Vanderbilt's Clark Lea talks jersey numbers, emerging receivers and Bobby Bowden's legacy

Aria Gerson
Nashville Tennessean

From the start of preseason practice, all Vanderbilt football players on the field have been wearing numbers. This is a change from summer workouts, when players rotated between a black T-shirt and a gold SEC T-shirt, only getting a jersey number when Clark Lea felt they had earned one.

The first players to earn their numbers got their pick. The later players had to choose from the leftovers. Those who never got to that point didn't get a choice at all.

All players who didn't earn their jersey number in the summer were assigned one by Lea. That's how the roster ended up with, for instance, two freshman quarterbacks wearing 38 and 39 and wide receivers with numbers in the 80s.

"The system's holistic based. It's not just based off weight room performance or speed performance or football performance, it's everything," Lea said. "It's how we meet and greet people in the hallway, it's the extra work we do in conditioning, it's the investment we put into the program outside of when we're on the clock. I want teammates talking to teammates about what they want to create here.

" ... It just creates competition, it creates pride in performance, and we have this understanding of we're gonna earn it every day at Vanderbilt. It's not gonna be something where we just relax and default to what we did the day before."

The only numbers not in use, according to the team roster, are 73 and 93.

Elijah McAllister a standout

Senior linebacker Elijah McAllister missed the 2020 season with injuries. But the 6-foot-6, 261-pounder has always had potential. Though Lea has had limited time to work with McAllister, he sees it too.

"Love his length, I think him recovering from injury and having a year now to condition through the full cycle, the offseason has been helpful," Lea said. "Obviously we haven't played football yet so there's going to be an element where we have to see him down the ball but love his length, love what he's done physically in the offseason with his strike and think that that's an imposing figure in the boundary. ...

"He's been one of our top-line guys, ...  and look, I can't tell that he's had injuries."

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Young and experienced receivers showing potential

Sophomore receiver Will Sheppard has been an early standout in practice. He played in eight of the Commodores' nine games in 2020 but had just two catches. Lea said Sheppard flashed his potential in the spring and could be poised to breakout if he can string good performances together. Two true freshmen receivers, Quincy Skinner and Gamarion Carter, also earned nods from Lea as players who have demonstrated size, catching ability and speed.

But Vanderbilt also has experience at the position. Lea has noticed fifth-year senior Chris Pierce — normally a quieter player — beginning to raise his voice at practice. And Lea also challenged senior Cam Johnson, one of the Commodores' top returners, to become a vocal leader.

"I think leadership isn't just something that happens because you're a good person and you're old," Lea said. "It's a skill too and we have to push him into that role also and show him the opportunities where he can fill the gaps in communication and I challenge him to be the point guard on the field. Always circle the huddle up, be the guy that's encouraging his teammates. I want growth from him in that role. I think that we have a ways to go, but I do see him stepping up and taking a leadership role."

Lea speaks on Bobby Bowden

Legendary former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden died of pancreatic cancer on Sunday. Lea spoke Monday of Bowden's impact and offered his condolences.

"I don't know that there's a coach in the country that he didn't influence and impact and certainly I send my respects to his family and just appreciate everything he did for college football," Lea said. "We have a great game and it's guys like Coach Bowden that built it into what it is today. I celebrate his life, I celebrate his impact, I appreciate everything that he brought to this sport and I know he'll be looking down from above this season and cheering on."

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