Yesterday, we took a look at the guys James Franklin tapped to run his first offense as Vanderbilt's head coach. Today, we'll look at the backbone that will keep this team competitive against some of the SEC's toughest opponents - the defense.
Vanderbilt's secondary will be the team's anchor in 2011, but an underrated defensive line could play a major role in a Commodore turnaround this season. A deep and talented corps of linemen will provide the muscle in the trenches for the 'Dores, as experienced leaders like Tim Fugger, Rob Lohr, and T.J. Greenstone will be joined by emerging players Kyle Woestmann, Walker May, and Jared Morse. This depth could be essential for the upcoming season if the trend of short offensive series carries over to the new year.
Snappy dresser and destroyer of souls Chris Marve will have two new starting linebackers flanking him. Chase Garnham and Tristan Strong will man the outside 'backer spots next to the captain. Interestingly, there are no true freshmen and only one redshirt freshman (Woestmann) on the depth chart. As we discussed yesterday, this could be a product of looming redshirt decisions for first-year players, or a statement towards Franklin's preference of veteran athletes. Still, it would be surprising to see guys like Barron Dixon or Larry Franklin stuck on the deep end of the bench if they're available for SEC action.
Let's break down who won the right to start at Dudley Field Saturday, position by position:
Defensive End - Johnell Thomas beats out Woestmann and May. Thomas's emergence is a bit of a surprise, as Woestmann had earned rave reviews since the spring and May developed into a capable presence as a starter in 2010. Thomas may end up ceding the position to either younger player, but his ability to pressure quarterbacks thanks to great speed and the ability to get around the edge of opposing lines earned him the starting slot against Elon.
Senior Tim Fugger, in his third year as a starter on the left side, will provide a stable presence alongside the Thomas/Woestmann/May trio.
Defensive Line - Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter called upon to clog up lanes. Lohr and Nichter will get the nod against Elon, but they'll likely see lots of substitution situations with T.J. Greenstone and Jared Morse behind them. All but Morse earned starts in 2010, and Nichter's strong camp pushed him in front of the veteran Greenstone for the honor in 2011. Barron Dixon, at 6'4", 288 lbs, could end up making his presence felt here thanks to his size and ability as the season wears on, but the team's depth suggests that the talented freshman could be looking at a redshirt year.
Linebacker - Tristan Strong beats out Archibald Barnes for the weakside spot. Marve was a lock at starter, and Chase Garnham had been earning enough positive press thanks to his athleticism to give him a solid chance to win the second linebacker spot in camp. That put the competition for the final starting position on Strong and Barnes, two redshirt juniors who are relatively inexperienced when it comes to SEC play. Strong's emergence in camp and ability to stay healthy after a 2009 knee injury gave him the nod for the first week of play, but weakside linebacker could end up posting a rotation of players in 2011.
Cornerback - Trey Wilson emerges to start alongside Casey Hayward. Wilson beat out several talented players at what has been Vanderbilt's position of strength in recent years. Andre Hal and Steven Foster both showed that they can be NCAA caliber starters, but Wilson's play was singled out repeatedly in practice reports, earning him the starting spot alongside All-SEC player Hayward. However, the team's depth at defensive back and relative weakness at LB suggests that nickel and dime defensive sets will get guys like Hal, Foster, and safety Eric Samuels plenty of playing time as the season wears on.
Safety - Kenny Ladler beats out Javon Marshall at free safety. Ladler had emerged as a starter as a true freshman in 2010, but reports out of camp suggested that his role was diminishing in practice. Instead, it appeared as though redshirt sophomore Marshall would be taking his place. Franklin's depth chart affirms Ladler's status as rising star in the Commodore locker room, but keep an eye on Marshall, who impressed reporters at the Tennessean with his play throughout camp.