NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt will officially usher in the Clark Lea Era at Vanderbilt Stadium when the Commodores host East Tennessee State to kick off the 2021 season at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Lea, a two-time graduate of Vandy and a former fullback at the turn of the century, is charged with reversing the fortunes of a program that went 0-9 in 2020 and is 3-18 in its past 21 games. The former Notre Dame defensive coordinator and Nashville native was hired in December and has spent the last 8+ months building a new foundation for the Dores.
East Tennessee State ended its 2019 season with a 38-0 loss at Vanderbilt. The Buccaneers didn’t play again until February as part of a six-game spring schedule that saw them go 4-2.
Head coach Randy Sanders’ squad brings back every starter from the spring season.
Here is more on how to watch, listen to and follow Saturday’s contest as well as five key matchups to consider when the Commodores face the Buccaneers:
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Location: Vanderbilt Stadium
Tickets: Vanderbilt Ticket Office
Television: SEC Network+
Mike Morgan (play-by-play), Kirk Morrison (analyst), Dawn Davenport (sideline)
Vanderbilt Sports Network from Learfield
On-Air Time: 7 p.m.
Pregame Show: 5:30 p.m.
Affiliates: Nashville WQZQ 830 AM, 93.3 FM; Chattanooga WALV 105.1 FM; Lewisburg WJJM 1490 AM, 94.3 FM; Memphis WMPS 1210 AM, 103.1 FM
Satellite: SiriusXM 203; SiriusXM online 966
79 degrees at kickoff, 40 percent chance of rain
1. All Eyes on Lea
Lea has waited a long time to pace the sidelines as head coach of his alma mater. That wait ends a few minutes after 7 p.m. Saturday when Lea and the Commodores take the field.
A former Vandy fullback for former head coach Bobby Johnson, Lea began his coaching journey at UCLA before making stops at South Dakota State, Bowling Green, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Notre Dame. At the latter he rose to defensive coordinator while the Fighting Irish became the national title contenders year-in and year-out.
Now his time as a head coach begins just down the road from where he graduated high school (Montgomery Bell Academy) and at the University from which he holds two degrees in political science. How will Lea manage the game, the expectations, the moment?
All eyes will be on Lea.
2. Dominant Defense
Vandy’s defense during the preseason has turned into a beastly commodity.
Under the direction of first-year coordinator Jesse Minter, the defensive Dores will present an attacking and chaotic system that infuses NFL schemes while featuring the strongest personnel. That unit has virtually shut down the Vanderbilt offense during the last month of practice thanks to the leadership of captains Daevion Davis and Elijah McAllister, emerging playmakers De’Rickey Wright and Anfernee Orji and veterans Dashaun Jerkins and Maxwell Worship.
East Tennessee State scored a modest 21 points per game in the spring but has a dangerous weapon at running back in Quay Holmes
Has their dominance been a product of facing the same offense every day or a sign of things to come in 2021?
3. Seals Back in the Saddle
On Tuesday, Lea publicly named sophomore quarterback Ken Seals the starting quarterback going into the opening game. That announcement wasn’t all too surprising given the Texan’s success in 2020 even though he and fellow sophomore Mike Wright battled for the spot up until the final days of fall camp.
Seals threw for nearly 2,000 yards in nine games in 2020 and completed 64.6 percent of his passes. In a three-point loss at Kentucky in November he went 21 of 32 for 225 yards and two touchdowns. Wright may also play Saturday, Lea said, giving the Vanderbilt offense a possible dynamic moving forward.
The play of both Seals and Wright will be a vital aspect of how much success the Commodores can muster in 2021. A glimpse of that success could come Saturday.
4. Start Fast
It’s been a long time since the Commodores had the opportunity to play in front of a large home crowd at Vanderbilt Stadium. It’s also been a long time since the Commodores have come out with a win.
The possibility of both of those occurrences changing Saturday is very real. So it would behoove the Dores to get off to a fast start in front of their supporters which, in part, could help demoralize the visitors from Johnson City.
An early lead would also do wonders to prove to a team that all they have been working toward for eight months is immediately paying dividends.
5. Especially Special Teams
Vanderbilt refers to itself as “Team 1.” That’s a prime indication that Vandy is building up from the ground floor in 2021.
That also means that the Commodores need to find wins in the margins and among the small – but important – battles in special teams. Field goals, extra points, punts and kick coverages need to border along flawless for this group to excel not only Saturday but for the next three months.
First-year kicker Joseph Bulovas has had plenty of success at Alabama before transferring to Vanderbilt. His ability to put points on the board for the Dores will be key as well.
(6.) Welcome Back to Vanderbilt Stadium
Vanderbilt Athletics has made an array of improvements to the game day experience at Vanderbilt Stadium for the 2021 season.
Some of the facets of a new game day in Nashville include a revamped Vandyville, pregame concerts, a new path for Star Walk and an array of different concession stand choices – including Slim & Husky’s, Daddy’s Dogs and more. North end zone premium seating has also been created along with an enhanced video board.
The athletics staff, coaches and student-athletes are thrilled to welcome everyone back to campus. It takes more than 1,000 employees and volunteers to execute game day. As is the case with many businesses in the region, finding additional employees has proven to be a challenge. Vanderbilt Athletics asks for patience as we work to create an incredible atmosphere this season.
For more information on game day at Vanderbilt Stadium in 2021 click HERE.