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Vanderbilt Spring Game Preview: Defense

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Vanderbilt's defense may have fixed its one true weakness, and how well did Mason replace future NFL star Stephen Weatherly?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The spring game is fast approaching and Vanderbilt held a big scrimmage just last week to bring us to the halfway point of Spring football.  That means one thing...it's time to preview the Black and Gold game coming up on March 25th!  I'm going to be giving you a look into the defensive side of the ball this week, the offensive side of the ball next week, and then we're going to follow that up with the Anchor of Gold Staff making predictions for what they hope to see at the Spring game.

Let's get this preview started...

Defensive Line

Butler

Last season one of Vanderbilt's weaknesses was its defensive line. We had Caleb Azubike, Jay Woods, Adam Butler as starters, and Jonathan Wynn, Nifae Lealao, and Torey Agee spelled them as subs.  This unit was especially strong against the run but there was just one huge problem with the unit -- there wasn't enough quality depth to face all the SEC teams that Vanderbilt was going to encounter throughout the year.  As a starting unit Azubike, Woods, and Butler combined for 71 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, and seven sacks. Wynn, Lealao, and Agee, on the other hand, had 56 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and three sacks.  That was a strong effort from the second group, which was anchored by Wynn who was often times a big x-factor.

But we saw it last year, those six took a pounding game after game after game after game.  Eventually the grind of a season wore on, and by the end our boys were so gassed their defensive play looked more like the 2014 Commodores than the 2015 Commodores.  So what makes me more excited about this year?

Well, depth.  Vandy lost Caleb Azubike...a guy I always felt had another gear he never quite reached, but was still a solid contributor for several years.  While they did lose his contributions, they'll gain a lot more.  Darion DeBrossard is 6'4 and 295 lbs. He redshirted last season but is going to be in the mix for spring ball.  In my mind, he's more of a prototypical nose guard over a guy like Leolao (who I always projected as a 3 or 5 technique) and can give big Jay Woods a breather every now and then.

There is a lot more than just DeBrossard.  Dare Odeyingbo moved to defensive end this spring.  Last year, he was played some linebacker and was recruited as a linebacker/running back out of Texas.  If you needed an indicator the strength program was working...that's it. Vandy's got a former running back playing defensive end (which also speaks to the caliber of athletes Derek Mason recruits).

Overall with this group you're losing one major contributor, gaining two for the spring, and adding Drew Birchmeier, Cameron Tidd, and the highly touted Josiah Sa'o in the fall.  I'm not crazy enough to think that all of them will play, but I'm more than willing to bet Sa'o is going to suit up a couple of games and rotate on that defensive line.  I expect Birchmeier and Tidd to play the role DeBrossard filled last fall where they redshirt and run scout team in preparation for next season.

I think you'll see some heavy rotations in a group that is expected to be three deep at each spot (including walk-ons).  I think this group will be better with another year in the weight room. Of course, being another year older never hurts either.  I feel like this group FINALLY has the "Deep Water Depth" Coach Mason wanted for his team.  The sad thing is...this group is still the weakest part of the defense, but that speaks more about how good the other pieces are and not how bad this one is (because it's a pretty great front).

Linebackers

Cunningham

This is my favorite group and the one I most looked forward to covering.  This is the group that sets the tone for the Vanderbilt defense. I've studied these athletes for a while now and while I can't quite call them the best linebacker group in the Southeastern Conference I would go on a limb and say they're pretty damn close.

Vanderbilt showcased its depth when leader Nigel Bowden went down with an injury.  This left Zach Cunningham to lead the charge in the middle with Darreon Herring following behind. Those two were pretty nasty and wrecked a lot of teams. While Herring will be missed, the players Vanderbilt has replacing him are above and beyond what he was for us.  Let's dive deeper into it.

Outside Linebackers

This group was carried by future NFL player Stephen Weatherly who tore up the world with 46 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, two fumbles forced, and two more recovered. He was without a doubt the edge rusher needed to set the tone for this program.  During the last scrimmage on Friday we caught a glimpse of the man who will be most responsible for replacing him.

Redshirt freshman Caleb Peart came out hot against the Commodores offense, chasing down plays and swallowing quarterbacks alive with a two sack performance.  This was a kid I was super high on last season and thought he might get a chance to play.  He didn't but he'll comes in bigger, faster, stronger, and ready to replace Weatherly in 2016.

