Vanderbilt’s offseason priorities are becoming clearer

Vanderbilt fans

You probably already knew this if you are a Vanderbilt fan, but the offseason goals for head coach Clark Lea and his staff could not be any clearer.

After Saturday’s 34-17 loss to Kentucky, in which Vanderbilt trailed 31-3 at halftime and was floored by a 24-0 second quarter from the Wildcats, there really isn’t any mystery about where the Commodores need to start in the process of rebuilding what is a very weak program. Vanderbilt let its big chance for an SEC win slip away against South Carolina. Chances for an SEC win in the remainder of the season are remote, given the caliber of opposition VU will face on the road. Trips to Oxford and Knoxville, against improved (though not spectacular) opponents, point to a few more losses and a winless SEC campaign.

Everything for Vanderbilt must start with an offensive transformation, and more precisely, not a resurrection of the current offensive roster but a remaking of it.

The transfer portal is college football’s equivalent to what free agency is in professional sports. The portal offers programs a chance to reconstruct their rosters and find new pieces outside the realm of pursuing high school prospects. The portal is a place where players who are buried on the depth chart at prominent programs, or who landed at smaller programs, want something different. The lower end of the Power Five is an intriguing option for a lot of college athletes (in various sports, not just football or basketball) who spent one or two years at a given school and are realizing that the fit just isn’t what they imagined. Coaches and programs have to hit the transfer portal these days. It will continue to be a factor in college sports success. More than that, it’s going to be an increasingly bigger part of a prosperous career for a coach.

Failure to work the portal is a failure to grow or sustain a program.

It’s very much worth noting, in this conversation about Vanderbilt football, that programs which exist in an entirely different universe compared to VU are also in dire need of transfer reinforcements. Look at Clemson, easily the most disappointing team in college football this season. Dabo Swinney has not spent a whole lot of time or effort in working the portal. True, he had every right to expect that high school recruit D.J. Uiagalelei would be good this year. We all thought he would be good this year. He played well in a road game at Notre Dame last season and came into 2021 having legitimate experience in high-pressure situations. That seemed to suggest he was going to handle the stress and expectations which come with being Clemson’s quarterback. Yet, he clearly was not up to the task.

If Dabo Swinney had worked the transfer portal and found a solid No. 2 option at quarterback, he could have had a legitimately good replacement for Uiagalelei waiting in the wings, but he did not. Clemson’s wide receivers have struggled as well. One could make the case that Clemson should not have expected its roster to surprisingly falter, but for a program with Clemson’s expectations and stature, having high-quality backups ready to plug into the starting lineup is a must. Alabama regularly meets that challenge. Ohio State meets it. Oklahoma meets it.

This year was a big splash of cold water in Dabo’s face. He surely has realized that using the transfer portal to stock his roster with hungry players ready to play – and play well – is a huge ingredient in maintaining his program and preventing slippage.

As we return to Vanderbilt, obviously Clark Lea is not in Dabo’s position. He is not trying to maintain a high standard. He is trying to establish one. Yet, even though he operates in a different universe, Lea is united with Dabo in seeing the urgent and acute value of needing to find players ready to play.

High school recruiting has its place and is not to be ignored or soft-pedaled, but the transfer portal provides players who don’t need as much time to develop or learn within a system. This is the plug-and-play dimension of the portal, providing a quicker, more immediate boost to a program in need of one.

Vanderbilt’s defense is far from a finished product, but the offense is where VU really needs reinforcements from the portal. If you were to play a Price Is Right pricing game – which number is the more disappointing number – from the Kentucky game, it’s not allowing 34 points. It’s scoring only 17.

Kentucky gave up 45 points to Tennessee the previous week, on a night when the Vols had the ball for just 13 minutes and 52 seconds. 45 points in under 14 minutes! Kentucky’s defense completely collapsed.

Vanderbilt not being able to score 24-28 points against that defense – scoring only three in the first half – is a real failure, and an indicator of how little talent VU possesses.

Keep in mind that disgraced and fired Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham shut out VU. Yes, the Dores were robbed of a touchdown on replay in that game. Fine. Scoring seven points against this Florida defense is still an embarrassing outcome.

Vanderbilt has to hit the portal and find lots of offensive weapons for 2022. If Lea and his staff can’t work the portal and find meaningful solutions to pervasive problems, it’s hard to see how these Commodores will be able to swim. Clark Lea needs the portal to prevent this Commodore ship from sinking.

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