In Derek Mason's 3-4 defense, an outside linebacker's job is to be the guy opposing quarterbacks hate the most. They're the ones coming around the edges to pressure passers and chipping safety-blanket tight ends to throw them off their routes. If SEC quarterbacks are uncomfortable at Dudley Field, that means that guys like Stephen Weatherly and Landon Stokes are doing their jobs.
This fall, the Commodores will have to deal with the loss of Kyle Woestmann to graduation, but they bring back one of the SEC's rising stars in Weatherly. The former defensive end adjusted well to his new position, using his time spent with his hands off the turf to emerge as Vanderbilt's most explosive defensive playmaker. In 2015, he'll have an extra year of experience playing under Mason's tutelage and will be ready to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
Behind him, things get a bit less certain. Vanderbilt has a cache of young playmakers who are ready to fill Woestmann's shoes on the edge. That includes a sophomore with NFL bloodlines, a junior college transfer with the size Mason craves, and a trio of freshmen who could make a significant impact in their first run against NCAA offenses. So who will be lining up alongside Weatherly as he makes his case for an all-conference selection? Let's take a look.
The Entrenched Starter
Stephen Weatherly, Rs-Jr. Weatherly broke out as a sophomore, leading the team in both tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (4.5) in 2014. He's Vanderbilt's most disruptive defender thanks to one of the SEC's strongest speed rushing games. Opposing tackles have struggled to cut off his angles along the edges of the pocket, leading to play-altering pressure from the junior linebacker. SEC opponents will be better prepared for Weatherly's corner rush in 2015, so he'll have to diversify his plan of attack this summer. Even so, he's proven to have a professional grade skill when it comes to getting into the backfield and rattling quarterbacks.
The Battle for the Other Starting Role
The outside linebacker slot across from Weatherly is wide open. While it could go to hybrid defensive ends like Caleb Azubike or Jonathan Wynn, these players are the ones listed at OLB on the Commodores' official roster so far.
Nehemiah Mitchell, Jr. Mitchell is a junior college transfer that already looks the part of an All-SEC linebacker. At 6'4" and 250 pounds he's bigger than Woestmann - the player he's trying to replace. The Californian began his NCAA career at FCS Sacramento State in 2012 and 2013 before spending a transfer season at the City College of San Francisco. He played sparingly in 2013 but had a breakout year at the JuCo level last fall; Mitchell notched 52 tackles and 9.5 sacks as a defensive end for the Rams. Vanderbilt will be the most high-profile stop in his college career, and that will come with a huge step up in competition. He will have the chance to prove himself and earn a starting role this summer, but it won't be easy.
Landon Stokes, Rs-So. Stokes backed up Weatherly last season and will bring the most BCS game experience to the other OLB slot. However, he's only had four tackles in his Commodore career and is still a raw prospect for Mason to mold. He's the son of NFL defensive end Fred Stokes, which suggests that he's a coachable player who should fair better in his second year as a 3-4 linebacker. Old combine numbers say that he's the second-fastest edge rusher on the roster, and that alone will make him an important rotational guy on the second level. If he can show off the kind of strength that sheds blocks and clears a path to opposing quarterbacks then he'll be this team's starting OLB. If not, he'll spend another year coming off the bench and developing his game.
Charles Wright, Rs-Fr. At 193 pounds, Wright was an under-the-radar prospect that Mason saw as a strong fit for his 3-4 defense in Nashville. A redshirt year spent in the weight room has him up to 236, and while that's still light for the position Wright should find his way onto the field this fall. There are concerns as to whether or not the freshman has the speed and lateral movement to handle the coverage duties needed to handle athletic tight ends and escaped tailbacks. He'll need to prove that his added bulk hasn't slowed him down in order to emerge as a potential starter.
The Incoming Freshmen
Josh Smith. This Murfreesboro native could push for playing time the moment he steps on campus. Smith was a four-star recruit who rates out as one of Mason's biggest commitments at Vanderbilt. He pairs great athleticism and strength with a cerebral game that wastes few steps in pursuit of ball carriers. If he can adjust to the Commodores' defensive scheme early he could play four straight years at Dudley Field. The one knock on him, however, is that he's a bit smaller than what Mason is looking for. He'll have to bulk up from his current weight of 236 pounds in order to be an every down player this fall.
Dare Odeyingbo. Odeyingbo is a two-way recruit who also turned heads as a bruising running back before his conversion to full-time linebacker in college. At 6'2", 252 lbs, he has a combination of speed and strength that make him a dangerous tackler from the second level. He's not afraid to take on blockers and use power moves to bully his way to the backfield, but he may need to refine those skills now that he's playing against NCAA competition. This year's lack of experience at OLB could open up a chance for Odeyingbo to shed his redshirt and contribute early on, but like Smith that will all depend on his ability to grasp Derek Mason's defensive schemes.