Clark Lea is scrapping Vanderbilt football's old identity. Can he build one back? | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

If Clark Lea accomplishes nothing else at Vanderbilt, he's already done something.

He’s created a new appreciation for jersey numbers.

Only a few minutes into Saturday’s spring game, it was clear most observers were only going to get so much out of the game. It was, in fact, comically entertaining to hear SEC Network commentators try to call the action with few hints outside of the small lettering of names on the backs of jerseys.

“Great job by you, Kirk, to find out who that was on the catch,” said play-by-play man Mike Corey to analyst Kirk Morrison after the scrimmage’s first touchdown. To his credit, Morrison had somehow identified Will Sheppard.

Players celebrate a touchdown during Vanderbilt football’s Spring Game Saturday, April 17, 2021.

It's not that we couldn’t deduce a few things from Saturday's glimpse behind Lea's pristine, black-and-gold curtain.

A few players – like Sheppard – flashed. Vanderbilt’s passing game looked great. The quarterbacks each had a day.

COACH'S NOTES:Vanderbilt spring game: Clark Lea breaks down scrimmage

Ken Seals, Mike Wright and Jeremy Moussa might be that proficient in their new system. Or Vanderbilt’s defense might be that lost in Lea’s new system. As usual in the give-and-take of evaluating spring football, it’s probably both.

"We're looking for the smallest of wins right now,” said Lea prior to Saturday. “We have a long way to go in terms of the development of the skill of our roster and in terms of executing within the systems."

Lea’s task is sure to be difficult this season based on how poor Vanderbilt’s results have been the past two seasons and player attrition that accompanied the COVID-19 season of 2020.

But let’s be honest: We have no idea how things are really going so far under Lea.

WHAT'S TO CHANGE:Clark Lea changes Vanderbilt defense, pumps brakes on setting depth chart following first spring scrimmage

Vanderbilt limited post-practice media availabilities this spring to only Lea, and while Lea says a lot, he speaks in generalities. His words are rarely specific about position groups or players. He’s said basically nothing for weeks, and that has felt very much by design.

Because individuality isn’t what is happening with the Commodores right now. It’s kind of like basic training for a platoon. Vanderbilt’s new coach didn’t shave everyone’s head, but the approach is similar. The removal of jersey numbers, for instance.

Some would be impressed by that. To me, it has always seemed a gimmick, more symbolic than substantive. Spoiler: The Commodores are going to earn their numbers. A team can’t go without them once the games start, right?

Head coach Clark Lea is photographed on the field before the start of Vanderbilt football’s Spring Game Saturday, April 17, 2021.

But Lea has believed in this to the point that he was willing to make his staff’s jobs more difficult in evaluating practice tape of players they were still learning anyway.

"You get to know all the features of your players — the gait, the stance, the body type,” Lea said earlier this spring. “… There are inconveniences. I'm not gonna lie."

And yet, "We're going to keep doing it until we feel like we start to see guys really take hold of the standards that we're preaching.”

At halftime Saturday, Lea presented new Vanderbilt women's basketball coach Shea Ralph with a football jersey. It didn't have a number.

Something tells me there is nothing Vanderbilt's players could have done these past weeks to earn those numbers. 

Players celebrate a touchdown during Vanderbilt football’s Spring Game Saturday, April 17, 2021.

GETTING A VISUAL:Vanderbilt football opens first spring practice with Clark Lea

As it does seem a larger point is being made. Lea isn’t just attempting to wipe the slate clean for current players. His messaging has been to do that for Vanderbilt football in general, eschewing all tradition. Which, if you think about it, is an intriguing tactic for a coach who is actually a former Vanderbilt player himself.

"We're at the infancy of this program,” said Lea about a football program that dates back to the 1800s. “This is Year 1, and it'll still be Year 1 when we get to August.”

Perhaps by then, we’ll know what Vanderbilt's players have to say about Lea's arrival and what is happening on West End. In the meantime, we're left with comments about Lea's broad vision for the Commodores, and that's about it.

This is an early period in which Lea is still enjoying the complete faith of his new bosses and rare SEC freedom that comes with the lack of intense scrutiny for Vanderbilt football versus other programs. The paltry information offered publicly this spring at Vanderbilt wouldn't cut it for Lea's newly hired peers at Tennessee, Auburn and South Carolina.

But at his alma mater, Lea can operate in relative secrecy while using a proverbial wrecking ball to break down a struggling program to build it back anew. 

What we witnessed Saturday was barely identifiable and unworthy of judgment. 

Give it time, though.

Time – for now – is an advantage Lea still has as he settles into this strenuous rebuild. It might be the only advantage he has.

Reach Gentry Estes at and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.