Who's left for Vanderbilt football after opt-outs and transfers for Clark Lea's first spring practice?

Adam Sparks
Nashville Tennessean

Clark Lea is Vanderbilt’s football coach, but who are his players?

Some starters opted out of last season over COVID-19 concerns. Several players transferred before, during and after the season. Others suffered season-ending injuries.

Recruits committed to the Commodores before Derek Mason’s firing and signed after Lea’s hiring. Some seniors graduated, while others will return for an additional season granted by the NCAA because of the pandemic.

Imagine trying to manage a roster with that many variables. Lea and his coaching staff will attempt it as Vanderbilt kicks off spring practice Wednesday.

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Here are five not-so-obvious questions facing the Commodores in spring practice:

Will backup quarterback Mike Wright play or just watch?

Vanderbilt quarterback Mike Wright (5) steps out of bounds as he dives for the end zone against LSU on Oct. 3, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.

Starting quarterback Ken Seals arguably is the most valuable player on the team after breaking Vanderbilt’s freshman passing record last season. But backup Mike Wright is too good to sit and watch for the next two or three years while Seals fills the position.

Wright could have entered the transfer portal and explored his options. But he was adamant about staying at Vanderbilt and competing. If Lea’s staff uses him well, Wright could be a valuable offensive option and a leader alongside Seals.

Last season, Wright rushed for one TD and passed for another score in a goal-line package. It’s a good starting point. But there have to be more ways to use Wright without taking away from Seals, who could become an SEC star.

Is secondary talented or just experienced?

Over the past decade, Jesse Minter served as defensive coordinator at Indiana State and Georgia State and as an assistant coach for the Baltimore Ravens. Pass defense was good wherever he coached.

As Vanderbilt defensive coordinator, Minter will try to keep that streak going for a unit that struggled mightily last season and picked off only two passes, the fewest in the SEC.

Minter will coach safeties, where there are plenty of options. Donovan Kaufman is back after missing most of last season with an injury. Dashaun Jerkins, Brendon Harris, Maxwell Worship and Justin Harris also have started at safety. And the return of fifth-year senior Allan George, Jaylen Mahoney and others at cornerback is good news.

Vanderbilt cornerback Allan George (28) is honored with other seniors before the game against Tennessee at Vanderbilt Stadium Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.

At least 10 returning defensive backs have started. But playing a lot in losses can be overrated. It’s debatable whether these defensive backs are talented or just experienced. Minter will start to find out in the spring.

Is there a featured running back?

Keyon Henry-Brooks entered the transfer portal, and Jamauri Wakefield graduated. That leaves the backfield with no proven SEC rushers. Ja’Veon Marlow is a quick-cutting backup with 186 rushing yards last season. Rocko Griffin rushed for 92 yards as a freshman. Both must take big steps forward to assume a starting role.

Temple transfer Re’Mahn Davis could be the answer if he gets a transfer waiver for immediately eligibility. If not, it may be a backfield-by-committee situation. Also, freshmen Dylan Betts-Pauley and Patrick Smith arrive this summer.

Did COVID-19 hide a strong offensive line?

Mason had the misfortune of losing three valuable offensive linemen who opted out of last season. Lea should benefit from their return and the experience gained by their replacements. As many as 10 offensive linemen have a legitimate chance to start, giving Vanderbilt one of the SEC’s most experienced units.

Cole Clemens, Bryce Bailey and Jonathan Stewart opted out, but they are back now. Clemens has started at multiple positions, but he’ll probably play guard. Stewart could start at right tackle. Bailey is a versatile veteran.

Left tackle Tyler Steen, left guard Dan Dawkins and right guard Drew Birchmeier are returning starters. Tackle/guard Bradley Ashmore and guards Julian Hernandez and Ben Cox started a few games last season, and Brayden Bapst was in the rotation.

Birchmeier could also switch back to defensive line, where he started in 2018 and 2019.

Junior Uzebu was a projected starter for West Virginia in 2020 but sat out the season and then transferred to Vanderbilt. If he gets a transfer waiver, Uzebu will compete for a starting job.

Can lopsided defensive line be balanced out?

Dayo Odeyingbo and Andre Mintze were the team’s best pass rushers, and they’re preparing for the NFL Draft. So the defensive line is saturated with interior linemen rather than edge rushers. Coaches will consider that in choosing the right scheme and techniques to match their personnel.

Raashaan Wilkins (6-foot-3, 307 pounds) and Daevion Davis (6-2, 285) are probably the best up front. Birchmeier (6-4, 300) may move back to defensive tackle. Rutger Reitmaier (6-3, 266) is an experienced backup.

Tennessee quarterback Harrison Bailey (15) scrambles away from Vanderbilt defensive lineman Raashaan Wilkins Jr. (95) on Dec. 12, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.

Florida transfer Malik Langham (6-5, 290) and Oklahoma transfer Derek Green (6-5, 320) tout potential and size. But they got only about 15 snaps per game last season, so a new start should help both.

It’s a lot of bulk but limited speed. Either there will be a logjam in the interior, or coaches will get creative with players’ skillsets to develop a pass rush.

Reach Adam Sparks at asparks@tennessean.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.