Depth hasn't been something that the Vanderbilt linebacking corps could brag about over the past five years. James Franklin has been working his tail off to change that.
A cache of highly-touted recruits and young players will vie for playing time alongside two distinguished veterans at the heart of the Commodore defense this fall. Seniors Chase Garnham and Karl Butler will lead this team at linebacker behind a mix of pass rushing and run stopping experience. They'll be bolstered by a deep roster of underclassmen - most of whom were key recruits in Franklin's first three years on campus - who are chomping at the bit to make an impact for the Commodores in 2013.
Vanderbilt will boast 14 linebackers on its roster this season, 10 of which came to Vanderbilt as scholarship players. Four of those players were rated as four-star players by either Rivals.com or ESPN. Every one of those four-star players will have at least three years of eligibility remaining in 2013. That means that the era of the Vanderbilt linebacker is just beginning. Garnham and Butler will be passing the torch down to capable hands when they graduate this spring.
Comparatively, that's light years away from where the 'Dores had been at the position in past years. Vanderbilt rostered standout players like Jonathan Goff, John Stokes, and Marve over the past eight seasons, but there were always questions about this team's depth. The Commodores have relied on unheralded veterans like Archibald Barnes and Tristan Strong to step up and make plays, and while those players both rose to the occasion, Vandy was always a key injury away from falling apart. Now, instead of relying on luck and singular performances, Franklin's team will have a loaded depth chart - and all the perks of its added flexibility - to play with in 2013.
Since this is a long list, let's just get right down to the cast of characters.
The likely rotation:
Chase Garnham (6'3", 236 lbs) - In three years at Vanderbilt, Garnham has developed from an athletic experiment to the leader of the Commodores' linebackers. The former two-star recruit has blossomed into an All-SEC defender thanks to his blend of size, speed, and aggression over the past two years. He's versatile enough to handle duty inside (where he played in 2012) and out (where he started in 2011). Garnham led the 'Dores with seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss last year, and he's a strong pass rusher from the second level. He's athletic enough to be effective in coverage, but still needs work in that department to become a truly versatile linebacker.
Karl Butler (6'1", 216 lbs) - Is Butler's nickname "The Hybrid?" It should be. The Hybrid moved up from safety last season to become an immediate starter at outside linebacker, and the hard-hitting senior will reprise that role this fall. Butler's experience in the secondary makes him the team's best linebacker in coverage, and he's got the ability to shade slot receivers and shadow athletic tight ends up the seam. He's a bit small to handle blockers that pull up the middle of the field, but he's tough and versatile on the outside. He doesn't have a lot of bulk, but Butler, as the 2012 team poster showed, is jacked and extremely athletic. He's primed for a strong season if he can build off of the experience he gained at linebacker last fall.
Darreon Herring (6'2", 228 lbs) - Herring got a head start on his Vandy career by being a rare spring enrollee alongside Patton Robinette last season. That primed him to contribute as a true freshman and he played in all 13 games of the Vanderbilt season, finishing his campaign with 33 tackles. The sophomore is an athletic defender who can handle duties at outside linebacker thanks to his ability to pressure the passer and drop back in coverage when needed. Despite limited time, he forced three turnovers last year - one interception and two fumbles - and should boost those numbers in '13. Herring has the inside track to start alongside Garnham and Butler in Vandy's 4-3 defense.
Jake Sealand (6'2", 230 lbs) - Sealand came to Vanderbilt ready to play as a true freshman thanks a 220-pound frame that made him a standout in high school. That led to him earning snaps in the final eight games of the season at inside linebacker, and he looks to be the heir apparent to Garnham in the middle once the senior graduates. He's a strong tackler who can find gaps and fill them, but he's still learning to identify plays at the next level. He's got to do a better job of defending against the pass, but he'll have several opportunities to develop, and he'll be a perfectly capable member of the linebacker rotation this fall.
