The Commodore defense already had big shoes to fill in 2012 thanks to the graduation of stalwarts like Tim Fugger, Chris Marve, Casey Hayward, and Sean Richardson. This weekend, things got a bit tougher when senior outside linebacker Tristan Strong declared that his playing days were over.
Strong emerged as a starter at OLB last season when the team needed players to step up alongside Marve. He recorded 16 total tackles in four starts at the beginning of the season, but his year was cut short when he suffered a torn ACL against South Carolina. It was his second ACL tear in just three years.
However, Strong's official reason for ending his comeback is listed as "personal reasons." Hopefully his time away from the field will help him get whatever he needs back in order. Coach James Franklin has made clear that he'll always be a Commodore, and that is a sentiment that will be echoed by Vandy fans across the spectrum.
Unfortunately, his departure will force Franklin and his staff to take a long look at the linebacking corps as the season draws closer. The 'Dores were already in a tough spot when it came to filling Marve's position in the middle of the field. Chase Garnham, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2011, is primed to take over that role on the inside. Archibald Barnes, who played well in his first season of regular action last year, will fill one of the outside linebacker slots next to him.
That leaves one more starting spot to fill in a 4-3 setup, and no obvious choice to fill it.
Vanderbilt has been strong when it comes to recruiting linebacking talent since James Franklin arrived in Nashville, but his young prospects may still be too green to handle a starting role - especially when that first start will come against SEC East favorites South Carolina. This lack of depth will effectively prevent the team from running a 3-4 format on defense and instead open up plenty of nickel and dime packages that will replace interior defenders with defensive backs. While that move will help shore up Vandy's pass defense - something that has been a team strength for several years - it will also create opportunities for opponents on the ground.
There are several candidates to fill Strong's former spot. Freshman Darreon Herring has earned high marks since enrolling at Vandy this spring. His extra semester of practice experience could give the former four-star recruit the edge over the rest of his classmates. That includes touted athletes like Jake Sealand, Harding Harper, Ja'Karri Thomas, and Stephen Weatherly.
Safety Karl Butler, who was last seen looking absolutely yoked in the team's promotional materials, could wind up playing some linebacker as a hybrid this season. Jahmel McIntosh, who redshirted last season as a freshman, could fill a similar role between the two positions. Former walk-ons Kellen Williams, Patrick Sutton, and Hunter Bowman will also have an opportunity to work their way into the defensive rotation.
While Strong's decision puts the Commodores in a tough spot, it is a familiar one for the team. Vanderbilt came into 2011 with the task of replacing John Stokes and drafting a new linebacker into the starting lineup after moving away from nickel packages on defense. That year, players like Strong, Garnham, and Barnes stepped up to keep the 'Dore defense running smoothly.
Franklin and his crew will have to work their magic again to overcome the losses of Strong and Marve. Fortunately, an influx of young talent and some flexible veteran players should be able to keep this unit firing on all cylinders. Tristan Strong's sad news is a blow to this team, but also an opportunity for some young players to make their mark in the SEC from day one. Let's see who steps up.