Ken Seals was too good for Vanderbilt football's winless season. It says a lot that he's still here | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

Ken Seals is a sophomore who doesn't sound the least bit sophomoric.

On a sweltering evening, after a long practice, he’s talking about humility, about losing, about lessons from last season, during which he proved that he could play quarterback at Vanderbilt without actually winning a game.

Seals' 2020 season was surprisingly good. Too good for the Commodores, who were collectively terrible.

That’s why there is a new coach in Clark Lea and a new culture and such minuscule expectations for the current team sweating through practices.

Honestly, I hadn't expected Seals would be a part of them. In this transfer-portal era of college sports, I’d have bet on Seals moving to a program elsewhere. Somewhere bigger and better. Somewhere he could start and win, perhaps closer to his home in Texas. He could have. He had options, I’m sure.

But Seals didn’t leave.

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Says a lot about the young man, for sure, but it's only as he talks — sounding more like a middle-aged philosopher than a college-aged quarterback — that it starts to make sense to me. I begin to understand why he does belong at Vanderbilt.

“The thing about humility is realizing that you can lose, that you’re not always going to win,” he says. “Losing is a possibility, and you don’t want to have false bravado of confidence that we’re going to go out here and win a national championship. It’s having a humility and having a bigger picture image of seeing what the results can be.

“We’re learning from what happened last season. I think that’s the biggest thing that we can do, but absolutely not being hung up on it.”

See what I mean?

As far as what happened last season, if we’re factoring in difficulty in the grade, Seals should easily be viewed in the top half of SEC quarterbacks entering this season. 

“I’ve probably played in the hardest conditions you probably can in college football,” says Seals, cautioning that it’s only his opinion. But he’s not wrong.

You had this true freshman stepping in and starting nine games … during a pandemic … against an SEC-only schedule … while “having most – not most, but a large part – of your team opt out,” he adds.

By season’s end, the Commodores simply didn’t have a chance to be competitive. 

Attrition decimated Vanderbilt’s offensive line as much as any area of the team, too, which tends to hinder a freshman quarterback's development.

Vanderbilt quarterback Ken Seals (8) stands on the sidelines during the third quarter against South Carolina at Vanderbilt Stadium Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.

Facing all this, Seals’ freshman heroics were astounding. He was consistently the best player on the team. He completed 64.6% of his throws. He somehow managed 214.2 passing yards a game and had 12 touchdowns to 10 interceptions.

He threw for 319 yards against top-10 Florida. He had 336 yards against Mississippi State, which set a Vanderbilt freshman record.

“I had some games I was very pleased with how I played,” he says, “(but) then I never left a game happy, because obviously, we weren’t winning.”

After Derek Mason was fired and Lea was hired, Seals looked into the new coach and the new staff and the new system and liked what he heard.

As for any thoughts of a transfer, Seals shrugs them off. “As hard as last season was, I feel like the relationships that we’ve built here were really deep. I really enjoy playing here with all these guys.”

It was huge for Lea to retain not just one promising quarterback in Seals, but two.

Last year’s backup Mike Wright, also a sophomore, said all along that he planned to stay at Vanderbilt. And he did, saying that, “It always felt like home. I never second-guessed that at all.”

Wright and Seals are competing for the quarterback job this preseason. Seals should be viewed as a heavy favorite, but both are expected to play and should have a role in games.

“I think this goes beyond me,” Lea said of the quarterbacks. “This is about a commitment to a university and a belief in a place. It’s the same reason I came back, right? This is an amazing program that hasn’t achieved to the level that it’s capable of.

“But they believe in it. I believe in it. That’s the thing that keeps them here. It means a ton to me.”

The next step for Seals this season is obvious: To start winning some games.

He could have gone elsewhere to do that. But he preferred to stick around and try to do it at Vanderbilt.

If there’s a reason to think Lea’s first Commodores season could hold more promise than we’re all expecting it to right now, it is this quarterback acting and sounding far older than his one year in the SEC.

“I do think that I realized (last season) that I can do it,” Seals says, “and bringing that confidence is going to be the biggest thing for me this season.”

Reach Gentry Estes at and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.