Inside linebacker isn't a glamorous position in college football. The big guys in the middle have to play field general, acting as the nexus of a swirling defense around them. They're the players tasked with blasting through momentum-backed offensive linemen to bring down accelerating tailbacks and keeping their heads in 360 degree mobility when a quarterback drops back to pass.
Fortunately, Vanderbilt has two of the best young building blocks in the conference manning the middle in 2015. Two redshirt sophomores will provide the gravity that holds down the core of the Commodore defense this fall. Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham slid into starting roles as redshirt freshmen last season, and though they each suffered some growing pains, they look like the team's starters through 2017. Behind them, key veterans and rising newcomers flesh out one of the deepest positions on the Commodores' roster.
So far, there's been lots of discussion over where the team's incoming freshmen will play as linebackers. Without significant practice tape to look at, the positional layout for this team's newcomers is still pretty dynamic. Guys like Josh Smith and Dare Odeyingbo were grouped with the outside linebackers, but they could very easily find a role on the inside once Derek Mason gets to see what they are capable of at full speed against SEC athletes. The same goes for Caleb Peart and Jordan Griffin; size-wise, they look more like Mason's ILBs - shorter and a a bit lighter than the guys on the outside. However, a guy like Peart, who played defensive end in high school, certainly has the chops to take snaps as a pass-rushing OLB.
Since it's July, these previews are based on two major components; Vanderbilt's official roster and past results. There's plenty of wiggle room between our projections and the actual output on the field on September third. What we do know is that the Commodores will boast plenty of depth up the middle, and that Bowden and Cunningham could give them an All-SEC duo if they can live up to the potential they've flashed early in their college careers.
The Presumptive Starters
Nigel Bowden, Rs. SO: Bowden stepped into a starting role in his second season on campus and played well enough to earn a place on the SEC's All-Freshman team. He led the Commodores - and all league freshmen - with 78 tackles, but only two of those came behind the line of scrimmage. Bowden isn't much of a pass rusher, but he's a field general who understands how plays are going to unfold and always manages to find a way to be around the ball. He's a thick bodied defender with the size and strength to bring down any ball carriers that rumble into the second level. The sophomore will be Vandy's most dependable run stopper, and his job should be easier now that the Vanderbilt defensive line has had another year to gel together and grow in Mason's 3-4 scheme.
Zach Cunningham, Rs. SO: A former four-star prospect at outside linebacker, Cunningham moved to the interior once Derek Mason came to town and implemented a new defense in Nashville. He didn't have the immediate impact that Bowden had, but still moved into the starting lineup for the team's final five games and managed to rank second on the team in total tackles. Those two have solid complimentary games in the middle; Bowden can play anchor in the middle while the faster, rangier Cunningham gives the 'Dores more flexibility to blitz passers or engage blockers near the line of scrimmage. He had trouble in coverage last season, but he has the speed and lateral quickness to catch up to receivers and be a disruptive force as a tackler and against the passing game. Alongside Bowden, he gives Mason and the Commodores a major building block for the future while delivering strong performances in the present.
Darreon Herring, SR: Herring exploded onto the scene under James Franklin, recording 33 tackles as a true freshman on a nine-win Commodore team. He stepped up onto a unit in need of talent and depth and delivered, giving Vanderbilt a hard-hitting outside linebacker who could get from sideline to sideline in pursuit of ballcarriers without wasting a step. Derek Mason's switch to a 3-4 defense reduced his role at first, but Herring was too talented to keep off the field; the junior found a new role as a nickel back that allowed Vanderbilt to keep their most effective tacklers on the gridiron. Herring will be counted on to lead this team as a senior who has seen the best and the worst that Vandy has to offer. Expect another solid year from the veteran.
Experienced Depth Who Could Start in a Pinch
Ja'karri Thomas, Rs. JR: Thomas made one start last season, but spent most of his time providing support for an overworked linebacking corps. He's an active defender in the middle who is quick to get to the ball, but he still looked lost at times after 2014's switch to a 3-4 defense. He'll be counted on to step up his coverage over the middle as a key rotational linebacker this fall.
Harding Harper, Rs. JR: The man with the most Vanderbilt name on the roster missed most of 2014 due to injury, but he's back at inside linebacker after moving to fullback in James Franklin's last year as head coach. He's an x-factor at the position; a player with ideal size but no real body of work in his three years in Nashville. He's a stout tackler head on, but there are questions about whether he's fast enough laterally to bring down more explosive tailbacks in the open field. Like Thomas, he'll have a chance to prove himself as a veteran leader in 2015.
Khari Blasingame, Rs. FR: As a former safety, Blasingame should bring a strong level of coverage capabilities to Vanderbilt's linebacking corps. He's bulked up to 228 pounds and could be the heir apparent to Herring's spot as a hybrid rover in the secondary. The knock on him as a recruit was that his passing game skills were strong, but his tackling needed more aggression and strength. He'll bring speed and the ability to track receivers and tight ends from sideline to sideline for the Commodores, but Blasingame will need to prove himself against the run before he earns significant playing time against SEC opponents.
Caleb Peart, FR. As previously discussed, Peart has the pass-rushing experience and athleticism to man the outside linebacker spot even though he doesn't have ideal size for the position. He's a physical hitter who runs through his tackles and leaves no doubt when he makes contact. He's fast enough to handle OLB duties but mean enough to be a run-stopping ILB as well. If you really want to be sold on Peart, check out what our football coach correspondent theomega311 has to say about him.
Jordan Griffin, FR: Griffin flew under the radar as a recruit due to a lack of size, but he's up to 6'0" and 215 pounds since arriving in Nashville. A few more inches wouldn't hurt, as Griffin already has a muscular frame and it's not absurd to wonder where he'll put the extra pounds needed to bring down all types of ballcarriers in the SEC. Though size is a concern, his athleticism is not. He has the speed and quick feet to be an active pass rusher and can get to the quarterback through inside lanes or around the hashmarks. He reads opposing passers well and can handle coverage duties over the middle. His talent will give him a chance to contribute all over the field, and his projected future as a Commodore could lead him anywhere from a run-crushing strong safety to a pass-rushing outside linebacker. There's a ton of talent here; the fun part will be seeing where Derek Mason fits it.