Lea, Commodores Make Debut Saturday

Vanderbilt hosts East Tennessee State to begin 2021 season

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After eight months of waiting, the first game week for Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea is here.

The former Vandy fullback will make his debut at 7 p.m. Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium when he leads the Commodores out of the tunnel to face East Tennessee State in the 2021 season opener. The game will be televised live on SEC Network+.

“I’ve had a lot of great coaches that I’ve learned from, head coaches that I’ve worked for. I’ve had a lot of great conversations over the course of preparing for fall camp,” Lea said Tuesday. “We’re looking to build this together, too, meaning our staff gets together and talks about what the team needed and how we fill that need. Obviously, there’s some intuition involved with that as well. Every team is different. The formula that works at a certain program doesn’t necessarily work for this 2021 Vanderbilt football team.

“I am definitely pulling from all the learning I’ve had over my career and also relying on instinct and the pulse of the team, too.”

Lea, hired in December, will be at the forefront of a new era of Vanderbilt football. How that era is defined is for the future to decided – the immediate concern is East Tennessee State, the first of 12 opponents for Lea and the Dores.

Vanderbilt hasn’t won a game since beating the same East Tennessee State program Nov. 23, 2019, a string of 10 consecutive defeats since then. But Lea wasn’t wearing black and gold for any of those results.

Nor is he concerned with that history as well.

“The players are ecstatic (about the opener),” Lea said. “They feel like they’ve been working hard over the past eight months to get to this point and to be finally here is quite the moment. The staff’s ecstatic, too. We’ve worked hard with these guys to build them to this moment, and yet this will just be Game 1.

“It’s a long season and we’ll have to be playing the marathon as well which means continuous learning and growing and continuing to improve out systems and each player take ownership over their progress as well.”

Lea won’t be alone in his debut Saturday. Vanderbilt will also be operating inside new schemes on both offense and defense under the direction of new coordinators and assistant coaches. 

Quarterbacks Ken Seals and Mike Wright will lead the offensive attack (Lea said Tuesday that Seals will start Saturday while Wright will see action as well) with new running back Re’Mahn Davis and a slew of returning wideouts in Cam Johnson, Chris Pierce, Amir Abdur-Rahman and Will Sheppard. Offensive line pay will be key for that group, not only in the opener, but for the season’s duration.

Jesse Minter’s defense had a sensational fall camp in which it dominated at times by creating chaos and suffocation. Defensive tackle and captain Daevion Davis has emerged as a unquestioned leader of the group while linebacker Anferee Orji, edge defenders De’Rickey Wright and captain Elijah McAllister and safety Dashaun Jerkins give the Dores solid football on the second and third levels, respectively.

East Tennessee State played a six-game, conference-only schedule (two games were canceled) in the spring after the 2020 campaign was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Buccaneers went 4-2 and averaged 25 points per game in those four victories.

Picked to finish fourth this season in the Southern Conference, East Tennessee State is led by first-team all-league preseason selections Quay Holmes at running back, Tre’mond Shorts up front and Nate Adkins at tight end.

Leading tackler and linebacker Jared Folks is back as well as is standout defensive back Tyree Robinson. The Buccaneers return every single starter from the spring season.

Vandy is 11-1 in its last 12 matchups against nonconference opponents from outside Power 5 leagues. It’s also 17-7 in its last 24 nonconference tilts during the regular season.

Improving those marks will be pivotal for the Commodores if they want to start the 2021 campaign the right way. But in actuality, the only record that will matter come Saturday night will be 1-0.

“A lot to be excited about and yet it’s Game 1 in a long season. We’ll have a lot ahead of us to take on,” Lea said. “But we’ll certainly be there in full spirit on Saturday.”

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.