NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt assistant coach Nick Howell did not come to Nashville expecting to be the program’s defensive coordinator. Head coach Clark Lea envisioned Howell as the defensive coordinator – just not perhaps in 2022.
Yet by the time the Commodores began spring practice last week, there was Howell serving as the Commodores’ defensive coordinator after his predecessor Jesse Minter left Vandy in February to join the staff at the University of Michigan.
“It’s just really exciting to be here. Just a really big opportunity,” Howell said this week. “I think the kids are exceptional kids, really good kids who want to be good. I think coach Lea has a really good vision for the program. I think there is a staff here that is aligned with him. I think there is a lot of work ahead so it’s exciting.”
Beginning his 20th season as a football coach, Howell spent five years coaching high school football in his native Utah before joining the staff at Brigham Young in 2007. Six years later he was elevated to defensive coordinator of the Cougars.
From 2017-21, Howell led Virginia’s defense before becoming a Commodore earlier this year – originally as the team’s defensive backs coach.
— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) October 19, 2019
“I think culturally he strengthens us,” Lea said. “I brought him here for the purpose of him being next – I didn’t know how quick that would happen, but I was excited to give him that opportunity and to have him ready for it.”
Howell has coached in 12 bowl games and helped Virginia get to the Atlantic Coach Conference championship game in 2019. He coaches with passion, intensity and a particular precision when it comes to preparation.
The 42-year-old Howell has made an immediate impression with the Commodores, whether that’s in meeting rooms or riding a blocking sled.
“Coach Howell, he has set the standard for us,” said Vanderbilt linebacker Kane Patterson, a transfer from Clemson. “Our No. 1 thing this spring is just total effort. You’re not going to see everyone just jogging around in everything we’re doing. This spring is going to be about a sprint and total effort.”
Lea expressed that bringing in Howell was a calculated move in the sense that he wanted to keep the defensive language the same from Season 1 to Season 2. He, Howell and the defensive staff have made subtle adjustments to the scheme in hopes of making the Commodores function more efficiently as a whole.
Vandy excelled in 2021 at getting stops inside the red zone and by making 13 interceptions – the fourth-most among SEC teams. Anfernee Orji, Ethan Barr, Daevion Davis, Malik Langham, Nate Clifton, Michael Owusu, Elijah McAllister, Maxwell Worship, Justin Harris and Jaylen Mahoney are a few of the returners from that 2021 squad who helped set the foundation for Vandy’s defense moving forward.
Howell said he has liked what he has seen out of the current roster in spring practice and is excited about the incoming freshmen who will arrive this summer. Now he’s charged with organizing those student-athletes into a successful unit come late August.
“We’re analyzing what we’re doing. We’re trying to put the best packages together to try to keep a lot of same-as for these guys,” Howell said. “We’re not making wholesale changes – are we adjusting some things? Yes. A lot of that is based upon who we have as players, but also who we have here now as coaches and what we’re familiar with. Then just giving our kids the very best chance to compete.”
The Commodores will take part in their first full scrimmage of the spring when they take the field inside Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday.
Beginning around 11 a.m., Vandy’s offense will compete against Vandy’s defense for about two hours. The program’s fifth training session of the spring will help put a bow in the first two weeks of practice.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.