Forde-Yard Dash: Change Abound As College Football Lurches Into December

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where the Syracuse quarterback is at least has Tom Brady for company in losing track of what down it is on a last-ditch drive:

MORE DASH: To Fire or No? | B1G Quandaries | Non-Heisman Standouts

FIRST QUARTER: CALENDAR SAYS IT’S QUITTIN’ TIME

We are lurching into what could well be the worst December in the history of the sport, and not just because games are being postponed, rescheduled and canceled in bulk. This sloppy stagger toward an extended finish line is colliding with an increasing number of people who will not stick around that long to participate.

Just because the powers that be stretched the regular season through Dec. 12 (and now, in some instances, through Dec. 19) doesn’t mean players or schools will abide by it when planning for the future. There will be opt-outs, especially in a pandemic. And there will be coaching changes, despite the pandemic. Because it’s that time of year.

We saw that Sunday, when at least three high-level players checked out of worsening situations and one school fired its coach. The opt-outs (1): LSU receiver Terrace Marshall Jr., Texas offensive tackle Samuel Cosmi and Florida State defensive back Asante Samuel Jr.

This normally would be the end of the regular season for teams not playing for a conference championship. The NFL Scouting Combine is still out there in early 2021, even though dates have not been firmed up, and there would be less time than ever to heal up from the season and prepare for that. Nobody should blame any player for deciding now is the time to move on, especially for seasons that are in the tank or heading that way.

Marshall’s decision comes after the Tigers dropped to 3-4 with a loss to Texas A&M. Marshall’s parting performance for LSU was a splashy one for NFL scouts: 10 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown. But with the quarterback situation increasingly in flux—junior Myles Brennan is injured, freshman T.J. Finley was benched and berated by Ed Orgeron Saturday night, fellow freshman Max Johnson mopped up—Marshall might figure it is only downhill from here. Especially with Alabama and Florida looming.

Another potential first-round pick, Cosmi opted out after the 4-3 Longhorns’ loss to Iowa State all but eliminated them from the Big 12 championship game chase. Cosmi, considered one of the top tackle prospects in the draft, doesn’t need to put anything on tape against Kansas State, Kansas or in a bowl game to boost his stock.

And Samuel is getting out of the burning building that is Florida State, where the Seminoles are 2-6 and have had successive games canceled on game day due to someone’s COVID-19 issues. Samuel may not be a first-round pick but should be a second-day selection. Slogging through the misery that is the rest of this transition season to Mike Norvell in Tallahassee? Hard pass for Samuel.

Then there are the decisions being made at the coach level. Vanderbilt made one Sunday by firing Derek Mason (2), a day after his program produced its only positive news of the season with the pioneering appearance of kicker Sarah Fuller. While the timing seems odd—if not downright cold—the calendar is in play here as well.

Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason watches his players before the game against Mississippi at Vanderbilt Stadium Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn. Nas Vandy Olemiss 00

The early signing period starts Dec. 16th, which is before a lot of teams have finished playing. Waiting to make a coaching change until Dec. 20th, or even the 13th, would lead to a lot of lying to recruits about what coaching staff they would be signing with. Removing Mason now—he should have been fired last year, but that was on the watch of disastrous Vandy athletic director Malcolm Turner—gives the school more runway to have a new coach in place by mid-December. Or at least have a search well underway.

Who should the Commodores hire? That’s the hard part. It’s obviously a difficult job. For whatever reason, Vandy has not been able to develop a Stanford/Northwestern/Notre Dame niche as a program that can attract elite athletes who are also elite students. Part of that may be playing in the brutal Southeastern Conference; part of it may be a reluctance to do recruiting business the way it often has been done in the league. But being able to sell the value of a Vandy degree and a great city like Nashville should have some appeal to a recruiting demographic that could breed success.

Some names:

Clark Lea (3). The Notre Dame defensive coordinator is a star in the making who also happens to be a Vandy grad. He’d know what he’s getting into. The only problem: he checks every box Mason did when he was hired, a rising defensive coordinator who worked at an academic/athletic model school (Stanford, in Mason’s case). Very rarely do schools hire a coach who fits the mold of the guy they just fired.

