Darreon Herring was the first linebacker to emerge from James Franklin's stacked recruiting classes and make a big impact for the Commodores. Now, new head coach Derek Mason will rely on his classmates to bolster the interior as the team transitions from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense this fall.
Herring was one of the team's most reliable and more productive defenders last season, emerging as one of the SEC's upper-tier linebackers as a sophomore. Now, he'll have to lead a unit of inside linebackers that will include a cache of young, highly-rated players who are waiting for their chance to make an impact against the country's best teams. They'll do so under the tutelage of two coaches - Mason and defensive coordinator David Kotoluski - who helped develop Stanford into one of the NCAA's fiercest defenses.
Vanderbilt will have to replace two stalwarts on the second level. Chase Garnham and Karl Butler both graduated this spring and will leave a big void in their wake. The 'Dores should be in good hands, though. Vandy has a cache of highly-rated recruits that earned valuable playing time last year when Garnham and Butler were injured. Jake Sealand and Ja'karri Thomas had their share of growing pains in 2013, but those struggles should translate into big gains this fall.
Here's how Vanderbilt's inside linebackers stack up heading into the official start of the 2014 football season.
The Presumptive Starters
Darreon Herring (6'1", 232 lbs): Herring stepped into a starting role last fall at outside linebacker and showed strong instincts as the team's most productive member of the second level. He finished second on the team with 85 tackles and defended/broke up a total of 21 passes in a breakout year. Herring's fluid hips and lateral quickness give him the ability to make plays all over the field, and the shift inside should not be a problem. He's a strong defender against the run thanks to his speed and solid tackling form, but he shined in coverage last season as well. He'll be able to hold down the interior when Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann are sent forward to pressure the quarterback, but he'll need help from...
Jake Sealand (6'2", 232 lbs): Sealand started six games as an inside linebacker when Garnham was hurt last year and struggled at times as a redshirt freshman, often showing up to the play a step behind. The good news is that these lapses weren't the result of any physical defect - they were mostly due to his inexperience in the college game. He showed good instincts against the run but had trouble adhering to coverage schemes and identifying openings that led to big gains from opponents. Like Herring, he's a big, physical linebacker who moves well laterally, but he's a step behind his teammate on the team's defensive ranks headed into 2014.
Pushing for Playing Time
Ja'karri Thomas (6'1", 230 lbs): Like Sealand, Thomas earned extra playing time last fall thanks in part to injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. The redshirt sophomore is still adjusting to a position change after playing defensive end in high school and outside linebacker in spurts last year. Like Sealand, his strength is against the run game, and the second starting spot alongside Herring may come down to who can adjust to SEC passing offenses the quickest. Thomas is a powerful inside linebacker who has the potential to be a disruptive presence that can drop runners and quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage.
Zach Cunningham (6'4", 225 lbs): Cunningham was a huge recruit for the Commodores in 2013 but redshirted in his first season with Vanderbilt. He took that time to add muscle to his lean frame and is poised to have an impact now that he's got a year of scout play under his belt. He's an athletic player who should be able to cover ample ground from sideline-to-sideline thanks to his long strides and solid lateral movement. He showed off good pass rushing capabilities in high school and could see a number of looks in Vandy's blitz packages this fall.
Nigel Bowden (6'1", 245 lbs): Bowden is built like a stout prototype at middle linebacker, and his size and athleticism should earn him snaps in his first season of eligibility with the Commodores. He has quick feet that allow him to blast through gaps and attack opposing ballcarriers. However, he may not have the coverage skills to be a three-down linebacker for the Commodores this fall. He and Cunningham will have to prove themselves on the field in order to pass Vandy's upperclassmen on the depth chart.
Harding Harper (6'2", 240 lbs): Harper is a redshirt sophomore who saw limited snaps at linebacker last season before moving to fullback late in the season once Vanderbilt's defense returned to relative health. He's listed at inside linebacker this year and will have the opportunity to join DC David Kotoluski's rotation with a strong performance this summer. He has the bulk to be an effective run stopper up the middle and showed that he can be an underrated pass rusher thanks to his ability to get behind the line and disrupt unfolding plays. However, he struggled at times in his first season of SEC play and he'll have to show that he can keep up with every aspect of an opponent's offense to see extended action this fall.
Hunter Bowman (6'1", 220 lbs): Bowman walked on to the team back in 2012 and has yet to see any game action for the Commodores. He might earn some snaps against Old Dominion, UMass, or Charleston Southern as a senior in his final year with the program.
Hawkins Mann (6'3", 225 lbs): Mann is a true freshman who played defensive end in high school, but will shift to the second level in college. He seemed like a likely candidate to fill an outside linebacker role but will inside move inside for the 'Dores. He seems likely to redshirt this fall, but may fill a role for Mason's team if he can adjust to the college game quickly.