Vanderbilt's secondary is the fiercest part of the Commodore defense. A big part of that is the run-stopping, ball-hawking play of its safeties.
Two veterans, Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall, will bring the talent and experience this team needs to help shut down the SEC's highest-flying offenses this fall. The senior duo combined for 173 tackles last season, ranking first (Ladler) and third (Marshall) overall for the 'Dores. In one season, the two playmakers proved that they could give corners like Trey Wilson and Andre Hal over-the-top assistance while showcasing the ability to drop levels and rise to the line of scrimmage to tackle ballcarriers in pressure situations.
That experience will serve this team well in 2013. Ladler and Marshall are an often overlooked pair that comprise an upper-tier safety tandem in the SEC. Marshall, in particular, is underrated - but a big senior season should not only cement his status as a high-level player but throw him into various NFL Draft scenarios. There, he'd join Ladler and Hal - two guys who could sneak into the first two days of picks next spring
A pair of redshirt sophomores will wait in the wings behind them, but the depth chart gets thin after that. Andrew Williamson and Jahmel McIntosh showed that they can handle backup duties in their first year of eligibility, but they'll need more seasoning before either can prove that they're ready for a starting role. They'll have plenty of opportunities to contribute during a 2013 season that could serve as their audition for Ladler and Marshall's jobs in the following season. If the two can grow into the players that they've shown the potential of becoming, Vanderbilt could be set at safety for the next two years.
Here's how the Commodore depth chart breaks down at safety:
The Returning Starters:
Kenny Ladler - The talented senior will follow Andre Hal and Jordan Matthews into the early rounds of the NFL Draft next spring if he can keep up the versatile play that made him a preseason All-SEC player (courtesy of CFB guru Phil Steele). Ladler's ability to cover ground is evidenced by his 90 tackles in 2012, and those ball-finding instincts make him a dangerous addition to the Vanderbilt secondary. While he has the fluid movement to track receivers and provide help downfield, his talent in getting back to the line of scrimmage and solid tackling skills are what make him a special player. He can creep up behind his defensive line and add bulk to Vandy's blitz schemes when needed, and his 205-pound frame helps him bring down tailbacks, wide receivers, and quarterbacks alike.
Ladler proved his durability when he played through nagging injuries to start every game of the 2012 campaign. While he still has room to grow against the passing game, he's a stout defender who adds a ton of value to James Franklin's team. He may be under-the-radar in the SEC, but he's quietly become one of the best safeties the conference has to offer.
Javon Marshall - After splitting time at the safety position in 2011, Marshall grew into the starting spot last fall and was named a defensive captain thanks to his work ethic on the practice field. The redshirt senior is tough as nails, and that's on full display behind his hard-hitting style. Marshall throws his body into every tackle, and that gives the Commodores an insurance policy for when ballcarriers burst into the secondary.
Marshall's closing speed makes him a deceptive presence in the backfield. Once the ball is in the air, he can catch up to opposing receivers in a hurry. This gives him some space to play off opponents, but it also leaves room to get burned against the conference's fastest receivers. He's done a good job of limiting those mistakes - thanks in part to strong instincts and a solid understanding of the team's defensive schemes - but he's still got room to grow. Expect him to shore up those lapses after breaking through for Vanderbilt in 2012.
Waiting in the Wings:
Andrew Williamson - Williamson earned his stripes in 2012 by filling in for Ladler when the starting safety was forced out of the Northwestern game by injury. The redshirt sophomore played well enough to keep his spot in the rotation, and he played in all 13 of the Commodores' games as a key reserve. He'll carry that designation into 2013, and his experience will give him a head start on a starring role when 2014 arrives. The 210-pound Texan is a solid tackler who gives the 'Dores a steady presence that can cover plenty of ground in dime situations. His coverage skills still need to be refined, but he'll be a valuable member of this defense in SEC play.
Jahmel McIntosh - McIntosh, a redshirt freshman, does several things well on the field, but hasn't shown that he can excel in any one area yet. He combines good speed, solid size, and on-point tackling at the safety position, but he still needs to prove that he can track opponents' passing games and operate in open space without losing sight of his assignments. His physical tools have put him in a place where he can contribute immediately, and those talents will only get better as he grows. When you combine that with his mental growth at the position, you can see how McIntosh will be a big part of this defense's plans in the future.
Josh Gregory - Gregory is in his third year with the Commodores after walking on to the team as a freshman. He saw his first game action last season, and he could be primed for a larger role this fall. He's undersized for the safety spot at 178 pounds, but he will still have a chance to contribute on special teams for James Franklin in 2013.
Jalen Banks - We lumped Banks in with the cornerbacks last week, but the talented true freshman could also see time at safety as his career develops in Nashville. You can read up on him here.