Tony Elliott (4). The Clemson offensive coordinator is another star in the making who can sell some offensive sizzle and championship pedigree, not to mention Southern recruiting knowledge. Would he leave the Clemson cocoon for a job that has eaten more than a few coaches alive over the years? (Elliott can check in with Tigers offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell to see what he’d be getting into; Caldwell was Vandy’s offensive line coach from 2002-09 and interim head coach in 2010. He remains an obscure SEC icon for his one and only SEC media days appearance, in 2010, when he told stories about being in charge of insemination at a turkey farm as a teenager.)

Herb Hand (5). The Texas co-offensive coordinator was part of James Franklin’s staff at Vandy, and also worked with him at Penn State. He worked in the SEC at Auburn as well. His candidacy would be helped if Texas were in a better place as a program.

A hotshot from the Carolinas (6). The candidates there: Jamey Chadwell of Coastal Carolina and Will Healy of Charlotte. Both have head-coaching experience, which Mason lacked and the above candidates lack. Chadwell is authoring a dream season at Coastal, currently 9-0, while Healy is a familiar name in the area from his turnaround at Austin Peay and is 9-9 in his second season at Charlotte. Neither have a minute of coaching experience at a Power 5 program.

A service academy option guy (7). Jeff Monken at Army, Ken Niumatalolo at Navy or Troy Calhoun at Air Force. Vandy went the option route in the 1990s and had success with it during the Gerry DiNardo Era. (DiNardo still has the highest winning percentage for coaches who were at Vandy for 40 or more games since the early 1950s.) But this is a tough league to counterprogram given the athletes on defense—and, increasingly, the passing prowess of the SEC. Hard to win shootouts running fullback dives off tackle.

SARAH FULLER IS NOT FINISHED

A few more Dash thoughts on Vanderbilt’s barrier-breaking kicker, who has captured the attention of both casual fans and insecure, cave-dwelling men.

Sarah Fuller warms up before the game against Missouri at Faurot Field.

Fuller said in a Sunday zoom call that she plans to continue with the football team (8) this season, hoping to improve her skills in a craft she’s just started to learn. Whether the Vandy soccer goalkeeper is the starting placekicker or not remains to be seen, depending on the availability of kickers who were sidelined due to COVID issues Saturday against Missouri when she broke the Power 5 football gender barrier. “I’m sticking around until someone tells me to go,” she said. If anyone at Vandy tells her to go, shame on them.

Fuller’s impromptu halftime pep talk to her new teammates (“We need to be cheering each other on”) showed great self-confidence, but it also revealed two truths about college sports:

  • Athletes in sparsely attended Olympic sports are accustomed to being their own cheerleaders (9), instead of counting on tens of thousands of fans to do the work.
  • An athlete from a winning culture (Vandy won the SEC soccer title this fall) often can recognize signs of a losing culture, and one of those is a lack of passion. The ‘Dores football team was undoubtedly beaten down by this point of the season, and one manifestation was a quiet sideline. If anything specific to the Missouri game cost Mason his job, it was a completely listless effort against a less-than-overwhelming opponent. If Fuller walked in and held up a mirror to some of her teammates, good for her.

Lastly: if you’re one of the many people (overwhelmingly male) who was bothered by a woman kicking a football (10), ask yourself why. There were a great many rationalizations for this discomfort offered on social media, but none of them made much sense. Was her kickoff a lousy kick? No. It was a directional pooch kick, as instructed, after being coached on the intricacies of kickoffs for less than a week. Was she in harm’s way on a return? Fuller is listed at 6-foot-2 and solidly built, and collisions are part of a goal keeper’s existence. If it had come to that, she might not have made a tackle but certainly would have survived. Could she make a field goal of any distance? We don’t know. She said her range limit was probably 38 yards, and while that isn’t going to win many starting jobs in Division I football it sure isn’t terrible for an emergency kicker who didn’t put on a helmet until Monday.

If you cannot celebrate a story of a smart, confident, upbeat woman taking on a unique challenge and breaking a gender barrier in a sport that is a male playground, that’s a you problem. Not a Vanderbilt problem or a Sarah Fuller problem. She has a bright future ahead, while a lot of her critics will still be stuck in a dwindling past.

MORE DASH: To Fire or No? | B1G Quandaries | Non-Heisman Standouts