Give a big thanks to Tom Stephenson of Anchor of Gold for taking the time to answer my questions about Vanderbilt. With it being fairly rare for the Tide to play them, we Bama fans often know very little about their actual program and players.
– In one of the more remarkable early surprises (to us on the outside, at least) of the 2022 football season is that Vandy seems to have found themselves with a legitimately explosive offense (21st in points per game). There was also a QB change from Mike Wright to freshman AJ Swann last week that led to the youngster winning SEC Freshman of the Week. What can you tell us about the offense with these two QBs, was the change something fans expected, and will the job be Swann’s going forward?
I expected Swann to eventually be the guy, but I was expecting that change to happen later in the season and not in Week 3. So it was a surprise that the switch happened this early in the season — personally, I would have had Wright take the L’s against Alabama and Georgia instead of throwing a true freshman to the wolves and then let Swann have his first SEC start at Missouri instead of in Bryant-Denny Stadium, but I guess Clark Lea decided that Swann gave the team the best chance to win at Northern Illinois, which he did. And this is why I don’t make the big bucks. Anyway, Swann has much better accuracy as a passer, which helped some of the receivers shine against Northern Illinois but he also makes much more let’s say daring throws — something that didn’t really hurt him against NIU but I expect that Alabama has better defensive backs. Wright is probably the best overall athlete on the team and gives the team a running element that really isn’t there with Swann, but he’s also not a guy who can really hurt you as a passer. I expect Swann to be the starter going forward barring injury.
– Receivers Will Sheppard and Jayden McGowan have put up some significant stats so far, with Sheppard grabbing a ridiculous 7 touchdowns already in this young season. Can you describe what makes each of these players good, and are there any other receiving threats Alabama needs to worry about?
-Sheppard is a good outside threat at 6’3” and while I wouldn’t exactly call him a burner, he can use his size to beat a lot of DBs. McGowan is… well, pretty much the opposite of that, generously listed at 5’8” but the South Carolina state champion in the 100 meters. The only other receiving threat Alabama really needs to be concerned about is tight end Ben Bresnahan, who was a big player under Derek Mason but has been utilized less often under Clark Lea.
– On top of the passing game being quite competent, RB Re’Mahn Davis is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Is this a product of an offensive line getting a consistent push, or more of Davis breaking tackles, getting creative, and making his own yards?
The offensive line has been surprisingly competent, at least against the (admittedly not good) competition it’s faced so far. That’s some of it; then again, a big portion of Davis’s yards per carry numbers basically resulted from him breaking some huge runs against Hawaii, which has a terrible defense. Other than that, he’s usually been a guy who just gets you a consistent 4-5 yards per carry.
– On defense, I tried to take a look at Vandy’s depth chart, but it seems to list two positions with an anchor and a star (the actual symbols, not even words). Can you explain those two positions and how they fit into the overall scheme?
Yeah, I thought it was weird that they stuck emojis on the depth chart, too. I’m going to try to make sure I don’t mix up the two because I always do, but I believe the “star” position is a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, similar to the role that Will Anderson plays for Alabama. The “anchor” is a hybrid linebacker/safety. Clark Lea’s defense is… interesting, but the idea is to give the defense more flexibility and varying alignments.
-Okay, I was, admittedly, leading into this question with my last one. Anchor De’Rickey Wright is a name Alabama fans might recognize as a recruit from the 2020 cycle who was an in-state linebacker hybrid with impressive athletic testing numbers who was briefly committed to the Crimson Tide before flipping to Ole Miss (and then apparently flipping again… We missed that). How’s he doing, and how did Vanderbilt keep him from transferring to Texas when he entered the portal last spring?
De’Rickey Wright has been doing fine this season. If I’m remembering correctly, he went into the portal because he was in Clark Lea’s doghouse (for the record, Lea has been running a tight ship since he took over, as multiple players have been kicked off the team including two the week of the Hawaii game) but eventually got back into Lea’s good graces and exited the portal but more or less always wanted to stay at Vanderbilt (but entered the portal because that might not have been a possibility.)
-Speaking of transfer portal guys, how on earth is Joseph Bulovas still kicking? Feels like he left Bama like 5 years ago at this point. How’s he doing?
Bulovas elected to use the free COVID year to come back in 2022, which has been a boost for Vanderbilt’s kicking game, something I never thought I would say about a former Alabama kicker but then again, the season before he arrived it got to the point that we called up the goalie from the women’s soccer team to kick extra points. He kicked two game-winning field goals last season, a season in which we won two games.
– Who are the main playmakers and/or leaders of this defense?
The main playmaker for the defense is linebacker Anfernee Orji, one of the few Derek Mason holdovers who’d probably play for other SEC teams. Max Worship is a fifth-year senior safety who’s made some big plays this season after being just sort of there for his first four years in the program. Aside from those two guys, the defense doesn’t have a lot of stars, but there are a few true freshmen (Darren Agu, B.J. Diakite) who will make a big play here or there.
-Any other young players you haven’t already talked about who look to be potential future star players?
He’s a special teams warrior right now, but I really think linebacker Langston Patterson is going to be one of those guys who seems like he plays forever. Also, there’s Yilanan Outtara, who’s from Germany (and has the amount of football playing experience you’d expect from a guy who grew up in Germany) but also goes 6’7” and 280 pounds.
– What’s the overall attitude towards the Clark Lea era so far?
It’s generally positive, though you do have that pocket of fans who just absolutely cannot get past the fact that he lost to East Tennessee State in his debut last year and/or wanted Charlotte head coach Will Healy to be the guy instead, but I think most fans are seeing the progress from the first year to second year and also saw that he signed the best recruiting class at Vanderbilt since James Franklin was here. I mean, he was probably going to get five years here no matter what just because that’s what we do, but I think it’s pretty obviously moving in a positive direction right now.
-What’s your prediction for how the rest of this season plays out for Vandy?
Based on what I’ve seen so far, I think Vandy will win an SEC game or two, which I wouldn’t have been confident at all about a month ago. Not this week, obviously, but I think this team can take one of Missouri or South Carolina or maybe Florida. I would still be surprised if this team makes a bowl game, but we’re not exactly a program that can sneeze at 4-8.
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