart. So I would say yes, we have something else to prove every time we step onto the field. Every single time we step onto the field this year, just know we are at a high level with anybody we are on the field with.”

SEC protocols, procedures

A week before the season-opener, the SEC announced a series of thresholds that teams must meet in order to play. It leaves open the possibility that games could be canceled, rescheduled or declared no-contest by the commissioner.

Teams are required to have a minimum of 53 scholarship players available on game day, but the teams can elect to play anyway.

Vandy senior linebacker Dayo Odeyingbo, a second-team preseason All-SEC pick, discussed the anxiety players have felt about possibly not playing and the challenge of a 10-game, conference-only schedule.

“This whole situation’s been stressful for everybody. However, we’re just looking forward to starting the season as normal. Because we can only control what we can control, and we can’t control it so we’re just working as hard as possible and work to that first game on the 26th,” he says.

“I’m excited. We usually play eight (SEC) games anyway, and so it’s not too much of a difference, an extra two games. I’m excited to be able to play with the best of the best and that’s why we came to this school, is to play in the SEC.”

Mason says SEC coaches have faced numerous challenges – working with both campus and league officials to make sure athletes are the No. 1 priority, adjusting schedules and practice times, being a rock that the players can turn to in making difficult decisions about whether to play or opt out, following the testing protocols. Oh, and getting the team ready to play.

“I just look at the moment and say ‘control what you can control.’ I tell our team, our kids, that all the time and I can’t be any different. I’ve still got a great football team intact. It may not be as experienced in some areas as I want it to be, but experience doesn’t necessarily dictate wins and losses,” Mason says.

“Right now, we need pronounced leadership. We need the ability of this group to be focused, accountable to one another, and let’s be united in what we do. The coaches in this conference who can navigate COVID, 2020 and everything around it have the greatest chance to get on the field and put out a competitive product and a group of young men who have a chance to achieve something they’ve never achieved before.

“I’m just going to stay right there and see what we can do as an organization and lead these men. And 2020’s going to take us where it’s going to take us, but I know we’re going to be focused, we’re going to be accountable and we’ll be united and play good football in 2020.”

Quarterback question

That quest to play good football in 2020 starts at quarterback, a position where Vanderbilt has four players with no or relatively little collegiate experience. Mason has been tight-lipped about who will start and it could come down to a game-time decision.

Freshmen Ken Seals (6-3, 218) of Azle, Texas, and Mike Wright (6-3, 187) of Fayetteville, Georgia, have both made strong pushes to earn the starting job, taking advantage of the early camp quarantine absences of juniors Jeremy Moussa (6-3, 219) of Chino Hills, California, and Danny Clark (6-4, 232) of Akron, Ohio. Junior Jack Bowen also is in the mix.

The strong-armed Seals recently was ranked No. 6 on the Saturday Down South list of the SEC’s top 25 freshmen, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him start at Texas A&M.

While Mason wouldn’t name a starter, over the course of several Zoom meetings with reporters, he did offer these assessments.

“They all bring some form of dominant trait to the table. None of these guys are finished products; they all have special things that they do,” Mason notes. “The young guys have had an opportunity to play a little more the last couple of weeks, as a couple of the older guys were out for a little bit. Now everybody is there and the playing field is level.

“Again, you’ve got some older guys who’ve played college football; you’ve got these two younger players in Ken Seals and Mike Wright, who I believe are talented enough to challenge those guys. So Danny and Jeremy right now know it’s about putting your best football on the grass every day.

“We’re challenging everybody to put their best stuff on tape as we’re trying to make decisions about who’s going to play in certain positions and who’s going to be the man under center. So we’ll get this figured out shortly.”

Both receiver Johnson and new offensive coordinator Todd Fitch were asked to assess the four contenders.

“You can ask me (who will start) because I don’t know,” Fitch says in a Sept. 8 interview. “Kenny Seals is mature, understands the game well for his experience level. (He) has a pretty even-keeled mind – doesn’t get too up or too down – and has a really good arm. Arm talent is really good with him.”

Dayo Odeyingbo started 11 games at defensive end last season, ending the year with 45 tackles.

-- Photos Courtesy Of Vanderbilt Athletics

“Mike Wright, the other young guy, (is) becoming more consistent as a thrower as we move along. The thing I love about him is he rarely makes the same mistake twice. He has the ability to take information, see a problem, try to correct the problem and move on – which is a great thing to have at any position but especially as a quarterback,” Fitch notes.

Of the two older guys, Fitch adds that “Danny Clark (has) a really good arm talent, able to make pretty much any throw you want. He’s got maturity, a little moxie to him. He has a little bit of personality that the offense needs and wants.

