Vanderbilt's stout defense just lost its most threatening edge pass rusher. Junior linebacker Stephen Weatherly declared for the NFL Draft last week and will pass up his final season of NCAA eligibility.
Weatherly confirmed the news to the Tennessean on Tuesday. However, his departure became clear late in December when he signed with management agency Tier 1 Sports.
— Tier 1 Sports Mgmt (@Tier1SportsMgmt) December 31, 2015
He was also honored with the team's seniors during Vanderbilt's final home game of 2015, tipping his future plans and forcing Commodore fans to worry a bit more about the future back in November.
Weatherly had a breakout 2014 season as an outside linebacker in Derek Mason's 3-4 defense. The 250 pound pass rusher led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and emerged as Vanderbilt's top pass rusher. He wasn't able to channel that momentum into 2015, but he was still solid on the edge, notching 8.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and forcing two fumbles.
I feel pretty fortunate that I have experience in both — with my hand down [as a defensive end] in a 4-3 and as an outside linebacker in a 3-4, My numbers came down a little bit this year, but defenses were respecting me a lot more and (All-SEC linebacker Zach) Cunningham’s numbers went through the roof.
While his lowered output and the Commodores' 4-8 record didn't give him the storybook ending he was likely hoping for, Weatherly can fall back on his combination of size and athleticism to boost his draft stock back up to 2014 levels. He announced his intentions to bulk up to 260+ pounds before the NFL Draft Combine. A big performance there would help stake his claim as a day two draft pick - or justify an even earlier pick.
Vanderbilt will now turn to linebackers Landon Stokes, Nehemiah Mitchell, Charles Wright and Josh Smith to fill the void Weatherly leaves behind. Smith was the team's top defensive prospect in the program's last recruiting class, and he could make a big splash in 2016 after forcing his way into the linebacking rotation last fall. Replacing Weatherly's aggressive edge rush won't be easy, but the Commodores have the talent to make his departure a bump in the road rather than a chasm of sackless despair.