Larry Franklin (6'1", 214 lbs) - Franklin came to Vanderbilt as a safety, and that made him a natural fit to back up Karl Butler last season. His physical play at the position made it an easy transition out of the secondary, and he's got great straight line speed that helps him fill gaps and close the distance in pass coverage. He has a penchant for leading with his body and sometimes struggles to wrap his man up, and without ideal size that can lead to broken tackles. That's easily correctable though practice and repetition, and Franklin will get the chance to show that off in game situations this fall.
The next in line:
Zach Cunningham (6'4", 212 lbs) - The lanky freshman was one of the jewels of Franklin's 2013 recruiting class, and while he needs to add mass to his long frame, he's got the athleticism and instincts to make an impact right away. He's got great speed from sideline to sideline and the physical approach to drag down ball carriers. Cunningham chose Vanderbilt over Oregon and Auburn, and that probably included some talk of early playing time. Whether or not that's in 2013 or after Butler and Garnham graduate will depend on how quickly he can adjust to the SEC game. With his frame, it's not out of the question that he could see time at defensive end if the strength and conditioning staff can add another 40-50 pounds to his body.
Harding Harper (6'2", 240 lbs) - The man with the most "Vanderbilt" name on the roster was a three-star recruit from Montgomery, AL in 2012. He's strong against the run and has the size and strength to shed blockers, but his coverage skills need work. Harper needs to prove that he can play loose as well as angry to find the field in his first year of eligibility this fall. He could work his way into the rotation at middle linebacker if he shows that he can identify and sniff out developing plays, but he'll have to make the necessary adjustments to show that he can get to the ball at the NCAA level.
Oren Burks (6'3", 210 lbs) - The true freshman will bolster the outside linebacking corps this fall, but he may need some time to add weight to his long frame. Burks's fluid hips allow him to cover space and monitor receivers near the line of scrimmage, and he also showed good instincts against the run in high school. He will need time to adjust, but the skills are there, and the young Virginian should crack the starting lineup during his time as a Commodore.
Ja'Karri Thomas (6'1", 225 lbs) - The three-star linebacker is primed to make an impact in 2013 after redshirting as a true freshman last season. Thomas is an explosive player who was an undersized defensive end in high school, but he projects well at outside linebacker for the 'Dores. He has the versatility and ability to change directions quickly to make him a run stopper along the edge, but he relied too much on his athleticism to make plays in high school. He won't be able to replicate that kind of success against better NCAA players, but improvements in his hand work and developing strength will give him the tools he needs to be effective at the next level.
Nigel Bowden (6'1", 235 lbs) - Bowden is a strong inside linebacker prospect who could see situational work this fall thanks to his ability to bring down tailbacks inside the tackle box. He has the explosiveness to get upfield and be disruptive against the run, and his bulky body makes him a handful for opposing blockers to handle, especially on the run. Bowden may have had a more defined role on the linebacker-light Vanderbilt teams of the past, but Franklin and his staff can afford to redshirt him this fall and prime him for a big impact in 2014.
Veteran Contributors and Special Teams Aces:
Kellen Williams (6'1", 225 lbs) - Williams joined the team as an under-the-radar prospect in 2011 and logged scout time before emerging for some low-pressure snaps in 2012. He's the son of 14-year NFL veteran Reggie Williams, and while he's not a stud athlete he is a hard worker who has a good understanding of the game. He will have the chance to expand his role for the 'Dores this fall, but he'll have to fend off some young and talented players to get there first.
Casey Hughes (6'1", 218 lbs) - Hughes walked on to the team after starting his college career with Army back in 2009, where he earned a starting role at cornerback before leaving the academy. He primarily earned playing time on special teams last season, but he's a linebacker in the Butler mold - although not as athletic or instinctive. He's a hard worker who will hear his name called a few times thanks to his presence on punts and kickoffs.
Patrick Sutton (6'0", 220 lbs) and Hunter Bowman (5'11", 220 lbs) - These two upperclassman walk-ons serve their purpose on the scout team, but may not be slated for more than special teams work amongst a deep linebacking corps. Look for them to make appearances against UMass and Austin Peay this season.