After a tough Vanderbilt loss, a tougher QB decision could await Clark Lea | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

A difficult job just got even more so for Clark Lea.

And not necessarily because of Vanderbilt’s 45-25 gloomy home loss to Wake Forest on Saturday. As much of a letdown as this was after a 2-0 start to the season, the Demon Deacons showed why they won 11 games last season and are ranked No. 21. 

Losing handily to a good opponent – which was favored by about two touchdowns, anyway – was a reminder of how far Vanderbilt’s rebuild still has to go under Lea. It wasn’t anything new, though.

No, it was more how Saturday played out. How Vanderbilt couldn’t stay out of its own way offensively. How it didn’t give itself a chance against a good opponent. How – more specifically – starting quarterback Mike Wright didn’t play well enough.

And how much better Vanderbilt’s offense performed once freshman AJ Swann relieved Wright with the day already lost.

That’s the problem for Lea.

It became apparent Saturday that Vanderbilt might be better off benching Wright.

But I don’t think Lea can bench Wright at this point.

Why, you ask? 

"Mike is the heartbeat of our program.”

Senior tight end Gavin Schoenwald said that after Saturday’s game. It was one of the more experienced members of Vanderbilt’s team acknowledging who his locker room looks up to the most. That demands attention.

Sep 10, 2022; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores quarterback Mike Wright (5) attempts a pass during the first half against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at FirstBank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn't just lip service. Wright genuinely is the Commodores’ unquestioned leader. It's obvious. Spend five minutes around this team, and you'll see it.

It was true last season when Wright was a sophomore. It’ll probably be the case next season, too, when Wright is a senior.

Leadership was behind Lea naming Wright the starting quarterback ahead of Ken Seals before preseason practice. Lea voluntarily announced that news at SEC Media Days – for everyone to hear. It was a move for stability, to preempt continued uncertainty at quarterback – the type that plagued last season – by letting everyone know well ahead of time that Wright was his guy.

After three games and only one defeat, how could Lea rescind it?

Especially when, as Schoenwald said, “Seven days ago, we were talking about (Wright) being one of the best players in college football.”

True enough, but Vanderbilt’s two-week stroll through bad opposition looked nothing like Saturday's defeat, which featured two costly first-quarter turnovers by Wright.

The Commodores, fresh off an inspiring goal-line stand defensively, had a 3-0 lead and the momentum when Wright erred in throwing a pass that an SEC quarterback can’t throw. With a defender wrapped around his legs, Wright got nothing on a third-and-7 heave. The easy interception was Wake Forest’s first touchdown and “just a momentum-killer,” said Lea.

Then late in the first quarter, Wright didn’t protect the football on a first-down run. Wake Forest recovered the fumble at Vanderbilt’s 32, setting up a quick touchdown. The Commodores weren't playing terribly overall, but the Demon Deacons had needed only four offensive plays to score three times, making it 21-3.

Such a deficit might not have been insurmountable for the Vanderbilt offense of the past two games. But Saturday? Wright had 35 yards on 8-of-15 passing when he was benched in the third quarter.

While he was working against different defenses and personnel at a later point in the game, Swann was still impressive – as he has been since the spring, really. It raised eyebrows before the season’s first game when Swann was named Wright’s backup ahead of Seals, who has starting experience.

Quarterback AJ Swann of Vanderbilt runs the ball against Wake Forest at FirstBank Stadium Sep 10, 2022; Nashville, Tennessee, United States;  Mandatory Credit: Alan Poizner-The Tennessean

Against Wake Forest, Swann raised eyebrows again by going 8-of-11 for 146 passing yards and two touchdowns, each to cap a 75-yard drive.

As much as Lea wouldn't want a QB controversy, one may be developing anyway.

"Mike is our starting quarterback,” Lea said afterward, “and he knows he's got to earn it every day. He's a gifted player and he's a playmaker and he's done so much good for us so far this season.”

But Lea continued, “The decision to get AJ out there was about what the team needed. We'll always make that decision based off what we think positions us best to win.”

Wright means so much to Vanderbilt’s team, off the field and on it. The first two games showcased his ability, building up hopes. But when the spotlight arrived Saturday, Vanderbilt’s offense wilted with Wright.

“He's disappointed like we all are,” Lea said. “We wanted to represent this program better today. All of us. And we didn't.”

It was a tough day for Vanderbilt, and it could soon force a tougher decision.

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