Vanderbilt's safeties put in more work than the average defensive back last fall; a porous front seven helped lead to plenty of extra tackles for the players stationed 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. That put plenty of pressure on a group of players that had just graduated a pair of standout starters in Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall. Fortunately, two veterans and one redshirt freshman were strong enough to handle those duties.
Two juniors, Andrew Williamson and Jahmel McIntosh, stepped up to the plate alongside emerging starter Oren Burks to keep the Commodore defense rolling in a trying year.They'll return in 2015 with hopes of restoring the Vanderbilt secondary to its once-dominant past. Behind them, a talented class of sophomore playmakers will flesh out a deep cache of safeties.
The Presumptive Starters
Oren Burks, Free Safety, Rs. SO: Burks came to Nashville as a linebacker, but his ball skills were strong enough to move him out of a logjam at his former position and into a starting role at safety. He combines the tackling and strength of an OLB with the intellect and instincts that keep him around the ball. Burks led the Commodores with 14 passes broken up or defended in 2014, and that number only stands to grow as he builds experience at the position. He wasn't flawless as a freshman, but he should miss fewer assignments and develop into a veteran leader if he can continue to grow like he has in his first two years on campus.
Andrew Williamson, Strong Safety, Rs. SR: Williamson stepped up as a veteran leader to help keep the Vanderbilt secondary from falling apart due to inexperience and injury in 2014. He's strong enough to creep up to the line of scrimmage and jump into the backfield to make plays as either a blitzer or a run-stopping presence, but he's versatile enough to be the backbone of Vandy's last line of passing defense. He made 54 stops last season, in part because the Commodore defense let too many ballcarriers into the secondary. A stronger effort from a growing corps would allow Williamson to show off his versatility and put himself alongside names like Sean Richardson and Kenny Ladler as standout Vanderbilt safeties.
Jahmel McIntosh, Free/Strong Safety, Rs. SR: McIntosh slid into a starting role alongside Burks to close out the 2014 season and proved to be a versatile enough player to handle either safety position. He never really stood out as a playmaker last season, but provided a veteran presence for a young and unstable secondary. He has solid closing speed that helps make him a big hitter and strong help defender, but he'll have to upgrade his performance to really stand out this fall. If Burks stays healthy, expect McIntosh to play closer to Vandy's linebackers in order to provide run support while his free safety plays center field.
The Main Rotation Players
Emmanuel Smith, SO: Smith was one of the crown jewels of Mason's 2014 recruiting class after earning a four-star grade from Rivals. He stepped into a rotational role last fall and appeared in 10 games (making three tackles) on the season. At 6'2" and 218 pounds he's got the combination of speed and size that the Commodores are looking for in their secondary. While his skills are on point, he still needs to show that he can handle the assignments of an SEC defense before he can earn more snaps in the defensive backfield than on special teams. If Mason is the defensive genius that he's been painted as, he'll find a way to utilize an athletic standout like Smith. If not, the Murfreesboro native's development may wind up taking a more deliberate path than expected.
Arnold Tarpley, SO: Tarpley also saw action as a true freshman and arguably had a greater impact than the more highly-recruited Smith. The player formerly known as "Tre" made 18 stops last season and proved to be strong enough to bring down runners near or behind the line of scrimmage. He can also shift into the slot and cover receivers as a nickel back when called on. He's still the rough draft of a complete player, but he showed off instincts and athleticism that belied his two-star status as a high school prospect. He'll have to prove that he hasn't reached his ceiling as a player and that he has the speed to be an effective cover man in the secondary before he ascends to major minutes with the Commodores.
Ryan White, Rs. SO: White moved to safety after coming to Nashville as a four-star cornerback and had a significant impact in his first year of action last fall. He's small for the position at 5'9" and 190 pounds, but his fundamentally strong tackling gave him the tools needed to drag down wiry receivers and bulkier tailbacks alike. Like Williamson, he's capable of roving around the line of scrimmage and providing run support as an extra defender, but he struggled in SEC play and saw less and less playing time as the season wore on thanks in part to the emergence of the two true freshmen featured below and Burks's return from injury. He has plenty to prove now that the Commodores have returned to practice.
Jalen Banks, Rs. SO: Banks was lost in the shuffle when fellow freshmen like White, Tarpley, and Smith passed him on the depth chart, but his strong all-around athleticism could boost him up the depth chart as he continues to adjust to Derek Mason's strategies. He has the ball skills to man the middle of the field as a pass defender, but he'll need to show a more well-rounded game in order to pull the trigger on significant playing time this fall.
Andrew Rector, FR: Rector was an under-the-radar recruit from nearby Father Ryan High School who seems likely to redshirt in his first year on campus. He's facing an uphill battle for playing time on a Commodore roster that's loaded with young talent at safety. He showed off solid instincts as a recruit, but he'll have to sharpen those skills to make an impact in the SEC.