Can Vanderbilt turn special teams into a strength? Clark Lea believes he has the coordinator to do it in Justin Lustig
If Vanderbilt is going to be more competitive on the field next season, turning around the program’s special teams unit is a must for the Commodores.
In order to start that process, Clark Lea went out and hired Justin Lustig away from Syracuse to serve as Vanderbilt’s special teams coordinator and assistant head coach.
That was a good start, as Lustig has been previously nominated for the Broyles Award, he coached 2018 Lou Groza Award winner Andre Szmyt and helped lead Syracuse’s punting unit to the best net punting in the ACC on three different occasions and top 10 finishes in 2019 and 2017.
Perhaps equally important for next season, the Commodores have also added former Alabama kicker Joseph Bulovas to the roster this offseason via transfer to address the team’s kicking woes.
“One of my first hires was Justin Lustig, that was intentional for me,” Lea said on Friday when asked about the emphasis his program will place on special teams. “I knew out of the gate that I wanted to try to secure the best special teams coordinator I could.
“To me, there are two layers to that, well, I guess three – one is the personality fit within and the vision fit. I wanted someone that was aligned with how we were going to build this program.
“That role needs personality to it, that role needs to energize your team, it needs to build a culture within a culture. And so I was very interested in the style of play as I was evaluating for that position hire. I wanted to find someone whose units played really really hard. And then the other side of it was just the schematic or the ability to generate plays or generate field position.”
Based on the achievements of Lustig’s units at Syracuse, where he served as special teams coordinator for four seasons, and at Ball State, for five seasons, he certainly fits Lea’s criteria.
While it’s early on in the process, the impact Lustig has had on the Commodores has been evident to the program’s head coach.
“I wanted to have someone that had a demonstrated track record of successful special teams. Whether that’s generating blocks, explosive returns, or just applying pressure snap in and snap out in teams. Certainly, you know someone who has awareness of the importance of field position.
“Justin Lustig has been phenomenal in his role. And I’m so excited for him to continue to build that culture within the culture. He is the assistant head coach but he’s the head coach of the special teams units and he does a tremendous job of building that identity.”
Developing Vanderbilt’s special teams unit into a strength, rather than the weakness it has been at times in recent seasons, would go a long way towards reshaping the product on the field for the Commodores but Lea is hopeful his program can develop into one that plays complementary football instead of asking one unit to carry the team.
“For Vanderbilt, the best version of Vanderbilt football is going to be a team that understands the complementary pieces to winning, right? Our offense needs to complement our defense, our defense needs to complement our offense and our special teams has to create for us,” Lea continued. “And I think that’ll be true here from Day 1 to the finish point.
“And so, having someone really that solidified that aspect of the game that can build an advantage through special teams and really just generate a care factor within that area that can move this program forward. It’s just an area of the game where we can create an advantage for ourselves, and you know we intend to do that.”
Cover image comes courtesy of Vanderbilt Football