NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Vanderbilt defense is winning.
That was apparent through the latter half of Vandy’s first week of fall camp which concluded with a full scrimmage Saturday inside Vanderbilt Stadium. In the Commodores’ first seven offensive drives of the day the defense forced seven punts.
On the eighth? Linebacker De’Rickey Wright intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown from about 15 yards out.
“(Defensive coordinator Jesse) Minter has come from the NFL so they got a lot of crazy looks,” Vanderbilt quarterback Jeremy Moussa said. “But it’s good for us. (Quarterbacks coach Joey) Lynch told us (Saturday) that he hasn’t seen this many crazy looks in the first week of fall camp ever.
“It’s only going to get us better. I think as a group we’re picking it up pretty well, sticking to our rules.”
The turnaround for the defensive Dores has been impressive after a spring which culminated in the offense scoring virtually at will during the spring game. But Minter’s unit has grown on and off the field over the past few months and the results have been impressive.
Friday’s practice, the second of the fall in full pads for the Commodores, was also dominated by the defensive side.
“I think the thing that shows up is the work these guys have put in since the end of spring ball,” Minter said. “Football is a year-round development sport so I think the coaches had a good developmental plan for the guys in the offseason. They put in a lot of work on their own and in their own time outside of what they needed to do with (director of strength and conditioning Brandon) Hourigan.
“It shows up. When you put in the time it starts to show up when you make those plays.”
Wright has been one of the defensive standouts of camp along with linebackers Anfernee Orji and Elijah McAllister, defensive lineman Daevion Davis, Alex Williams and Malik Langham and, generally, the secondary as a whole. The group’s ability to bring pressure in the backfield, stymie the run game and produce tight coverage in pass defense has shifted the scale in the defense’s favor through one week of August training.
“We’ve just banded together and brought the energy, being a real brotherhood, believing in each other, executing our assignments and knowing exactly where we need to be in fits and stuff like that,” Davis said. “It’s really just an internal thing. Guys have always been fast and strong in this league and we have fast and strong players but just the way that we play together is probably the biggest difference.”
Learning With Lea
Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea is inching toward his debut with the Commodores when he takes the field Sept. 4 at Vanderbilt Stadium against East Tennessee State. As the former Vandy fullback learns more about his personnel, they too are learning about their head coach.
“He’s a mastermind. He’s a sensei in terms of offense, defense, special teams, life, right?” said the veteran McAllister. “Coach Lea’s an amazing person. He’s super smart, intelligent and that’s what he brings to the table. He’s a great person and great mentor to me and all the other players.
“He’s taught me so much about life and defense and I can’t thank him enough for that so far. Hopefully for many more years to come he’s able to do that and give back to the players on ‘Team 1’ and the players on teams later.”
Lea, the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator, is charged with turning around the fortunes of a team that went 0-9 in 2020 and has a 3-18 record in its past 21 contests. One of his main directives since taking over the program in December has been asking his squad to compete in every task they are presented with.
It appears that mandate has begun to take shape.
“Coach Lea has the most competitive mindset. Wants to win at everything, regardless if it’s the classroom, if it’s football or just in life,” defensive back Gabe Jeudy-Lally said. “I feel like everybody on the team right now has the mentality right now of wanting to win and compete and everything that we do. Even the littlest thing of coming in the door and making sure you say hi to everybody and being polite and stuff like that.
“The mentality of the whole team is just a competitive attitude and getting better every single day and winning a response.”
All Eyes on Orji
The success of Vandy’s defense may hinge on the performance on Orji.
A junior, Orji made a team-leading 66 tackles in nine games in 2020. He’s a preseason All-SEC selection (Phil Steele) and reports from the locker room are that the Texan has made a significant leap in his development going into 2021.
“Orji is a player that really jumps out when you watch the film, just how in-shape he is. He wasn’t in great shape in the spring,” Minter said. “So it’s a credit to coach Hourigan and the strength staff and Anfernee himself for putting in a lot of work – he could go out there and play all day right now. He’s making a lot of plays and getting very comfortable within the defense.
“Then the rest of the guys, it’s a great crew around him that allows him to really make a lot of plays.”
Orji finished one tackle short of 300 during his days at Rockwell High School. He worked his way into the linebacker rotation last season and had a breakout game against Tennessee in November with 13 stops.
There could be more of those performances starting in September for the 6-foot-2, 230-pound playmaker.
“It was a lot of work this summer,” Orji said. “Coach Hourigan really helped me and everyone else on the team, especially the strength program. Made sure to get extra work with other linebackers as well.”
“The SEC linemen are pretty big, running backs are pretty big. The little muscle I put on this summer is going to be very helpful.”
Vanderbilt’s second week of training begins at 11 a.m. Monday as the Commodores transition from evening workouts to morning starts. The squad will practice every day this week at that time and will then scrimmage Saturday once again inside Vanderbilt Stadium.
“We’ve got to get efficiency going on offense,” Lea said about what needs improving moving forward. “I thought the compete was good (Saturday). The defense on the goal line was a character sequence and I thought they stepped up. And there was good enthusiasm on the field.
“We can build on this, it’s just like you would expect after Week One, there’s a lot work on. I think the No. 1 thing would just be efficiency on offense.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.