Casey Hayward. Myron Lewis. D.J. Moore. Corey Chavous. Vanderbilt has sent more successful defensive backs to the NFL than any other position in school history.
This year, a handful of young prospects will try to continue that legacy. Vanderbilt struggled against the pass in 2014 after losing their entire starting secondary from the prior season. Freshmen and sophomore stepped up to fill roles vacated by stalwarts like Andre Hal and Kenny Ladler, but mostly struggled as the Commodores slumped to a 3-9 season in Derek Mason's first year as head coach.
Mason regrouped after a horrible year on West End and decided that he'd take over the playcalling duties as this team's defensive coordinator. That's a brilliant move from a PR standpoint. The head coach will take over a defense that was brimming with freshmen in 2014 and lost only two starters - Vince Taylor and Kyle Woestmann - to graduation. Now that those players have an extra year of development under their belts, improvement is almost a certainty at Vanderbilt. And Mason will be there to glean the credit.
The biggest area of improvement will come at cornerback. Last year, Vanderbilt lost one of their most productive young cornerbacks when Paris Head decided to leave the program and focus on his studies instead of playing football. That leaves the 2015 Commodores with just one upperclassman among their cover men - redshirt junior Torren McGaster. However, that doesn't mean that this team is depleted at the position; a cache of talented athletes will share snaps this summer in one of the team's most compelling battles for starting honors.
While McGaster seems assured of his place in the lineup, five underclassmen will compete for the second CB spot on the Commodores' depth chart. Taurean Ferguson and Tre Herndon were listed as 1 and 1a at the other corner by the time last year's season finale came to Nashville, and they'll both return to vie for that role as sophomores. Tre Bell began 2014 as a starter and has a chance to regain that role this fall. LaDarius Wiley is healthy again and a favorite of Mason's. Local product Donovan Sheffield hits campus as one of the most hyped recruits in the class of 2015.
There's a lot of young talent to sort through in the Commodore secondary. Let's take a closer look at Vanderbilt's cornerbacks.
Last Year's Returning Starters
Torren McGaster, Rs. JR: McGaster, this team's veteran presence as a sophomore, developed into Vanderbilt's most effective cornerback in 2014. The Alabamian broke up or defensed a dozen passes last season while showing off a polished tackling game that made him an effective stopper in the open field. His 46 solo tackles - nine more than the next closest Commodore - confirm that. At 6'0", 200 pounds, he's strong enough to bump receivers off their routes and tall enough that most receivers can't just scoop passes over his head. The biggest question that will follow him through 2015 is whether he's fast enough to handle opponents' deep threats.
Taurean Ferguson, Rs. SO: Ferguson shared the spot atop the team's interception leaderboard with McGaster. They each had two. While McGaster was entrenched in the Commodores' starting lineup, Ferguson's role was more dynamic. He came off the bench early in the season to earn his spot atop the depth chart, then had to fend off freshman Tre Herndon late in the year to retain that role. Since he's a smaller corner, he's asked to do a lot more in coverage than McGaster. He showed off strong ball skills in his first year of NCAA action, and another year of polish should help him boost that interception count to somewhere between four and six. The emergence of a bigger corner like Herndon could push him to the slot, but Ferguson will be a constant presence for this defense in 2015.
Rising Stars With SEC Experience
Tre Herndon, SO: Herndon went from a third-string role at the beginning of his freshman season to option 1a across from McGaster by the end of the year. At 6'1", he's just the kind of big cornerback that Mason preferred back at Stanford. He'll have to answer questions about his ability to handle man-to-man coverage, but he can produce right away in a zone setup. He's quick enough laterally to handle special teams duties, and that speed should translate well to coverage this fall. He should find plenty of opportunities to see the field, especially when the Commodores convert to three-cornerback sets.
Tre Bell, Rs. SO: Bell began the season on the field but struggled to keep up with NCAA receivers and ended the season as a contributor off the bench. He got picked on early last season and wound up on the ugly end of some ESPN highlights, but that's not unexpected from a freshman starter against SEC competition. He's worked hard to add weight to his frame, but he's still much more of a ballhawking cornerback than one who can step up and stop the run. He'll gamble on passes, which can result on some electric plays but more often led to big gains from opposing receivers in 2014. He should be steadier as a sophomore, and those defensive instincts could put him back in the starting lineup if the young corner can play with more consistency this fall.
The Wild Card
LaDarius Wiley, SO: Derek Mason saw something he liked in Wiley last season. He burned the Californian's redshirt early before losing his first-year player to injury in the second game of the year. Wiley was a high school safety, so don't be surprised if he plays a dynamic role in the Vandy secondary this season. The sophomore could find his way into the lineup as needed if he can show off the athleticism and football IQ that drew Mason's attention last summer. He's tough enough to take on running backs in the box and smart enough to identify receiving routes as they develop. He could fill several different gaps in 2015.
The Instant Impact Freshman
Donovan Sheffield, FR: Sheffield was one of the gems of the 2015 recruiting class. The Ensworth grad pledged to Vanderbilt back when James Franklin was still head coach and honored his commitment despite the changing fortunes that swept through the West End. He has tremendous coverage instincts and has the foundation to be the kind of cornerback that defenses can leave on an island in one-on-one matchups. Mason wasn't afraid to burn redshirts last season, but he's still loaded with plenty of young depth at corner. Sheffield is a special enough player to justify a week one spot on the Vandy depth chart, but he'll have to avoid the growing pains that come with a transition to the NCAA if he wants to fend off some strong competition in the Commodore secondary.