“Jeremy Moussa is one of the more intelligent guys in the room. He has … good arm talent, too, and I think those two things jump out when you think about Jeremy. So all of them have attributes, obviously, and now it’s all about trying to develop consistency when they play. And, really, who can move the team? And that’s all we’re worried about.”

Johnson, expected to be the team’s No. 1 target no matter who gets the starting nod, predicts Vandy’s offense will roll with whoever lines up under center.

“I think there’s no way we can go wrong with any quarterback we put out there because they all bring good things to the table and they’ll each get their own time to showcase that during the season,” Johnson says.

“They’re all so different. Danny’s got an unbelievable arm. Ken’s been here since spring so he’s got a really good grasp of the offense and he also is just really good at sort of communicating with the receivers.

“Then Jeremy’s got one of probably the best touches I’ve ever seen when he throws the ball, just sort of getting it out there, putting air on it. It’s always going to be on the money. And Mike is just … the way he’s able to extend plays and sort of make something out of nothing sometimes is amazing.”

Backfield by committee

The Vandy offense struggled last year even though it had three high-powered weapons in running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney.

This season, even though they have an untested quarterback and recently switched redshirt senior Drew Birchmeier from the defensive line to guard or tackle, Johnson is confident that the offense can rack up points like a video game.

“I think it’ll be a completely different offense than we’ve seen in the past from Vanderbilt. We have really good running backs that are definitely going to be able to find the holes and open up the passing game,” Johnson says. “As a receiver unit, we’ve talked about how this offense is sort of going to run through us is how we see it.

“So we’re prepared to throw the ball 40-50 times a game if that’s what it comes down to. It’s going to come down to a game by game basis as to how much we throw the ball, but we’re definitely going to be spreading the ball out and throwing it a lot more than in the past.”

Look for a trio of running backs – fifth-year senior Jamauri Wakefield, sophomore Keyon Henry-Brooks and junior Ja’Veon Marlow – to get the bulk of carries this fall. Impressive freshman Rocko Griffin Jr. could also get some touches.

“All these guys are ready to play. I’ve seen spectacular moments from each one of these guys,” Mason says. “It’s not like anyone of these guys is a complete player right now. Jamauri might be the most complete, just in terms of watching guys and having seen guys like Ralph Webb play in front of him. He’s had a chance to see Ke’Shawn and he’s been in games.

“These other guys haven’t played a complete season so it’s going to be running back by committee in this system. They’ve all got roles and as they continue to get better it will sort itself out.”

Defense has most talent

The Commodores had three defensive players named preseason All-SEC with senior linebacker Dimitri Moore a third-team selection, joining Mintze and Odeyingbo on the honor squads. They are not the only talented players on the unit, but Odeyingbo and Mintze agree that it’s not a case of the defense having to carry the offense in the early stages of the season.

“We want to be most improved everywhere,’’ Odeyingbo says. “It’s a completely different team than it’s ever been, considering the changes we’ve had coaching-wise and just, I mean, in the world, it’s just been kind of a big changing year. So hopefully that’s the same for us, too.’’

Mintze is more direct, saying, “We do not look at one side of the ball to rely on one another. It’s an ebb and flow. It’s a game. There may be some games where we need them to score 50 and there will be some games where we can’t drop on the defensive side of the ball. It’s an ebb and flow. It’s 50-50, it takes all of us to win on both sides of the ball.

“On offense, we just need them to score points and on defense we just need to stop them from scoring points. It’s a team effort to win.”

New defensive coordinator Ted Roof was asked how good his experienced defensive unit will be in 2020.

“We’ll find out. They’ve put in the work. We’ve got some guys that have played but it’s all about getting better,” Roof says.

Fast start needed

Every Vandy coach and player knows football is a game of momentum and confidence, that a good start can lead to something better and conversely – a poor start can lead to something worse. That’s why the first two games against a pair of SEC powerhouses are crucial.

“We’re in an unprecedented season playing against 10 SEC teams, playing in unusual circumstances, and with everything that’s going on, we are focused on playing as a team,” Mintze says.

That’s the kind of confidence Mason preaches and teaches. Yes, this season is challenging. But it’s also an opportunity. He wants Vandy to make the most of it.

“I love the idea of playing SEC football,’’ Mason says. “It’s some of the best football in the country. I don’t think you’ve ever heard me, in the time that I’ve been here, ever waver about this being a really competitive conference and that all the teams are good in this conference – and I don’t think I’ve ever complained about our schedule.

“So for me and this football team, we’re going to take every team, starting with Texas A&M, OK, and get better. That’s what we want to do. … So the challenge in 2020 is to make sure we can get to the blackout zone, find ourselves trying to get to deep water and playing good in the fourth quarter to try to bring games home and put some victories in the win column.”

And with a little luck in a crazy year, this could indeed be the Year of the Commodores.

Don’t count out anything in 2020.

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