Scouting Vanderbilt: 0-7, but a promising young quarterback

The Commodores travel to Columbia with a poor roster but some pieces on offense.
A referee holds back linebacker Cameron Wilkins and free safety Joshua Bledsoe during Missouri's loss to Vanderbilt on Oct. 19, 2019. Photo by Madeline Carter

Vanderbilt heads into Columbia decimated by injuries, opt-outs, transfers and an 0-7 record, but Missouri won’t win if it takes the Commodores lightly.

True freshman Ken Seals stepped in as the starting signal-caller Week 1. Seals has improved every week, has a strong group of skill position players beside him and is quickly convincing those in Nashville, Tenn. that he’s Vanderbilt’s quarterback of the future.

However, Vanderbilt is still 0-7 for a reason. The Maneater spoke with Vanderbilt Hustler sports editor Simon Gibbs for an inside look at the Commodores.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity purposes.

The Maneater: When we last spoke [a few days after Vanderbilt’s 41-7 loss to South Carolina], you agreed that things are as bad as they’ve ever been at Vanderbilt. Would you still agree with that? Why or why not?

Simon Gibbs, sports editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler: No. Believe it or not, they’re 0-7 and I think they’re in a better position than they were in when we last spoke. The future of the program looks as cloudy as when we last spoke, and I say that because obviously they’re 0-7, obviously there’s a decision to be made about coaching. Just [Tuesday] morning, star linebacker Dimitri Moore, who led the team in tackles in 2019 and was an All-SEC freshman in 2018, entered the transfer portal, making him at least the eighth player since September to announce his intention to transfer, which is really concerning. I’d say four or five of these guys were either starters or contributors. But — the offense is clicking, and they’re really clicking. Ken Seals is as legit as we thought he was, if not more.

The difference between the offense now and then is that Keyon Henry-Brooks has really shined after Ja’Veon Marlow, Vanderbilt’s starting running back, was suspended due to violating team protocol. He’s now back, but Henry-Brooks was incredible in his absence. Henry-Brooks is questionable due to an injury, but if he plays, he makes an impact on Vanderbilt’s offense.

In the first couple games, Seals relied heavily on his favorite targets, [receiver Amir] Abdur-Rahman and [tight end Ben] Bresnahan. But now, he’s really diversifying the rock, finding all receivers all across the field. Cam Johnson is getting active and Chris Pierce Jr. has been incredible. He has four touchdowns in the past three weeks. So I’d say there’s a lot of hope on the offensive side of the ball, but I can’t necessarily say the same about the defense.

TM: You talked a lot about the bright spots, but obviously they’re 0-7, so what’s gone wrong?

SG: It depends on the game. For example, Mississippi State was a low-scoring affair, where you’d think that the defense played pretty well, but that game was an outlier because in that game there were five turnovers on offense between three interceptions and two fumbles. The majority of the time, though, when we see Vanderbilt get thrown around by teams like Ole Miss, LSU and South Carolina, it’s the secondary. The secondary is atrocious. I can’t imagine how difficult it is right now for their secondary, because they’ve had so many players that would have started or were starting to enter the transfer portal. Right now, they have four healthy, active starting defensive backs. Maybe five if Randall Haynie comes back from an undisclosed injury. And they’re forced to play safeties at cornerback, they’re forced to basically keep the secondary on the field for the entirety of the game. So once teams start running no-huddle, once teams start airing the ball down the field, they look winded by the game’s end. We saw that against Ole Miss, where Elijah Moore ran like a madman and put up probably the best day I’ve ever seen a receiver put up in any level of football.

TM: How was Vanderbilt able to almost beat Kentucky and hang with Florida for a half?

SG: Both games, I would say it was entirely Ken Seals. In the Florida game, my jaw was on the floor, because look, I didn’t think it was going to last. But just how long he did make it last — for eight to ten minutes of game clock, Ken Seals was actually outplaying [Florida quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate] Kyle Trask. It was incredible. It’s not to say he struggled for the rest of the game, but perhaps Florida played a role in shutting down the offense, and the play-calling got a little less creative and Florida saw most of it coming. That made Vanderbilt’s run go away early in the second half.

Against Kentucky, again, Seals had an incredible game. He played really, really well. The defense did not play so well, which is why they lost by just a field goal. I will say the Kentucky game was not as close as the score says it was. I think Vanderbilt had like seven or 10 points of total garbage time.

But the other thing about the Kentucky game that is something to keep an eye on as they head into this game versus Missouri is this. Heading into the week, I told Braden Ramsey at the [Kentucky] Kernel that [true freshman quarterback] Mike Wright was coming back from quarantine that week for the Kentucky game, and I told Braden to look out for Wright in the red zone. Coming into the season, Vanderbilt obviously chose Seals, but Wright was actually the higher-rated quarterback coming out of that class. He’s a dual-threat quarterback who doesn’t have the arm that Seals has, but Vanderbilt has a couple creative packages involving Wright in the red zone. That certainly played a factor in the Kentucky game, as he had his first rushing and passing touchdowns in that game. As they inch closer to the red zone, don’t be surprised if No. 5 is under center as opposed to Seals.

TM: You’ve talked a lot about Seals, but what specifically has made him such a promising freshman quarterback?

SG: Seals is behind a really patchwork offensive line due to opt-outs and transfers, and he’s still made the most of it because he’s got some really quick decision-making. He’s totally willing to check the ball down, which was a huge issue last season because the quarterbacks would just air it out when they were about to get decked. But to me, what makes him the most promising and what impresses me because not all young kids can do this: he learns from his mistakes. He doesn’t really make the same mistake more than once or twice.

I think of one red-zone mishap against Texas A&M where I believe he threw an interception in the red zone. He made a similar mistake a couple games later, but with little mistakes like that, he doesn’t really make them more than twice. And the same goes for the Mississippi State game. He had a few poor decisions, he didn’t take a sack and tried to run with the ball and fumbled it, and all these little mistakes he’s correcting over time is why we see him getting better and better and better. It’s really hard to find a freshman with maturity and that’s humble enough to correct these mistakes. It means that Vanderbilt, I think, has found their quarterback of the future.

TM: No one wants to go 0-10, so since this might be Vanderbilt’s best chance to win a game, will we see any kind of extra fight from this team?

SG: Look, for a team that’s losing game after game after game, they’re fighting. They’re really not doing a bad job, and they play at least three and a half quarters, and when you’re down big, that’s tough to do. Kids like Seals particularly is one who comes to mind. He just competes the whole game. So I’m sure they’re going to give it that extra effort, but at the end of the day, they’re playing not just for a win, but I’m gonna guess that they’re playing for their head coach a little bit. [Coach Derek Mason’s] seat is certainly hot. I don’t know if he’s gonna get fired or not, but going 0-10 is not gonna help his case. So I’m sure they’ll factor that in. But either way, I do think they’ll be giving that extra effort against Missouri in hopes of getting their first win.

TM: Final score prediction?

SG: I’m gonna go Missouri 35, Vanderbilt 21.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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