Vanderbilt football has a talent deficit on defense: Can it find a way to slow down Georgia?

Aria Gerson
Nashville Tennessean

Vanderbilt football coach Clark Lea comes from a defensive background. So it's perhaps surprising that while the Commodores' offense has been much improved this year, the defense is still struggling.

That trend was most evident on Saturday against Ole Miss, in which Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-2 SEC) gave up repeated downfield bombs in the second half.

Operating at a talent deficit compared to the rest of the SEC, the Commodores have little margin for error. Lea pointed out that every mistake Vanderbilt made, the Rebels took advantage of. Finding a fix won't get any easier as the Vanderbilt takes on No. 2 Georgia (6-0, 3-0) in Athens (2:30 p.m. CT, SEC Network).

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Lea pointed to one positive play in the first half — a De'Rickey Wright interception. Wright, in cover-4, closed in on the middle of the field and the defensive line forced the quarterback out of the pocket. Wright smothered the route to get the pick. But later in the first half, a similar play resulted in a big gain when the receiver beat Vanderbilt's corner and split the middle on a post route.

"We just need those responses to be consistent," Lea said Tuesday. "... I think that comes with experience, and it's painful to learn from experience that leads to touchdowns. There's certainly design and structure that allows for us to close the middle and keep things in front. And we're looking into that. And then I think the other thing is, where do you choose to shorten that down and try to add a little pressure on the quarterback."

Defensive coordinator Nick Howell said some of the issues in getting pressure on the quarterback came from Ole Miss' run-pass-option offense. In a run-pass option, the offensive line blocks as if it's a run play, thus eliminating the possibility of a blitz. But Howell also said the communication and scheme had to improve.

Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea watches his players warm up before the game against Mississippi at FirstBank Stadium Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

"I think it's pretty simple," Howell said. "When we executed, we were able to have a chance to play our best level. When some communication broke down, assignments broke down, we weren't able to play at the level that we wanted to play. And so those are the areas that are you take learning from."

Swann excited to play childhood team

Freshman quarterback AJ Swann is from White, a city in northern Georgia about three hours from Athens. Swann grew up a fan of the Bulldogs, even envisioning himself playing in red and black.

"I always wanted to play in Sanford Stadium," Swann said. "Obviously, growing up, I wanted to play for them, but now I want to be no place else other than Vanderbilt. I get to go there and showcase my talents on that field with these guys and nobody else."

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Swann, who has several friends who live in the area or attend Georgia, is anticipating a large crowd of admirers. Against the Bulldogs, he hopes to avoid the trap he fell into against Ole Miss, which he says was getting complacent after a strong first half and overconfident in the team's abilities.

"Going into the second half, we were super confident going in, like, 'Hey, we got this, we're going to win this game,' but we can't do that," Swann said. "We've just got to keep playing our game and trust ourselves so that we can play the way we can."

Aria Gerson covers Vanderbilt athletics for The Tennessean. Contact her at or on Twitter @aria_gerson.