The bar was set extremely low for Clark Lea’s first season as Vanderbilt’s head football coach.
That’s not to say Year 1 of his tenure was a failure by any means, but it’s hard to meet or exceed expectations when there are essentially none.
The Commodores were winless (0-9) the year before Lea took over. So, even though Vandy went 2-10 in 2021, a two-win improvement is a start, right?
Sure, Vanderbilt probably shouldn’t have lost its season opener to East Tennessee State. And true, losses to South Carolina and Missouri were both probably winnable games as well. But from where Lea is sitting, that adversity and those should-have-beens stung in the moment but accomplished exactly what he wanted — explicating the top-to-bottom renaissance necessary to bring Vanderbilt back to respectability.
“Once we reached the season, we were forced to confront our reality, and our physical, mental, technical and tactical deficiencies were evident from the start,” Lea said during SEC Media Days in Atlanta. “I want to be clear that the season was challenging on many levels, but we were not victimized by that adversity.
“Last fall was a necessary experience for us. It exposed the true starting point for this early start of our build as a program. The adversity of the fall broke off all the parts of us that were fake and unbelieving. It stripped us down to our studs.”
The 2021 season provided Lea with a blueprint of everything that needed fixing within the Vanderbilt program.
The offense lacked explosiveness. Vandy averaged just 312 yards and 15.75 points per game last year. Enter Mike Wright. The junior quarterback had 1,516 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns last year and added his running ability adds a new dimension to the VU offense.
“It's all about moving the ball,” Lea said. “One way to do that is with a mobile quarterback. Mike Wright is one of the best in the country in that respect.”
The defense left much to be desired. The ‘Dores allowed 457.7 yards of total offense per game, and their pass rush was never much of a threat (nine sacks, 25 QB hurries).
So, Lea built his first official recruiting class around blue-chip defensive players, including four-star linebacker Daniel Martin, four-star safety Ja’dais Richard, three-star edge rusher Darren Agu and three-star defensive lineman Linus Zunk, plus former four-star linebacker transfer Kane Patterson and ex-three-star Connecticut cornerback transfer Jeremy Lucien.
“In the offseason, we've recruited into the gap that exists between us and our competition, adding more than 30 new scholarship members to our program in a class widely considered to be the best in program history,” Lea said.
The Commodores open the season on Aug. 27 at Hawaii, which begins a four-game nonconference slate before finishing the year with eight straight conference opponents.
Vanderbilt is currently riding a 21-game SEC losing streak, which Lea stated will end in time.
“We're not fighting to win an SEC game; we're fighting to become a dominant force within the conference,” Lea said. “Obviously, winning in the SEC requires winning that first game. But when that happens, it's not going to be a huge celebration. We're going to celebrate everything at a high level, but we're going to shift focus quickly to the next opponent because that's what winning programs do.”
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