Why Vanderbilt football players didn’t have jersey numbers in Clark Lea’s first practice

Adam Sparks
Nashville Tennessean

The moment an unscheduled airhorn echoed across the Vanderbilt football practice field, Clark Lea knew it.

For about an hour, the first-time head coach had paced the turf at his alma mater and picked up on every detail for scrutiny.

He listened for the inflection in players’ voices as they responded to a coach. He counted the reps crammed into each drill. And he scribbled notes on a card for review after the Wednesday morning workout.

Then that airhorn blared — which wasn’t on his script for his first practice of spring — and Lea cringed.

“That’s a thing we need to work through,” Lea said. “… Success for us is measured in the smallest of ways.”

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Players must earn everything, including numbers

One detail Lea left out, intentionally, was the numbers on players’ jerseys.

Offensive players wore white. Defensive players donned black. And quarterbacks were in red. Their last names were in block letters on the back, but the rest of the jerseys were blank.

“We’re going to earn everything in this program,” Lea said. “(Numbers won’t be added) until we understand that we rent those numbers (and) we don’t own them, until we’re ready to work within them to leave them better for the next person to wear them.”

Lea said there is no timetable for players to get numbers, but it will occur individually according to “their commitment level to moving this program forward.”

Ja'Veon Marlow is supported by his teammates after reaching the end zone during spring practice at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., Wednesday, March 17, 2021.

So perhaps the best way to determine Vanderbilt’s depth chart will be monitoring which players get a number first.

But don’t expect starting positions to be announced by Lea anytime soon. He started his post-practice Zoom call with media members by vowing to avoid comments on specific players or their roles until he had more time to evaluate them.

The fun of mundane details

Practicing patience makes sense.

The roster has undergone significant changes because of opt-outs, transfers and graduation. Plus, returning players are coming off a 0-9 record in 2020, which led to the firing of Derek Mason and hiring of Lea, the former Vanderbilt player and Notre Dame defensive coordinator.

Lea isn’t the first football coach to withhold jersey numbers to make a point or obsess over details at practice. But he is particularly attuned to what he wants the Commodores to act, look and sound like — especially for a first-time head coach.

“I’m listening a lot. I think listening is a great way to monitor a practice,” Lea said. “I want to hear certain things — the crack of a huddle, the response in unison to a coach. You can hear the exertion within a drill, too.”

Lea said he even monitored the “level of emotional control in our communication.”

Does that translate to executing under pressure in the fourth quarter? Perhaps, but time will tell if any of this translates into winning football.

For now, Lea is learning to be a head coach, one practice at a time. He spent the past 15 years in more focused roles — from a linebackers coach at UCLA, Bowling Green, Syracuse and Wake Forest to a defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.

At Vanderbilt, Lea must master the art of seeing the broad picture while scrutinizing specifics. He, at least, knows how to do half the job already.

“(My observations of practice) are mundane details,” Lea said. “But, to me, that stuff is fun and energizing.”

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