Hope is eternal for Vanderbilt football – and for good reason

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We have reached the happy days of the college football calendar. You will rarely, if ever, find a coach expressing disappointment at this time of year.

Spring training, just like recruiting courses or off-season training, is positive for everyone. Full of hope and forward-thinking optimism, which makes it almost impossible to tell the spring of one program from another. For that, you need a step back.

In other words, how far a program has progressed has a lot to do with how far it had to go in the first place.

And here we find Vanderbilt football in its second spring under coach Clark Lea.

Few Division I programs — and certainly the SEC — have had a better road to respectability in recent years than the Commodores. It was true before, during and immediately following Vanderbilt’s 2-10 season in 2021.

That may not be so true now.

“I feel like we’re finally building,” Lea said after a scrum last weekend.

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This spring has been particularly encouraging at Vanderbilt. You can feel it in the building. You can hear it in Lea’s words. He is really happy with what he saw. Although, again, this is not unique to his profession, it is important due to the magnitude of the need for Commodores.

Maybe you’ll notice in Saturday’s spring game what I did last weekend in a long and revealing scrimmage at Vanderbilt.

Here’s a sample of what I scribbled while watching from the stands:

“The red zone defense was good. The offense hits a lot of field goals.

“The defense looks good. Motivated and aggressive. Swarm towards the ball.

“They may not look like an SEC team yet, talent-wise, but they act like one, especially on defense.”

That’s not to say the offense didn’t make plays. All three quarterbacks — Mike Wright, Ken Seals and rookie AJ ​​Swann — have done well at times. Wright found Will Sheppard on a home run. Receiver Quincy Skinner pointed to a nice touchdown from Swann. And here’s a tip: Watch out for first-year receiver Jayden McGowan.

But – as stated – what stood out to me the most was the attitude of the defensive players. It seemed like there was nowhere else they’d rather be than banging heads on this freezing morning. They played downhill. They delivered blows. They tackled and celebrated plays on the sidelines.

It was significant, at least for me. It demonstrated an energy that has manifested in other ways around Vanderbilt’s program this offseason — even if it runs counter to the overall reality and recent results.

As offensive coordinator Joey Lynch told me earlier this spring, “Guys have fun playing football.”

Some SEC programs may take this for granted. This one can’t.

“That’s important when you’re building a program — kids want to be in the building and want to be on the practice field,” Lynch said.

Vanderbilt’s roster has had its share of attrition in recent months, but if you look at who’s still there, Lea has been able to retain a surprising amount of talent after such a difficult season. He was able to keep the players you most wanted to keep.

For the most part, the best and most productive players on both sides of the ball remained Commodores:

Wright and Seals, both quarterbacks. All ball carriers. Sheppard at receiver. Tight end Ben Bresnahan. Main tackle Anfernee Orji. Second main tackle Ethan Barr. Edge rusher Elijah McAllister. Maxwell Cult Safety.

“There are guys who are gone,” Wright said, “and respect to those guys. But the guys who are here, we’re ready to go. We’re bought and we love Vanderbilt football. That’s the reason we’re here and the reason we’re going to win football games…. That level of belief is the highest it’s ever been right now.

Great. Belief, however, has a way of disappearing when the results don’t match. Even an upgraded Vanderbilt is sure to face countless challenges this season.

He will certainly be chosen last in the SEC East, and the idealistic nature of April will of course mean nothing once the losses start to pile up in the fall.

But for now, if you’re looking for reasons to hope, you’ll find more in this program.

At Vanderbilt, for what it’s worth, this spring has been really encouraging.

Contact Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at [email protected] and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.

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