Vanderbilt has built up a legacy of assembly one of the finest defensive secondaries in the SEC. Four new starters will be tasked with keeping that legacy alive this fall.
The Commodores lost every one of their starters from a stacked secondary in 2013. Andre Hal was the only member of that unit to hear his name called in the NFL Draft, but Kenny Ladler, Javon Marshall, and Steven Clarke all ended up signing free agent deals with pro teams this spring. That will present a big challenge for new head coach and defensive guru Derek Mason, but his cupboard is stocked with young players who are ready to make a difference in the backfield. Vanderbilt has a number of highly rated recruits who have apprenticed under some of the league's best players and now will have an opportunity to shine for the 'Dores.
They'll be led by juniors Andrew Williamson and Jahmel McIntosh at safety. The two veterans played key roles on last year's nine-win team and are now primed to make this secondary their own. Behind them, a cache of young players will look to make a mark in their first years of NCAA eligibility. Here's how the 'Dores will look up the middle with their secondary in 2014.
The Presumptive Starters:
Andrew Williamson (6'1", 208 lbs): Williamson saw the most playing time of any non-starting safety in 2013 and will be counted on to lead this young secondary in 2014. The junior had 20 tackles and a pair of interceptions last fall and will slide into Kenny Ladler's vacated spot at free safety. He hits hard, but his biggest asset may be his Ladler-like ability to get to the play as it develops and be disruptive. With a nose for the ball, he'll be the safest bet to lead the team in turnovers forced this season. Williamson had a big spring in his first on-field experiences with Mason and his staff and looks like a candidate to have a breakout year this fall.
Jahmel McIntosh (6'1", 205 lbs): McIntosh also emerged as a valuable contributor in 2013 and played in all 13 games as a reserve strong safety. He's got good size at the position and has the fluid movement to cover plenty of ground moving toward the line of scrimmage. That combination should make him one of the 'Dores leading tacklers this season. He's less stable in coverage than Williamson but has improved in that area and should be a capable starter in the defensive backfield. While Williamson has earned much of the preseason buzz, McIntosh has the talent to outshine his teammate at safety.
Ryan White (5'9", 188 lbs): White was a four-star recruit as a cornerback, but he'll be called on to be a ballhawking free safety for DC David Kotoluski in 2014. He's the smallest safety on the roster and he'll have to be able to shut down passing plays to have a presence in his first year of eligibility for the Commodores. He showed that he could excel in zone coverage as a high schooler and earned a reputation as a player whose fundamentally sound tackling could carry him to the next level. Those instincts will be what drives him to playing time this fall. He's still adding bulk, and you'd like to see him playing at about a dozen pounds heavier, but the weight gain will come. In a rotation filled with young players, White could emerge as a valuable pass deterrent.
Emmanuel Smith (6'2", 205 lbs): Smith is a true freshman, but the rangy safety already has the bulk to make an impact for the Commodores this fall. However, he may need more time to learn how to identify plays and catch up to the team speed that SEC opponents will bring. He stood out in high school thanks to his elite athleticism, and the combination of those skills and a defensive-minded coaching staff should bring out the best in the young prospect. There will be growing pains, but Smith has all the tools to make his presence felt in his first year on campus.
Jalen Banks (5'11, 190 lbs): Banks is a redshirt freshman who has the hitting power and hip movement to play either safety position for the 'Dores. That versatility will help him overcome physical aspects that rate out as above average - but not elite - across the board.
Khari Blasingame (6'1", 205 lbs): Like Smith, Blasingame is a true freshman who already looks the part of an NCAA safety. He has experience shadowing receivers in zone coverage, but he doesn't have elite speed to slide directly into a role at FS or the tackling to do the same at SS. He'll have several opportunities to find the field in 2014, but he may be better served redshirting and making the most out of an extra year to catch up with SEC offenses.
Dane Stubbs and Josh Gregory are both veteran walk-ons who should see playing time on special teams and could earn some snaps against Vandy's out-of-conference opponents.