Five things to know about the Vanderbilt Commodores, Kentucky football’s opponent for a noon EDT kickoff Saturday in Nashville.
1. Clark Lea has made progress
In his third year as Vanderbilt’s head football coach, Clark Lea is 9-19 overall and 2-14 in the SEC. But the former Commodores linebacker has shown improvement, going from 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the SEC in 2021 to 5-7 and 2-6 in the conference last season with wins over Kentucky and Florida.
A 41-year-old native of Nashville, Lea played fullback at Vandy, graduating in 2004. He began his coaching career as a grad assistant at UCLA in 2006 before making stops at South Dakota State, Bowling Green, Syracuse and Wake Forest. He was hired by Brian Kelly at Notre Dame in 2017 and promoted to the Irish’s defensive coordinator in 2018. He replaced Derek Mason as Vanderbilt coach in 2021.
After last season, Vandy extended Lea’s contract through the 2029 season.
“Knowing (Vanderbilt) Coach (Clark) Lea like I do, he’s going to have that team ready to play,” UK coach Mark Stoops said Monday. “I saw it a year ago, I said it in the press conference on Monday a year ago, told our team, I watched the energy they play with. I watched how hard they play, how physical they are and anytime you do that it gives you an opportunity to win.”
2. Vandy is coming off a tough loss
The Commodores jumped to an early 17-0 lead over UNLV last Saturday at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium. Alas, a comedy of errors squandered the advantage. First, the snap hit an upback on a Vandy punt. Next, the Commodores flubbed the handoff on a reverse. Then 19 seconds before halftime, Vandy threw an interception to set up another UNLV score. Halftime: The Commodores trailed 20-17.
Coached by former Missouri head coach Barry Odom, UNLV extended the lead to 30-17 before Vanderbilt rallied to tie matters at 30 with 4:47 left. The host Rebels went back in front 37-30 before Vandy tied it again at 37 and had a 33-yard field goal with 44 seconds left to take the lead. The kick missed.
UNLV then completed a 48-yard pass to set up the 36-yard field goal by Jose Pizano with five seconds remaining that won it 40-37. The loss dropped Vandy to 2-2 on the season despite outgaining the home team 420-403. Four turnovers hurt the Commodores’ cause.
3. Stars in last year’s win over UK are no longer Commodores
Vanderbilt snapped a 26-game SEC losing streak and a six-game losing streak to the Cats with a 24-21 win last season at Kroger Field. Alas, the Commodores’ two star players in that game left the program via the transfer portal.
Quarterback Mike Wright completed 12 of 23 passes for 184 yard and one touchdown while rushing 11 times for 126 yards and another score. Beaten out for the starting job by AJ Swann, Wright transferred to Mississippi State where the 6-foot-4, 195-pound senior is backing up Will Rogers. Through three games, he has thrown one pass, a 4-yard completion. He has rushed for 97 yards on seven carries.
Vandy’s other star last year in Lexington now plays for the team in Lexington, of course. Ray Davis rushed for 129 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Davis had a 45-yard run as Vanderbilt won at Commonwealth Stadium/Kroger Field for the first time since 2012.
“We missed a lot (of tackles) last year,” UK outside linebacker J.J. Weaver said Wednesday. “But I’m glad to have Ray Davis on our side this year.”
4. Vandy has weapons on offense
Even with Davis and Wright gone, the Commodores are not lacking playmakers on offense.
Quarterback AJ Swann is a 6-3, 228-pound sophomore from White, Georgia, who has completed 77 of 133 passes for 1,101 yards and 11 touchdowns with four interceptions. Swann’s completion percentage is 57.9. He ranks 32nd nationally in passing yards per game at 265.5 and 58th nationally in pass efficiency with a 145.8 rating.
“He has a lot of similarities to Will (Levis),” UK defensive coordinator Brad White said Wednesday. “The ease of which it comes off his hand. Easy flick of the wrist and the ball can just travel. Crisp on his accuracy. Does a nice job sort of when the play breaks in, because of that arm strength, off platform he can get that ball way downfield in a hurry.”
Will Sheppard is Swann’s top target with 25 grabs for 314 yards and six touchdowns through four games. The 6-3, 198-pound Sheppard caught five passes for 88 yards and a score in Vandy’s win last year over UK.
Swann also has a pair of speedy receivers in Jayden McGowan and London Humphreys. McGowan has caught 23 passes for 295 yards, with a long reception of 50 yards. Humphreys has caught just nine passes but for 266 yards and three touchdowns, with a long reception of 56 yards.
A 5-8, 181-pound sophomore from Lauren, South Carolina, McGowan also returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in Vandy’s opening-game win over Hawaii. He is currently ninth nationally in that category, averaging 32.86 yards per return. A 6-3, 186-pound freshman from Nashville, Humphreys ranks second nationally among freshmen receiving yards. In high school, he broke Jalen Ramsey’s regional record in the 200-meter dash.
5. Vandy’s defense has had its problems
Through four games, the Commodores rank 101st in scoring defense, allowing 29.3 points per game. They are 89th nationally in run defense, allowing 147 yards per game. They are 86th in pass efficiency defense with a 134.27 rating. Overall, Vandy is 100th in total defense, allowing 389 yards per game.
Wake Forest rushed for 288 yards in a 36-20 win over Vanderbilt in Winston-Salem on Sept. 9. Demond Claiborne rushed for 165 yards on 26 carries. Teammate Tate Carney gained 117 yards on just 13 carries. Wake averaged 6.0 yards per attempt on the ground.
UNLV hurt Vandy through the air. True freshman quarterback Jayden Maiava completed 19 of 33 passes for 261 yards, including that 48-yarder that set up the winning field goal.
Injuries have been a problem for Lea’s team. Linebacker Savion Perry missed the UNLV game with an upper body injury. Defensive back Jaylen Mahoney left that game with an injury and did not return. Safety De’Rickey Wright is battling an ankle injury. Defensive lineman Christian James, a two-year starter, has yet to play in 2023 because of an injury.