For a few months, it looked like Jared Morse was going to fall victim to the long arm of Vanderbilt discipline.
News broke in March that Morse, the most experienced member of Vandy's defensive tackle corps, had been removed from the university after an unspecified violation of team rules. While James Franklin left the door open for his return, but didn't express too much optimism at the prospect. Upon the announcement of Morse's dismissal, the best the coach could muster up was a "we'll see" in terms of the big tackle's football career.
Fortunately for Vanderbilt - and Morse - the rising senior made the most of his second chance to earn his way back into Franklin's good graces. He was reinstated to the program after making an undisclosed penance, and he's currently fighting his way through summer classes right now.
Morse's return will have a major impact for this team. His presence will shift sophomore Caleb Azubike back to the edge and give Vandy a trusted performer in the middle of the line. The 300-pounder will serve as a major deterrent against the run game, and that's a fearsome addition for a team whose pass defense is already one of the best in the country. Adding the senior's strength and experience on the line should turn a potential weakness into a Vanderbilt strength this fall.
Morse will have the chance to show everyone just how much he learned in his time away from Vandy. Behind him, a handful of talented players, most of whom came to Nashville as key recruits for James Franklin, will look to make their mark at Dudley Field. Vandy's defensive tackles came out strong in 2012, but some of their biggest performances also came against the team's weakest opponents. Morse, Vince Taylor, Barron Dixon, and others will have to step up their games in order to prove that they can be effective against high level offensive lines. Their play could be the difference between a signature win and another season of losses to ranked teams.
Here's how Vanderbilt's 2013 defensive tackle rotation looks with a month left before the season starts. Players here are listed in order of experience at the position.
Jared Morse (6'2", 302 lbs) - Morse had his best season as a Commodore in 2012, emerging as a reliable starter and run stopper up the middle. His best games were against UMass and Presbyterian, and while that's expected, it may set the bar a bit too high for the senior's performance in 2013. Morse is a strong veteran presence up front, but he's not going to blow anyone's doors off with his play. He'll be counted on to provide leadership and take the tough snaps when Vanderbilt needs him the most.
Morse's biggest strength is his ability to fill gaps and make contact behind the line of scrimmage. He had nine tackles for loss last season, and was responsible for altering countless other plays. Most importantly, he'll give this team the backbone they need to allow Walker May and Caleb Azubike to be as destructive as possible on the edges. Morse's return should help to strengthen every position across the defensive line this fall.
Vince Taylor (6'2", 308 lbs) - Taylor was a key member of the tackle rotation last season, and he'll have an inside track when it comes to filling the other starting DT role next to Morse in this team's 4-3 defensive alignment. He's done a great job of adding mass since coming to Vanderbilt, and that extra size hasn't curtailed his solid athleticism at the position. He's able to get low and stand blockers up at the point of attack, but he hasn't shown the ability to be disruptive in the backfield just yet.
Barron Dixon (6'4", 308 lbs) - Like Taylor and Morse, Dixon had great performances against UMass and Presbyterian before fading as the season wore on and tougher opponents came to town. Dixon has been contributing to this team since he was a true freshman in 2011, and 2013 could serve as his breakout season. He adjusted to playing on the interior after coming to Vandy as an end, and his physicality and tackling ability will make him a potential starter this fall. His height and long arms will give him an extra advantage as a pass deflector, but Dixon will have to prove himself as a disruptor before he ascends to the top of the depth chart. If he can work on his upfield penetration and find tailbacks before they reach the line of scrimmage, he'll have a major role for Vandy in '13.
Ladarius Banks (6'2", 290 lbs) - Banks is still adding weight after a redshirt freshman season, but he's got enough bulk to emerge as a run stopper in 2013. He's strong and athletic enough to shed blockers, but can hesitate to trail plays and needs to show greater consistency on the field. He'll have a chance to earn snaps in his second season at Vanderbilt, but his spot on the depth chart is still volatile for now.
Torey Agee (6'4", 285 lbs) - Like Banks, Agee took last season to add bulk, and he has put on about 40 pounds of muscle and mass from 2011 to 2013. Agee came to Vanderbilt as a defensive end, and he has the length and motor to cover either position as his career wages on. He's a strong athlete, but he may not have the pass rushing instincts to handle working on the edge, so the switch to tackle makes sense. He plays tough around the line, and he's not afraid to engage blockers to get upfield. However, his technique still needs to be refined, especially against the bigger, tougher linemen of the SEC. He should earn playing time this fall, but may fall out of the tackle rotation in more meaningful games.
Adam Butler (6'4", 305 lbs) - Butler worked his way onto the depth chart as a true freshman on the offensive line, but ultimately redshirted and was tagged for an assignment on the other side of the ball. The big Texan has the size and athleticism to handle the position, but questions about his ability to transition between positions remain. Butler plays mean and has long arms and quick feet that should be able to make him an effective presence against both the run and the pass. Physically, he had the tools to be a very strong offensive lineman. James Franklin is betting that his athleticism will help those skills translate to defense and make him an even more valuable addition to the Commodore roster.
Jay Woods (6'3", 292 lbs) - Vanderbilt's only true freshman at the position may have the most raw talent of any first-year Commodore on the defensive line. The four-star recruit has added 15 pounds of mass since his senior year of high school, and at 6'2" and 292 pounds he'll have the build to step into playing time right away if Franklin needs him. He's fast and strong off the snap, which allows him to shoot into gaps and disrupt running plays up the middle and make tackles in the backfield. Even with that potential, he's still a raw commodity. Vanderbilt will probably bring him along slowly as he learns to deal with the strength and athleticism of SEC offensive linemen.