Estes: Clark Lea has a vision to revive Vanderbilt football. I witnessed it at 6:02 a.m. Thursday

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

Sunrise has technically beaten the football team, but it’s a close call.

Vanderbilt Stadium’s lights are on at 6:02 a.m. Thursday morning, as players cluster in a tunnel under the stadium and get amped up for a summer workout, same as if a game was about to begin.

In some ways, it is.

Clark Lea’s attack plan for making Vanderbilt football relevant again to its own city — much less the rest of the SEC — has multiple fronts, from recruiting to relations in the community to the attitude and words employed in his own facility.

What’s happening at the stadium is the main front, though.

Lea has written checks for this that have yet to be cashed. He stood at the same SEC Media Days podium as 13 other SEC head coaches last week and boldly repeated something he has been saying since Vanderbilt hired him: “We can impose our will on our opponent late in the game.”

“The vision,” Lea said, “is that there’s a fourth-quarter game where we’re on our sideline looking across the field at an opponent that is wilting under the pressure we’re applying because we are the best mentally and physically conditioned team in the country.”

Vanderbilt football coach Clark Lea.

That sounds good and all. There’s no shortage of really good, really well-conditioned football players in the conference that so often likes to remind everyone how much more it means.

Lea isn’t naïve to that, I think. He played at Vanderbilt, and his final game as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator was a national semifinal loss to Alabama.

It’s just that Lea’s approach to winning with a team that didn't win a game last season is  to do everything he can to make the Commodores want it more than the opponent. Not just on Saturdays. But right now, in these hot summer mornings at Vanderbilt Stadium, where for now, shouts from coaches and encouragement from teammates are drowned out by ongoing construction work in the north end zone — making a fitting soundtrack for what’s happening: A program-wide overhaul coming to life between hash marks.

What is “the best mentally and physically conditioned team in the country” doing soon after dawn to get that way?

The answer, at first, is different drills, all of which are forcing Vanderbilt’s players to bend down low and push something on the ground. It doesn’t look difficult as much as it just looks uncomfortable, more a test of resolve and how well your cleats work.

While I probably wouldn’t savor pushing weights for 20 yards and back, that exercise actually doesn’t scare me as much as the one on the other end of the field, where players are pushing a two-by-four board flat on the ground for 20 yards.

I know that doesn’t sound like much, but a board of lumber doesn’t glide easily on artificial turf. There is friction. Players keep slipping and falling down. It seems miserable.

The little things are important, like arranging the sled of weights a certain way to prepare for the next man after your turn.

“Turn it, dude,” junior defensive lineman Daevion Davis reminds a teammate after his turn.

Vanderbilt defensive lineman Daevion Davis speaks to the media in the Hyatt Regency at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., Wednesday, July 21, 2021. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

On each football team, there is a Davis. He’s the Commodores’ lead dog, no question. You see why Vanderbilt picked him to attend SEC Media Days last week, and as these drills get tougher — they are designed to get tougher as they go — Davis is getting louder, more charged up: “It’s the fourth quarter. We’ve got to dominate.”

As the drills continue, the pace slows. As players get stuck, teammates grow louder. And Lea — who had been at midfield casually watching with his arms crossed — now is walking closer and clearly paying attention as events unfold.

There’s the fun part: A tug of war by position group at midfield.

And the not-so-fun part: Sprints across the width of the field that seem to last forever. There’s no movie-reel moment, like a player running to vomit in a trash can or anything. But the enthusiasm on the field clearly wanes as the sprints continue. The Commodores weren’t worn out before. Now they are.

But not so worn out that they call it a day.

The part that encourages Vanderbilt’s coaches the most is when players delay breakfast and go across the street to the practice field and begin voluntary workouts — without coaches on hand.

It’s just one morning in late July. Doesn’t mean much.

Not yet, at least.

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.