A Deep Dive Into Vanderbilt

Photo by Vanderbilt University Athletics (@VandyFootball on X)

By Tucker Harlin

KNOXVILLE, Tenn- No. 21 Tennessee (7-4, 3-4) concludes its regular season with a home game against instate rival Vanderbilt (2-9, 0-7) Saturday in Neyland Stadium.

The series tips heavily in favor of the Vols, who hold a 79-33-5 advantage over the Commodores. 

After a decade in which Commodore fans boasted winning five of the last eight, the Vols have turned around and won the last four. Josh Heupel’s two wins over the Commodores have been by dominant scores of 45-21 and 56-0.

The Commodores have not won since their victory over Alabama A&M the first week of the season. The closest loss the Commodores have suffered between now and then was a 40-37 loss to UNLV on a game-winning field goal. In SEC play, the 31-15 loss to Auburn is the Commodores’ closest margin of defeat.

The Commodores have had an extra week to prepare for the Vols. They are one of a handful of teams that played in Week 0, so the Commodores are the beneficiaries of a second bye.

The quarterback position has been a revolving door in West End the past four seasons.

Current starter Ken Seals was the starter in 2020. Mike Wright beat out Seals in 2021, and Wright and AJ Swann split the 2022 season. Wright transferred to Mississippi State after the 2022 season, giving Swann the job in 2023. Swann started the first five games this season but was benched for Seals, who has started all but one of the last six games.

The Commodores will target receivers Will Sheppard and Jayden McGowan most in the passing game. Sheppard is tall and rangy while McGowan is more of a speedster, and Sheppard has 45 catches to McGowan’s 36. London Humphreys has also emerged a key target for the Commodores, netting 19 catches for 413 yards and four touchdowns.

On the ground, the Commodores have racked up 1,065 yards, the second-fewest in the SEC only above South Carolina. The top two rushers for the Commodores are Sedrick Alexander and Patrick Smith, Alexander leading the way with 325 yards. The Commodores have experimented with designed quarterback runs for backup Walter Taylor, so that may be something to keep an eye on.

The Commodores have three veteran starters on the offensive line in Julian Hernandez, Bradley Ashmore, and Gunner Hansen at center, guard, and tackle. Gage Pitchford and Grayson Morgan are the two newer pieces on the Commodores front, and they will man the other guard and tackle spots.

Defensively, the Commodores have a pair of disruptors off the edge in Aeneas DiCosmo and Nate Clifton. Clifton leads the team in sacks with 5.5 on the season, and DiCosmo is the line’s top tackler with 32.

At linebacker, the Commodores showcase Langston Patterson, Kane Patterson, and Ethan Barr. The Patterson brothers have combined for 101 tackles (12 for loss), and Barr has accounted for an additional 48 at the Mike spot.

The secondary is a deep unit for the Commodores. CJ Taylor mans the Anchor position, where he has tallied 52 tackles in just eight games. 

Martel Hight and Tyson Russell are the corners. Hight was thrust into the starting role after BJ Anderson’s season was cut short just three games in, and Russell splits a lot of snaps with freshman Trudell Berry.

Jaylen Mahoney and De’Rickey Wright are the safeties. Mahoney is the secondary’s lead tackler with 55 on the year, and he splits time with freshman Savion Riley at the strong safety spot. Wright has logged 44 tackles at the free safety spot.

Kicking for the Commodores is Jacob Borcila. Borcila has made six of his nine attempts this year, the longest made from 44 yards away.

Punting the ball will be Matthew Hayball. Hayball is in his second year in Nashville after transferring from Florida Atlantic, and he averages just over 48 yards per punt.

McGowan and Sheppard are the top two returners for the Commodores. Sheppard is yet to return a punt for a touchdown, but McGowan did return a kickoff for a score against Hawaii at the start of the season.