The most significant change that Derek Mason has brought to Vanderbilt hasn't come on the recruiting trail - it's taking place in the trenches. The Commodores will shift from a 4-3 defense that hid their depth issues at linebacker to a 3-4 system that's set to pump new blood into the do-everything tier of defenders this fall. Vandy's edge-rushing defensive ends will have to learn how to play without getting into a three-point stance - they're linebackers now.
Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann helped headline a defensive end rotation that outperformed expectations in 2013 alongside the now graduated Walker May. They'll have to bring that disruptive presence on the edge while finding time to shadow tight ends and roam from sideline to sideline to make plays in the second level. It will be a big transition that is bound to have hiccups early on, but the Commodores have the athleticism and size to fit the mold that Mason and defensive coordinator David Kotoluski have set.
This team has a mix of veteran talent and rising underclassmen to make the positional shift even more interesting. Azubike and Woestmann will be primed for breakout seasons playing in the scheme that helped Stanford become one of the nation's top defenses. Behind them, veterans like Jimmy Stewart and Casey Hughes will battle for playing time with rising stars like Stephen Weatherly, Jonathan Wynn, and Landon Stokes. Outside linebacker may be the most intriguing position to follow this fall, as Vanderbilt's defensive fortunes will rise and fall with their success.
Here's a breakdown of Vandy's newfound OLBs.
The Presumptive Starters
Caleb Azubike (6'4", 260 lbs): Azubike moves like a train crossbred with a puma, belying a power that incorporates fast-twitch lateral turns that once belonged to Brian Kimbrow before Caleb devoured his soul during a spring practice.
Unfortunately, since Christian Okoye already took "the Nigerian Nightmare" as a nickname, we'll just have to call Azubike the Walking Plague or Creeping Death or something similarly terrible. Anyway, Azubike is just six years into his football career and has shown tremendous growth in Nashville. He developed the skills that made him one of the SEC's most disruptive freshmen under Bob Shoop. Now, he'll have the chance to learn under Mason and DC David Kotoluski, two guys who can mold solid defenders into monsters. 2014 could be the breakout year we've been expecting from the 260-pound fast-twitch specimen. He had 9.5 tackles for loss last season, and even that was a borderline disappointment based on the skills he's shown on the field. If he can handle the shift to OLB, he could become a household name in the south this fall.
Kyle Woestmann (6'3", 252 lbs): Woestmann will be the senior leader amongst Vandy's linebackers in 2014, but he brings much more to the position than just experience. He paced the 'Dores with six sacks from the defensive end position in '13 and, like Azubike and the rest of Vandy's pass rushing DEs, will move to linebacker this fall. Woestmann has the strength to push blockers back and be the kind of disruptive presence that collapses pockets and breaks down offensive assignments. He won't be an especially fast linebacker, but he won't get left in the dust if forced to pick up tight ends or chase down tailbacks on the edges.
Woestmann had a habit of showing up in big games, especially against SEC competition. He had two sacks apiece in games against Ole Miss and Texas A&M last season and played a big role in Vandy's win over Georgia. Mason and Kotoluski are going to be counting on him to bring stability to a corps that is made up of transitioning players. A big season from Woestmann could be the key to Vanderbilt's bowl hopes this winter.
The Next Wave/Rotation Players
Stephen Weatherly (6'5", 255 lbs): Weatherly looks like Woestmann's heir apparent in 2015, but he'll likely be the first OLB off the bench this fall. The sophomore emerged as a key piece of Vandy's defensive end rotation as a redshirt freshman to record 3.5 sacks in '13. He turned up his play as the season wore on to make his presence felt against Tennessee and Houston, and that kind of development has set some high hopes for his progress this fall. Weatherly has added 60 pounds to his frame since high school but still emerged as a fast and flexible edge rusher last season.
Jimmy Stewart (6'4", 240 lbs): Stewart, an overlooked piece of the Commodores defense, developed into a reliable rotation player last fall. He came to Nashville as a member of James Franklin's first recruiting class as a DE/OLB tweener, and now he'll get the chance to prove that he can handle the other end of that distinction against SEC foes. He's a solid tackler with decent straight line speed but he's not as quick laterally as other OLBs in the conference, which could hurt in him coverage this year.
Casey Hughes (6'1", 225 lbs): Hughes, who spent the early part of his college career at Army, has played in 25 games for the 'Dores over the past two seasons as a reserve linebacker and special teams ace. His veteran status should give him plenty of cache on this team, but he's now undersized at the position thanks to Mason's influx of defensive ends at OLB. He'll have the opportunity to join the linebacking rotation thanks to his steady play, but he's a risk of ceding snaps to Vandy's rising underclassmen.
The Young Guns
Jonathan Wynn (6'4", 238 lbs): Wynn was a three-star recruit at defensive end, and now he'll get a chance to apply his skills as a pass rusher in Vandy's 3-4 scheme. He's done a good job of bulking up since leaving high school as a lithe 215-pound defender, but he'll still need to add mass to get to the size that Mason and Kotoluski prefer with their OLBs. Wynn showed off above-average speed for a high school DE, and he'll have to show that he can translate that quickness to a new position despite the addition of 20+ pounds of muscle. He'll get that opportunity this fall.
Landon Stokes (6'4", 235 lbs): Like Wynn, Stokes took a redshirt year to add size and strength after playing as a lean 200-pound end in high school. The redshirt freshman comes from strong bloodlines as the son of a former NFL DE, and he has the football IQ to transition to a new position without any problems. He was successful as a high school speed rusher, so he'll be given the opportunity to come off the edge and add pressure for Vandy early in the season. He has plenty of potential, but he may have trouble finding playing time at a position stocked with talent in his second year with the Commodores.
Aside from these two second-year players, Mason has a platter of high school defensive ends that appear primed to switch to linebacker under Vanderbilt's system. Sekou Clark (6'3", 233 lbs), Hawkins Mann (6'4", 220), and Charles Wright (6'3", 191) were all underrated end prospects that could make an impact for the Commodores at a new position. Of the three, Clark is probably the most ready to play in 2014 due to his size and speed, but all three seem likely to redshirt this fall.