Vanderbilt has won nine games in each of their last two seasons, but they'll have as much to prove in 2014 as any team to ever call Dudley Field home.
That's because the Commodores won't just have to replace 13 starters from 2013 - they'll also have to replace the most successful coach in the program's modern history. James Franklin left Nashville for the sanctioned pastures of Happy Valley, leaving a void for former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason to fill. Mason developed the Cardinal into one of the nation's fiercest teams and found a way to shut down the ever-dangerous Oregon Ducks on a regular basis. Now, he'll have to prove that he can do the same with one of the SEC's fastest-rising programs.
Today, we'll start our 2014 football coverage with a look at Vanderbilt's defensive line.
The new Commodore regime means a new philosophy on the field. Vanderbilt will switch from a 4-3 defensive base (four linemen, three linebackers) to a 3-4 setup under Mason's leadership. That shift means that former defensive ends like Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike will move to outside linebacker slots, while beefier athletes like Adam Butler, Vince Taylor, Barron Dixon, and Jay Woods will see their opportunities expand in the trenches. That means that players who cut their teeth as tackles under Franklin will now be seeing time at end for Mason - but the edge rushing will still be provided by guys like Woestmann and Azubike behind them.
Here's a breakdown of the guys who will be doing the dirty work on defense this fall. Players are listed in the order of their projected importance for 2014. Don't take any slights as bulletin board material - these are just estimations based on prior performance and are subject to change - especially with a new coach and a new defensive setting coming into play. It will also be great evidence to prove how big of an idiot I am after the season ends. Here's a handy gif to get you started after Torey Agee becomes an All-American:
Starters and Key Rotation Players:
Adam Butler (6'4", 305 lbs): Butler made the most of his first year of NCAA play by developing into a disruptive force that set the tone for Bob Shoop's defense in 2013. The former offensive lineman has a tremendous blend of strength and quickness at the position, giving him the ability to blast through blockers and create chaos in the middle of the field. He proved that with two blocked kicks last season, both of which were the result of Butler bullying his way over the center and sticking a massive arm in the air. The big Texan finds ways into the backfield and was a constant nuisance for opponents last fall. He'll be even better with another year of experience under his belt, and he should be the most dynamic player amongst Vandy's front three in 2014.
Vince Taylor (6'2", 310 lbs): Big Vince is the most experienced member of the Vanderbilt frontline and has played in 38 games over his Commodore career. He had a quiet season in 2013 as he recorded only .5 tackles for loss and ceded playing time to Butler, Barron Dixon, and now-departed starter Jared Morse late in the season. However, his impact as a run-deterrent in the center of the field isn't something that translates well to statistics. He started 10 games that year and looks to have secured that same role headed into '14, but he could be usurped by young players like Jay Woods and Nifae Lealao as the season wears on. He'll be a strong veteran presence for the unit, but he'll have to produce more under Mason and DC David Kotoluski to stay on the field this fall.
Barron Dixon (6'4", 308 lbs): Dixon has been a part of Vandy's D-line rotation since arriving in Nashville as a true freshman in 2011. The former three-star recruit played on the end in high school and is versatile enough to handle any role that this new coaching staff will throw at him along the front line. After racking up big numbers against lower-tier opponents as a sophomore, Dixon rose up to have big games against teams like Houston (in the BBVA Compass Bowl) and Missouri to prove that he is a legitimate SEC lineman. He has demonstrated significant improvement in his time as a Commodore, and Mason's shift to a 3-4 could be the catalyst that makes him an unexpected standout on the Vandy defensive line.
Jay Woods (6'3", 290 lbs): Woods redshirted in 2013 behind Vandy's four-man DT rotation, and that gave him the opportunity to refine his game. Now, he'll be competing for a spot as one of the team's three starters along the defensive line. The Georgian is still a raw player, but he has the strength and talent to be the kind of lineman who can stand his blocker up and push him off the line of scrimmage. Power won't be a problem for Woods, but technique will. We'll have the chance to see if he's developed into a consistent threat to disrupt opposing offenses this fall. He's got plenty of competition to deal with at nose tackle, but he could see more time on the end if he proves to be flexible enough to fill in at the position.
Nifae Lealao (6'6, 280 lbs): Lealao is the most hyped recruit to ever attend Vanderbilt (a record that seems to be broken every year), and he'll have the chance to contribute to this team right away. He is explosive off the line and has the strength to clog holes before tailbacks can get to them. While he may not be a proficient pass rusher as a true freshman, he'll still be able to chase down quarterbacks against Vandy's less-experienced opponents this fall. Lealao plays smart and has earned rave reviews for his work ethic on and off the field. He will be expected to make an impact in his first year in Nashville.
Torey Agee (6'4", 290 lbs): Agee kicks off the next tier of Vanderbilt defensive linemen after a quiet first season of action in 2014. The redshirt sophomore didn't see much playing time in the team's meaningful games last year, but he's an interesting prospect who can handle duties as a defensive end in a three-man line. He has strong instincts for the game as the son of an NFL veteran and that could translate into more playing time this fall. Mason has a knack for bringing out the best in smart players - and Agee could thrive under Vanderbilt's new defensive philosophy as he gains experience.
Ladarius Banks (6'2", 295 lbs): Like Agee, Banks didn't see much time last season as a redshirt freshman, but he contributed on special teams and as a spot player at defensive tackle. He was also a run-stopping defensive end in high school, and that experience should help him transition to Vandy's new 3-4 lineup. He'll have the opportunity to contribute this fall, but even if he fails to crack the starting lineup he'll give this team some key depth at a position where the 'Dores have been thin in the past.
Riley Tindol (6'5", 275 lbs): When reviewing the players who made up Mason's defensive line haul of 2014, Tindol seems the most likely to stay in the trenches rather than convert to an outside linebacker spot. The young bruiser wasn't on anyone's radar heading into National Signing Day, but Derek Mason caught his gametape just in time to see something he liked and offer the Alabamian a scholarship. Tindol is a sleeper with a solid frame, but he'll need more seasoning before he's ready to compete against SEC linemen. Expect him to redshirt this fall.
Recruits Sekou Clark and Hawkins Mann could also fill a role as defensive ends in Mason's 3-4 front, but each player is currently undersized for the position and could wind up transitioning to outside linebacker duty when fall practices begin in earnest.