History on the horizon? 5 questions with Vanderbilt beat writer Adam Sparks
ATHENS — Georgia wraps up the home portion of its schedule looking to impress against Vanderbilt.
The No. 8-ranked Bulldogs (6-2) could be a part of a historical moment against the Commodores (0-8) in the 4 p.m. game (TV: SEC Network).
Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller could be in position to become the first female to score points for a Power 5 team if the Commodores can get into the end zone or kick a field goal.
Fuller was on the travel roster released earlier this week after kicking off in Vanderbilt’s 41-0 road loss at Missouri last Saturday.
DawgNation talked with Nashville Tennessean Commodores’ beat writer Adam Sparks about Fuller and the upcoming game.
Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller made national headlines last week. What did former coach Derek Mason say went into the decision to add her to the team, and how has her week been?
Adam Sparks: Sarah Fuller is still practicing, and interim coach Todd Fitch said she will travel to Georgia and be available to kick. At midweek, she was the only kicker on the depth chart. However, Ryley Guay, the team’s kicker last season, has rejoined the roster. Guay is in Vanderbilt medical school, but he has one year of eligibility remaining, so he is trying to return for at least a game to provide an additional option. I suspect both will play, perhaps Guay kicking field goals and Fuller kicking extra-points.
Mason said Fuller played because she was their best option at the time. Last week, Guay couldn’t get cleared through COVID-19 testing and the NCAA clearinghouse quick enough to play against Missouri, but they’re hoping he can now. Last week, all students had already left campus for the holiday break, and they’re not allowed to return, due to COVID-19 protocol. Also, Vandy doesn’t have a men’s soccer team. So Fuller may have been their best option.
The Commodores have promoted their OC to interim head coach. How would you describe the team’s offensive personality?
Adam Sparks: Fitch is a first-year offensive coordinator at Vandy, and he’s transformed them to a pro style to a three-wide, up-tempo offense. When it’s going well, it’s more fun to watch than last year’s drab offense. Fitch has been Skip Holtz’s play-calling partner for several years, including the last few at Louisiana Tech.
Freshman QB Ken Seals is a good passer, and he’ll only get better in time. He’s already broken the program’s freshman passing record. RB Keyon Henry-Brooks is a shifty runner with good vision and a bright future.
Many teams have been dealing with COVID issues, including Vanderbilt. How are the Commodores’ numbers, and how bad did it get this season for them?
Adam Sparks: Vandy was the first team to have a game postponed to COVID-19, and its numbers dropped into the 40s during a bye week. The numbers have been better lately, but there have been discussions on the team this week of additional opt-outs. Fitch acknowledged those earlier in the week, so we’ll see what that looks like on Saturday.
Vandy had already lost at least 10 possible starters and a few backups since spring practice. Overall, eight players transferred, at least 10 opted out and others have suffered season-ending injuries. So every week carries roster questions.
Derek Mason won a lot of games, 3-3 vs. Tennessee, beat Kirby Smart — was this really a change that needed to be made, and would beating the Vols have saved him had the schedule not been flipped by the league?
Adam Sparks: That’s a good question about beating Tennessee. Maybe it would’ve saved him. He already has the most wins against UT of any Vandy coach since the 1920s. But most of the fan based had already tapped out on his tenure. He got a few good wins over the years, but the program had plateaued and then starting spiraling downward the past couple of seasons.
There was little belief around the program that it was going to turn around. Seven years is a long time to coach in the SEC, and he never quite had that breakout year. Two bowl appearances on 6-7 teams earned him a pair of contract extensions, but the clock was ticking.
There are a lot of candidates for Vanderbilt, as evidenced by the list you put together earlier this week. What sort of coach do the Commodores need to get back to the sort of Top 25 James Franklin enjoyed in Nashville?
Adam Sparks: They’d love to know who that would be. I think James Franklin was more of the exception than the rule. This next coach could get the team back to 6-6 and bowl appearances, but it’s tough to do much better than that unless the university supports the football program more with resources and facilities. Perhaps firing Mason – in a weird way – is a step toward that. After all, past Vandy administrations would’ve never fired a football coach with three years left on his contract and a buyout.
The new AD and chancellor contend that winning is a priority, so we’ll see. They must convince a coaching candidate of that, which isn’t an easy sell. Vandy needs an enthusiastic coach that can pump some new life into the program. But they also must be very organized and have a clear picture of how to run a program. So Vandy will look at guys in head coaching experience first and then go from there.
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