Spoiler alert: Kenny Ladler is not going to be named the Player of the Year in a couple of days. Given that Ladler is not the winner, you might be able to guess who is going to win that one. But Ladler is not only a singularly deserving Defensive Player of the Year, he's also a challenger and worthy runner-up to the throne of Player of the Year.
As a tackler, Ladler is the prototype free safety. He has the closing speed and the ability to finish a tackle, and reached 90 total tackles and 60 solo tackles for the second straight year. He also upped his coverage game this year, hauling in five interceptions and another nine passes defended.
Kenny Ladler covered our butts all year long, and it shows in the team stats. Leader in tackles by seven. Leader in solo tackles by seventeen (37%!)–often as the last man. Leader in interceptions by two. Set the Vandy record in forced fumbles with five (no one else had more than one this year). He also was third on the team in passes defended.
Ladler's true necessity was clearest in the biggest games. In five non-conference games against generally lesser opponents, Ladler had just 21 total tackles, 4.2 per game. In SEC play, Ladler had 70 tackles in eight games. That's almost nine tackles per SEC game, including an SEC leading 53 solo tackles. He had 12.67 tackles per game in games where Vandy faced ranked opponents, a mark that was 10th best in the nation and fourth among DBs.
Ladler was a turnover creator among the best in the nation. No one in the entire nation had a higher combined number of interceptions and forced fumbles.
Selected for several All-SEC teams including first team on the coaches All-SEC team, Ladler should have received more than a few All-American calls.
Ladler was literally (which in journalism means figuratively) the backbone of our defense. Everything that our defense did (particularly when Chase Garnham was injured) flowed from the knowledge that Ladler was the last line of defense. Every risk taken elsewhere was made possible by the knowledge that anyone forced to go through Kenny would probably not score.
But "Ladlo" has an impact that goes beyond the plays he makes on the field. Not just a leader on the stat sheet, he is also a vocal leader of the defense and the whole team, as well as a terrific charismatic representative of the university. Some NFL team is going to hit a late round home run picking up the shockingly under-hyped Ladler.
Being compared to maybe the greatest player in Vandy history doesn't work out well for most, and I'm not looking to mislead you about who I voted for as POY; it wasn't Kenny. But almost as much as the offense would have fallen apart short one player, the defense would have been tough to watch without Kenny plugging the drain.
I'm no historian of Vandy football, having been a fan since only 2009. I know I've been lucky enough to watch the greatest RB and the greatest WR in school history, the stats make that easy to see. But it takes more context to pick out a top defensive player. I can't tell you if Ladler is the greatest safety in school history. But I don't have to go back and watch a hundred years worth of film to know Ladler had one of the most complete and indispensable seasons this team has ever seen.
Counterpoint: Darreon Herring was the glue that held together this team's linebacking unit. We covered Herring in earnest as this team's Breakout Player of the Year, and his performance in 2013 made him a candidate for DPOY as well. When seniors Karl Butler and Chase Garnham went down in the middle of the season to injury, Herring stepped up by playing a game that few other sophomores could replicate. The outside linebacker looked like a veteran, and while this team's other young LBs were caught falling behind the action, Herring showed off a knack for identifying plays and getting to the ball before opponents could do any damage.
Herring didn't have the overall impact that Ladler did, but he held down the second level of defense and kept injuries from tearing his unit apart. He'll be a key figure on next year's Derek Mason-led squad. With two great defensive minds coming together, I can't wait to see what Darreon Herring will do next.