Hawaii Football: First Look At The Vanderbilt Commodores
The Warriors open their 2022 campaign against a rebuilding Vanderbilt team with plenty of questions of its own to address.
What should be expected of the ‘Dores?
Hawaii Football: First Look at 2022 Non-conference Opponents
The Week 0 nightcap might not seem like it’s worth staying up for, but the Hawaii Warriors will take their first steps into the Timmy Chang era when they host the Vanderbilt Commodores.
While Vandy hasn’t had the same off-field challenges that marked Hawaii’s off-season, they’re also no stranger to struggles. The program has just three winning seasons since 1983 and face the ever-daunting SEC gauntlet every season, but a second-year coach and a new infusion of talent could help them find their way back to bowl eligibility sooner rather than later.
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Series History: This will be the first meeting between Hawaii and Vanderbilt.
2021 Record: 2-10 (0-8 SEC)
Head Coach: Clark Lea (second year, 2-10 overall). After arriving at Vanderbilt from Notre Dame, Lea’s first year at the helm went about as you’d expect. With injuries at key positions and the always-tough SEC schedule with which to contend, the Commodores were outscored on average by 20 points a game.
As always, patience will be a virtue but Lea has given long-suffering fans some reason for hope. Vanderbilt returns 68% of last year’s production and brought in a much ballyhooed recruiting class that could provide a solid foundation for the future. In 2022, though? The Commodores are still very much a work in progress.
Anfernee Orji, LB
The defense’s leader was a busy man last year, but he was also a productive one after topping the Commodores with 92 total tackles and 13 tackles for loss. The latter was the most by a Vanderbilt defender since 2016, so he’ll be expected to continue on as the tip of the spear.
Mike Wright, QB
When injuries elsewhere thrust him into action, Wright made the most of a less-than-ideal situation. While the raw numbers — a 53.1% completion rate, 1,042 passing yards and 376 rushing yards, and eight touchdowns to six interceptions — may not stand out, he held his own in five starts and seems to now have the inside track to the QB1 job after a promising spring.
Mike Wright (@mike5wright) is poised to have a breakout season for @VandyFootball. Wright offers a rare combination of arm talent and elite rushing speed to unlock explosive plays in both ways. He accelerated to 20 mph on this 56-yard TD during the Commodores’ spring game. pic.twitter.com/jYl1oWQSIJ
— Recruiting Analytics (@RAanalytics) April 17, 2022
Will Sheppard, WR
The number one option in Vanderbilt’s passing game had a pretty solid year in 2021, finishing with 43 catches for 577 yards and four touchdowns. With more consistency at quarterback and experience under his belt now, Sheppard might see his workload and production go up in turn.
— Vanderbilt Football (@VandyFootball) October 3, 2021
Jaylen Mahoney, CB
A multi-year starter in the secondary, Mahoney is the closest thing Vanderbilt has to a lockdown cornerback. He was also one of the team’s most active defenders overall, finishing 2021 with 53 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and two interceptions. Going up against the SEC’s best week after week, he won’t shy away from a challenge on the islands.
Ethan Barr, LB
Barr made three starts in 2020 and then found himself in the thick of things alongside Orji last fall. All things considered, though, he had a solid year, intercepting three passes while finishing second on the defense with 85 total tackles.
Between the unexpected quarterback shuffle and a general lack of talent compared to the rest of their conference, it should be unsurprising that Vanderbilt finished 124th nationally with just 4.52 yards per play, 124th by offensive SP+, and 116th in points per drive. With former Colorado State offensive coordinator Joey Lynch now calling the plays, can they find some room for improvement?
A lot will depend on whether Wright or Ken Seals, who opened the year as the starting quarterback, can not only win the job but hold onto it. The duo combined to average just 5.6 yards per attempt and 13 touchdowns while also sporting a 3.5% interception rate; all of those figures have to get better.
If it can, that’ll only be good news for contributors like Sheppard, tight end Ben Bresnahan, and running backs Re’Mahn Davis, Rocko Griffin, and Patrick Smith (1,088 combined rushing yards and six touchdowns). Improvements on the offensive line will help, too, but the Commodores do return three starters and also brought in a potentially important player from the transfer portal, Jacob Brammer (36 starts at North Texas), to help improve that unit’s depth.
Lea’s career to date has been all about this side of the ball — he was the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame and a linebackers coach at three other destinations before taking on this job — but they weren’t very good in 2021. After ranking 115th in defensive SP+ and 118th with 6.75 yards per play allowed and 3.07 points per drive allowed, there’s plenty of work ahead.
Case in point: Improving a pass rush that was one of the nation’s worst last year (2.5%, 129th in FBS) is just one task for which there are no obvious solutions. Defensive tackle Daevion Davis and edge rusher Elijah McAlister might be part of the answer, but that’s no given. Behind them, Orji, Barr, and end/linebacker Michael Owusu (43 tackles, five tackles for loss) should be in position to clean up a lot of messes while the secondary brings back veterans like Mahoney and safety Maxwell Worship and adds transfer Jeremy Lucien (UConn).
Neither team in this contest will be expected to compete for a conference championship or anything, but it seems reasonable to expect they’ll be able to provide some excitement to open the season. If it turns into a track meet, however, the Commodores may not be able to match the Warriors’ potential explosiveness.
Hawaii 35, Vanderbilt 34