Since the Bobby Johnson era, the heart of the Vanderbilt defense has been its secondary. All-SEC cornerback Andre Hal will ensure that it stays that way in 2013.
Hal has emerged as the latest in a string of Commodore standouts at corner, and he's likely to join players like Myron Lewis and Casey Hayward as Vanderbilt defenders that became high value NFL draft picks upon graduation. After knocking down 16 passes in 2012, the senior playmaker has earned honors from the SEC, football gurus like Mel Kiper, and a boatload of various defensive-player-of-the-year watch lists.
However, he won't be alone in his duties. Senior Steven Clarke has been a jack-of-all-trades in the Vandy secondary, and he'll have the opportunity to put his athleticism and experience to use when the season starts against Ole Miss. These two, along with a pair of veteran safeties in Javon Marshall and Kenny Ladler, will give the 'Dores one of the most imposing defensive backfields in the NCAA.
It'll be vital for Hal and Clarke to stay healthy this fall. The depth chart behind them is high on talent, but decidedly low on experience. Former walk-ons Scot Aiello and Alex Hysong are the only other upperclassmen on the roster, and they're better suited for special teams play than a feature spot in the CB rotation. Behind them, seven of the team's corners are either redshirt or true freshmen. It will be important for these young players to break into the rotation in 2013, but it could be bad news if they have to handle an extended role against the SEC's top offenses this fall.
Those young defensive backs include a pair of four-star true freshmen in Ryan White and Tre Bell, who could step in to big roles if they can grasp the team's defensive assignments as the season wears on. They'll have to prove that they can add weight and maintain the quickness and instinctive play that made them next-level prospects in high school. If they can do that, there will be a spot waiting for them in Vanderbilt's defensive rotation.
If they need more time to develop, the 'Dores have a solid contingency plan in Torren McGaster and Paris Head, two redshirt freshmen who will be pushed into action this fall. That duo will be auditioning for starting roles in 2014, and they'll have to prove that they can handle the pressure of playing in the SEC before they can put their claim on the position. Vandy is stacked with young talent, but low on experience - practically on empty, in fact - behind Hal and Clarke. Here's how the position looks for 2013.
The old guard:
Andre Hal - The All-SEC playmaker has been named by Mel Kiper as one of the top 10 cornerback prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft, and he'll have a chance to improve that stock this fall. He emerged as a shutdown corner last season, and his 16 defended passes were five more than the next closest Vandy defender (the often excellent Trey Wilson). He's got a great nose for the ball, and his instincts keep opposing quarterbacks from sneaking passes over his head or past his reach.
Hal's skills have led him to the Bednarik, Thorpe, and Nagurski Watch Lists after just one season as a starter at CB. While he shines in coverage, he's also a solid tackler who can shed his receiver and step up to tackle opposing tailbacks. On top of all that, he's also one of Vandy's top kick returners, and he'll pull kickoff duty this fall. In a stacked secondary, Hal may be the most talented player the Commodores have.
Steven Clarke - Clarke is a versatile and athletic senior who has been waiting for three years for the opportunity to start at corner for the Commodores. He's fluid in coverage and showed off good tackling instincts as a member of the secondary rotation over the past two years. Pushing nearly 200 pounds, the veteran corner has no problem lowering his shoulder and coming up with powerful stops downfield. 2013 will be Clarke's time to shine, and after being a versatile weapon across the field for Vanderbilt you can expect him to settle into a more permanent role at corner across from Hal.
Their 2014 replacements:
Paris Head - Head has the build to eventually shift over to safety if the situation calls for it, but his smooth hands and good size (6'0", 182 lbs) should throw him into the corner rotation in his first year of eligibility. He doesn't have great top-end speed and could be at a disadvantage if left on his own against deep routes, but he's good instincts and locates the ball well which will lead to some turnovers for the Commodores this fall. In high school, he rated out as a better coverage man than tackler, and he'll have to prove that he can wrap up opponents and bring them down before he can slide into regular assignments for the Vanderbilt defense. That's an area where the Georgia native can make strides with the right coaching, so expect to hear his number get called often this season.
Torren McGaster - Like Head, McGaster possesses good size at the CB position (6'0", 190 lbs), but he's a more consistent tackler who can provide additional run support on the sideline. McGaster has the strength and fluidity to handle man-to-man assignments for the 'Dores, and his physical style could make him a solid bump-and-run cornerback in the SEC. He'll have the chance to contribute in 2013, but he'll have to prove that he can avoid mistakes and identify plays as they unfold in order to get there first.
Ryan White - White decommitted from his hometown Louisville Cardinals to pick Vanderbilt, and Franklin and company have big plans in his future. At 5'9" and 185 lbs, he's a strong and compact corner who can shed blockers and make stops against tailbacks outside of the tackle box. He's a tough tackler with the fluid hip movement to change directions smoothly, and that ability could give him a shot as a kick returner as his career develops. In high school, he showed that he could handle bump and run duties, but his athleticism allowed him to adjust in situations where he'd have been burned by faster receivers. For now, he'll hold down the end of the depth chart until he proves that he can keep up with SEC speed in the defensive backfield, but he probably has the greatest chance to make an impact of the team's true freshmen at corner.
Tre Bell - The four-star cornerback from Jersey City could represent an untapped recruiting pipeline for James Franklin, but he's going to have to bulk up first. The dynamic ballhawk only weighs 165 pounds right now, and he's due to redshirt while he adds muscle to his 5'11" frame. Once he fills out, he'll have the chance to add a strong tackling game to his already exceptional coverage capabilities. Bell is able to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and he's the kind of player who can thrive in single-coverage opportunities. He wraps up ballcarriers well and shows good instincts out of the secondary, but his size will likely keep him out of the lineup this fall.
Darrius Sims - This Memphis product has flown a under the radar, but he's a strong addition to Franklin's cache of young cornerbacks at Vanderbilt. He handled himself well in both zone and man coverage in high school, and those shadowing skills will serve him well at the next level. He will have to get bigger, but he tackles well in open space and seems to have good instincts around the ball. He'll need time to polish these skills, so a redshirt season may be in order.
Jalen Banks - Banks is a dynamic athlete that could give Vanderbilt a D.J. Moore-like presence on both sides of the ball. He already has the size to make an impact as a true freshman, and his ability to explode towards the ball will serve him well at the next level. He's got a lot to learn and it's still unclear if cornerback will be his permanent position at Vanderbilt, but he's a strong addition to this team's secondary.
Taurean Ferguson - Like Sims and White, Ferguson is a shorter (5'9") cornerback prospect who could end up in trouble against the league's taller receivers, but his quick feet and sound instincts should mitigate that weakness. He relied on his athleticism in high school, and he'll have to add a more fundamental game to his package before he can make an impact in the SEC. He should develop into a slot corner as his career progresses, but he seems likely to burn a redshirt season in 2013.
Scot Aiello earned some assignments in his second year with the team as a special teams contributor. The hard-working junior can expect to see that role grow in 2013. Alex Hysong has spent two years as a scout team standout, but hasn't seen any game time for the Commodores. Dane Stubbs is a versatile athlete who is also a key part of the scout team.