'Fundamental shift in attitude': Vanderbilt football reveal how Clark Lea has changed program

Aria Gerson
Nashville Tennessean

Fifth-year senior offensive lineman Cole Clemens is one of Vanderbilt football's longest-tenured players. He was part of the 2018 Texas Bowl team that was one of the best of the Derek Mason era. He stuck around after opting out due to COVID-19 in 2020 and remained through the transition to Clark Lea.

This year, Clemens senses something different in his team's mentality.

"I think there's been a fundamental shift in attitude," Clemens said. "So basically the way that we perceive practice and the way that we perceive games, so Coach Lea uses the expression, 'the lens in which we view our experience,' which is basically the definition of attitude and I think that shift in attitude is definitely one of the biggest things."

Before, Clemens said, the team would often feel like preseason practice was just something they had to get through. Now, it's an active opportunity to get better every day.

VANDERBILT FOOTBALL:5 biggest takeaways from first preseason scrimmage

CAM JOHNSON:Veteran receiver growing into leadership role with Vanderbilt football

LITTLE LEAGUE WORLD SERIES:How Vanderbilt baseball inspired familiar look for Nolensville team

Sophomore quarterback Ken Seals didn't experience a normal preseason during his first year with the Commodores in 2020. Seals has never experienced a complete preseason — or regular season. But he, too, feels the difference even from when workouts started in early August.

Cole Clemens goes through drills with Kevo Wesley during spring practice at McGugin Athletic Complex in Nashville, Tenn.,  Wednesday, March 17, 2021.

When he'd have a bad workout, Seals tended to get down on himself. Now, though, he has started to take each day, good or bad, as a learning experience.

"From what I've heard the attitude in fall camp to be, and especially, even in the beginning of this fall camp, the message that, 'Hey, you're not trying to survive this, we're actually playing football, having fun, not just get through it,' and so it's been a message that's been well received by everyone on the team and I think guys are finally starting to let it soak in," Seals said.

Part of the shift may be due to fewer COVID-19 restrictions. Though masks are still required indoors at Vanderbilt, a vaccination requirement for students and staff has allowed the players to do many more things than they were allowed to last year. 

But Lea, who preaches mindset as an important factor in winning, seems to have had an impact.

"He's a mastermind, he's a sensei, in terms of offense, defense, special teams, life," senior linebacker Elijah McAllister said. "Coach Lea's an amazing person, he's super smart and intelligent, that's what he brings to the table. He's a person, a great mentor for me and all the other players, and he's taught me so much about life and defense and I can't thank him enough for that so far."

FOR SUBSCRIBERS:5 biggest takeaways from Vanderbilt football's first preseason scrimmage

JOHNSON A LEADER:Veteran receiver Cam Johnson growing into leadership role with Vanderbilt football

A TEAM IN BLACK PINSTRIPES:How Vanderbilt baseball inspired familiar look for Nolensville Little League World Series team

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