You don't hear Walker May's name get dropped too much at SEC Media Days. Same with Kyle Woestmann or Caleb Azubike. Even so, Vandy fans know exactly who these players are; they're the bookends that keep the defensive line intact, effective, and, at times, absolutely hellacious for opposing quarterbacks.
As a result, Vanderbilt may boast one of the most underrated defensive end rotations in the SEC.
This unheralded group is a dynamic one, too. May and Woestmann are the veteran leaders of an otherwise young and hungry core of #WildDogs. Every other player at the position has at least three years of NCAA eligibility left coming into this season. 2013 won't just be a showcase for May as he preps for an All-SEC campaign, but it will also be a glimpse of the future for this Commodore defensive line.
That group of young players will have to prove themselves in practice before cracking a three-man rotation that developed into a stand-out unit last season. May turned in his standard high-level season thanks to an ability to consistently get outside of blockers and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Though he only had three sacks, he altered countless other plays thanks to his relentless pursuit from the right side. Behind him, Woestmann and Azubike developed into legitimate starters as the season wore on, playing major cogs in Vandy's seven-game winning streak to close out the season (10 sacks combined) and giving May an equally talented bookend on the other side of the line.
That group will return intact in 2013. The Commodores only lost walk-on Conor Hart from last year's team. Like the rest of this team's defense, the defensive end position will boast a mix of experienced starters and high-level recruits who are waiting to make an impact on Dudley Field. Here's how the depth chart looks so far at the position:
Walker May (6'5", 250 lbs) - A captain in 2012, the redshirt senior is one of this team's biggest leaders both on the field and in the locker room. He was instrumental in Vandy's bowl-clinching win over Ole Miss last fall, where his six solo tackles (three behind the line of scrimmage) set the tone for a huge come-from-behind victory. He had 10.5 tackles for loss last year, and each of those stops came at an expense of nearly five yards for Vanderbilt opponents.
May (May? DOES.) moves very well for a man of his carriage, and he does a good job of following plays and bringing down runners from behind. He's got a strong motor and good cardio that helps keep him on the field when Vanderbilt needs stops the most. May excels in getting upfield and making quarterbacks uncomfortable, but one of his biggest strengths is his speed around the edge. In fact, here's May helping to seal Vandy's upset win over Missouri last season by embarrassing the Tigers' left tackle on three straight plays.
Kyle Woestmann (6'3", 252 lbs) - Woestmann got stronger as the 2012 rolled on, notching all six of his sacks in the final seven games of the season. He separated himself from the pack thanks to his strength and seemingly unstoppable motor. The redshirt junior came to Nashville with some question marks about whether or not he could develop into a capable pass rusher, and three years of hard work have put those doubts in the rearview mirror.
Woestmann plays a bit like former Vandy lineman Tim Fugger. He grinds down opposing linemen and finds opportunities to exploit as the game goes on. Like May, he's a strong athlete who leads by example on the field. He's a player whose impact goes well beyond his stats and measureable athletic traits.
Caleb Azubike (6'4", 265 lbs) - First and foremost - A-ZOO-BEE-KAY. The Nigeria native made an instant impact at Vanderbilt thanks to his raw combination of size and athleticism. Azubike only picked up American football in high school at nearby McGavock, but the DE position fit him like a glove in his first year with the Commodores. He notched more playing time than any other true freshman and thrilled fans with flashes of dominant play at defensive end.
Azubike's speed makes him a major threat along the edges, though opponents were able to seal him off at times and make him less effective against the running game. That's something that he can outgrow in practice, but it'll be a big part in his development if he wants to fulfill his All-SEC potential. His athletic ability is still ahead of his technique at this point, but even as a raw player he notched four sacks as a freshman. That number should grow in 2013 as Azubike learns how to better leverage his speed and strength in the trenches.
Stephen Weatherly (6'5", 252 lbs) - Weatherly was one of the gems of Franklin's class of 2012, and he'll be counted on to make an impact in his first year of eligibility this fall. He spent his freshman year at Vanderbilt putting on weight, and he's now 60 pounds heavier than he was as a rising high school junior. He's got great top end speed and quick acceleration that can get him off the line and past blockers when applied properly. If he can maintain that straight-line quickness with his new frame, he'll be a nightmare for scrambling quarterbacks and tailbacks looking to bounce to the outside for some extra yards. He looks like he'll be an effective speed rusher for the Commodores, but how much playing time he finds in 2013 will depend on how strongly he finishes his summer practices.
Jimmy Stewart (6'4", 245 lbs) - This redshirt sophomore came to Vanderbilt as a bit of a defensive tweener, but his versatility could make him a contributor at defensive end or outside linebacker as his career continues. Stewart logged most of his productive playing time in a clean up role during big wins last season, but he's in position to earn a higher spot in the defensive hierarchy this fall. He may not have the lateral speed to handle coverage duties full time, but his hard work, good hands, and ability to read offenses will make him a better fit on the defensive line.
Darien Bryant (6'4", 230 lbs) - Bryant briefly left the program in 2012, but returned to add some key depth to the defensive end rotation for the 'Dores. His experience as a tight end should give him some insight on shedding blocks and opposing techniques, but he's still learning at DE, where his speed and aggression should come in handy. He's likely to earn some snaps this fall, but whether they're against Austin Peay or Tennessee will depend on his development on the practice field.
Landon Stokes (6'4", 238 lbs) - Stokes was rated a four-star recruit by ESPN, and he'll have the chance to validate their ranking with a strong summer showing. He's done a good job of adding mass between high school and coming to Vanderbilt, and his speed and intuitive style of play could give him an edge over the team's other first-year defensive ends. He's the son of Fred Stokes, who played in the NFL as a defensive end for nearly a decade and started in Super Bowl XXVI. If he can continue to add bulk while maintaining his strong lateral movement and quickness at the line of scrimmage, Stokes could be a major contributor for James Franklin's team. As a true freshman, however, he might have trouble finding field time.
Jonathan Wynn (6'4", 230 lbs) - The lean, athletic defender may use his first season in Nashville to bulk up, but a strong showing could make him a rotational player amongst Vanderbilt's ends. He's solid against the run and puts a lot of effort behind every play, but his technique still needs to be refined to be effective at the next level. Wynn showed off the ability to shed blocks and the awareness to get upfield to the quarterback after being engaged at the line in high school. If he can put those instincts to work in the NCAA, he'll have a spot as a contributor for the Commodores.
Mack Weaver (6'5", 260 lbs) - Weaver was also a top recruit at tight end, but his size and strength will move him to defensive end at the college level. He's got great size for the position, but he's going to have to refine that mass and learn how to leverage it effectively against SEC offenses. Like Wynn and Stokes, he'll have a difficult path to playing time as a true freshman thanks to Vandy's depth at DE.