Five storylines for Vanderbilt football's first preseason practice under Clark Lea

Aria Gerson
Nashville Tennessean

Vanderbilt football  starts preseason practice Friday, the final step before Clark Lea officially opens his first season in the SEC. Like with any new coach, Lea's first  of 20 practices in August comes with plenty of intrigue, especially after the Commodores were 0-9 in last year's COVID-19 shortened, conference-only season.

Lea has already made some waves with the news that players will have to earn their numbers. According to the team roster, 30 players have earned numbers so far. 

But there are plenty more storylines that will be intriguing to follow throughout preseason practice.

How real is Vanderbilt’s quarterback battle?

Lea refused to name a starting quarterback during spring practices and said that there would be competition for the starting quarterback job between last year’s starter, Ken Seals, and Mike Wright. Seals, a sophomore, is the heavy favorite and it’s hard to imagine him losing it after a season in which he set a Vanderbilt record for passing yards and was second nationally in passing yards among true freshmen.

Is Seals’ job really in danger, or is the quarterback competition just to push Seals more rather than hand him the job right away? That remains to be seen. And there’s always the possibility that it’s a little of both, with Seals the main starter but Wright getting more involved in the offense.

Will any true freshmen stand out?

Lea was hired two days before the early signing period in December, making recruiting a 2021 class somewhat difficult. The class ranked 49th overall and 13th in the SEC, according to the 247Sports Composite, a slight upgrade from the 2020 class. The Commodores’ highest-rated 2021 recruit is four-star defensive lineman Marcus Bradley, who plays at what was a position of need for Vanderbilt a year ago.

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With 23 freshmen, there will certainly be opportunities for them to contribute, and one or more true freshmen stepping up could make a difference. But it remains to be seen if any of them have shown they have what it takes to start in the SEC.

Can Elijah McAllister make good on his potential?

Senior linebacker Elijah McAllister showed promise during his sophomore year in 2019. He was second on the team with 2.5 sacks and fifth with 4.5 tackles for loss (with 34 yards of lost yardage, second on the team). But he missed the entire 2020 season with an injury. If he can stay healthy, he has the ability to wreak havoc on the edge.

How is the defensive scheme change going?

During the spring, the offense seemed far ahead of the defense. This isn’t uncommon for teams installing a new defensive scheme – as Lea and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter are, going from a 3-4 to a 4-2-5. But Vanderbilt is in for a long season if it’s unable to stop anyone. Practices this month should shed some clarity on how much progress the unit has made since the spring.

Will Clark Lea get (even more) creative?

Since his hiring, Lea has made it clear that he’s doing things differently. He is making players earn their numbers. He hired a general manager – Barton Simmons, previously of 247Sports – and two coordinators from the NFL. To win at a place like Vanderbilt, you have to be somewhat creative. How will that approach work? The history of NFL coaches in college football is somewhat mixed. Do Lea and company have any more tricks up their sleeves?

Aria Gerson covers Vanderbilt athletics for The Tennessean. Contact her at agerson@gannett.com or on Twitter @aria_gerson.