Year one of Vanderbilt's conversion from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense under head coach Derek Mason didn't fare so well - but the jury's out as to whether it was an issue of scheme or just an influx of new starters that hamstrung the Commodores last season. Now, nine returning starters and a more hands-on approach from Mason himself should have Vandy trending upwards for 2015.
Vanderbilt allowed more than 33 points per game last season. They ranked 72nd nationally when it came to yards per game. This was a major letdown for Commodore fans who expected the mastermind behind Stanford's top-20 defenses to overcome massive player losses and stand up to SEC offenses en route to a fourth-straight bowl game. Mason's team under-performed in 2014, but there were bursts of light illuminating an otherwise dark football season last year. Many of those came from the team's defensive line.
Granted, these flashes weren't any kind of consistent light at the end of the tunnel. Vandy still gave up 183 rushing yards per game, but the stats don't show the whole picture of a worn-down defense that got little recovery time thanks to a three-and-out heavy offense that never found an identity in 2014. They'll have to replace standout man-mountain Vince Taylor in the middle of the line, but there's plenty of talent on board when it comes to clogging up the turf between the hashmarks and driving opposing centers and guards into the backfield.
The Commodores only have one player officially listed at defensive tackle; sophomore Nifae Lealao. Two more line disruptors, Adam Butler and Riley Tindol, are just designated as defensive linemen on the team roster. That means that Butler, a penetrating lineman who has shined as one of Vandy's brightest stars in the trenches, will continue to rotate between the edges in order to give Vanderbilt a dynamic and effective defensive presence up front. Other players like Jay Woods and Torey Agee could see playing time in the center of Mason's 3-4 scheme this fall, but they're currently listed as defensive ends; that means we'll cover them when our previews roll on to the next position.
The Presumptive Starter(s)
Nifae Lealao, sophomore. Lealao arrived in Nashville last season with some fanfare attached; the California native and U.S. Army All-American was the star of Derek Mason's first recruiting class at Vanderbilt. The former four-star prospect was pressed into action immediately, he played as a rotational defender in the season opener against Temple and logged snaps in eight other games. Though he had a limited impact in his first season as a Commodore, that experience should give him a major edge when it comes to locking down the starting spot as nose tackle.
Lealao is a disruptive defender who is quick enough to shoot into gaps and turn opponents' blocking schemes to mush. At 320 pounds he's a tough assignment for opposing guards and centers to move out of the way, and when he stays low enough to retain his leverage Lealao has the strength to push linemen backwards in short yardage situations. He didn't show much prowess as a pass rusher last season, but that's a trait that will develop over time. Even if it doesn't, his primary role on this defense will be to swallow up tailbacks and gum up running lanes.
Adam Butler, junior. Butler is a dynamic defender who can fill several roles on the line but is best suited for interior work whether he's playing in a 3-4 or a 4-3 base defense. He played both end and tackle as a sophomore, which allowed him to attack several different angles while Mason's OLB/DE hybrids like Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike blitzed opposing tackles along the edges. Butler is an immensely strong human who excels at penetrating through gaps and disrupting plays - most notably on special teams, where he's been good for a blocked kick per season.
The junior has turned heads in Nashville with his strong play inside, but 2015 could be the breakout year that puts him on national watchlists. At 6'5" and 305 pounds he's got excellent size on the line and he's proven to be one of the team's most explosive players each time the whistle blows at Dudley Field. His versatility and strength will make him the anchor Vanderbilt needs in the trenches this fall.
Pushing for Playing Time
Riley Tindol, RS freshman. Tindol earned some press on signing day in 2014 when he emerged from the ether to pledge to the Commodores. Vanderbilt was the only major offer for the under-the-radar big man, but his size (6'5", 275 lbs) as a high school senior made him an intriguing prospect at the tail end of Mason's first class. He'll have a big opportunity to earn playing time this summer if he can show off the skills that made Mason raise an eyebrow back in '14.