On the other end there is a new addition (in terms of outside linebackers) with Josh Smith, who was previously recruited as an inside linebacker. He'll be mostly responsible as a coverage outside linebacker instead of a pass rushing linebacker.  Meanwhile the team still has Landon Stokes and Nehemiah Mitchell as the veteran leaders of a group who return more battle tested this fall.  We did see some struggles with both Stokes and Nehemiah as guys in coverage last fall, so don't be too surprised if you see those two mostly in a pressure role for the Commodores in the spring.  I'm still slightly worried about linebacker coverage with this group, but they good news is they can and will cause havoc in the backfield.

Inside Linebackers

Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham are taking over as the incumbents but looking at this group, but behind them you see a lot of highly valuable depth.  It's entirely possible both Cunningham and Bowden bolt after the season for the NFL, and while I hope they stay as long as possible I will say the guys behind them make me excited as well.

Jay Hockaday, Jordan Griffin, and Ja'karri Thomas are the kind of players who Vanderbilt can be excited about.  Last year Thomas only contributed 14 tackles, but as a redshirt senior he is expected to be a big part in what Vanderbilt does.  Ja'karri was a three-star recruit out of Tallahassee, Florida. He came in and redshirted before making the switch to inside linebacker.  Often raved about as one of the smarter linebackers, Thomas has had to wait a long time before being in a position where he could contribute and be a leader. While he is overshadowed by his All-SEC counterpart(s), he still is a valuable piece for the program.

Jordan Griffin: what can you say about this kid?  We got him from Tampa.  We stole him from Wisconsin at the last minute on signing day and all he did was come in and impress.  While he didn't do much outside of special teams work last season, I have reason to believe that a full year in a college weight program has done nothing but made this young man better.  He was second in Armwood high school history with 428 tackles, which is especially impressive considering how good Armwood has been for years.

His speed sets him apart, and I expect him to make quite an impact on game day.  The unknown of the group is Jay Hockaday, who came in as a Nashville kid and spent last year as an ATH.  Now that he's playing defense full time we should get a chance to see him develop along the way, I don't expect him to have a huge impact in the spring, but I think he'll do well.

Defensive Backs

McGaster

There is no question Vanderbilt has targeted SEVERAL highly touted defensive backs in the last several years.  Now the big question is how many of these will pay off and how many may have to switch spots if they don't fit?  Remember our best receiver last year was a converted safety, so it isn't unreasonable to think that maybe one of these guys will switch sides of the ball.

For now, Vanderbilt has the no fly zone up.  Both starting corners return from last season while Torren McGaster and Tre Herndon look to capitalize and grow from their stellar season this past year.  One thing this group, and the entire defense as a whole, will look to improve on is the amount of interceptions they forced last season (only six).  The good news is the defense as a whole (and especially the defensive backs) were great at forcing fumbles...a trend they'll need to continue.  McGaster is being talked about as a day one or day two cornerback for next year's NFL draft, so how much he improves will either add to or take away from his hype.  But there are a lot more than just those two corners returning, as both Oren Burks and Ryan White come back this season (both were heavily involved in the safety rotation last year).  Let's take a look at some of the other defensive backs that you'll see in the Black and Gold Game.

Cornerbacks

If you haven't noticed the Commodores have been recruiting a very specific type of cornerback.  Derek Mason likes long, lanky, athletic guys who can not only cover you man to man but also come up and lay the wood on ball carriers.  Looking for such a specific type of corner has gotten Coach Mason quite a collection of corners, even arguably the best group in the SEC East (they'll will have to prove that on the field, of course).

What they may lack in star rankings they make up for in on-field ability.  Guys who were overlooked or considered the wrong fit for some schools end up coming to Vanderbilt and slide right in. Other guys who are highly touted (like Joejuan Williams and Donovan Sheffield) also join this group to give it a well rounded mix of players.  What I like about this group is exactly what I said earlier; they won't hesitate to come up and knock you into next year if you have the ball in your hands.

They're also very good in the press, show great closing speed and an explosive first step when coming for the ball.  One thing that I don't like about this group is sometimes they do get caught looking in the backfield and get burned.  I expect that's more of an age thing and that will get better with time.  I do expect either Sheffield or Williams (or Jones, but I'll cover him next) to have an interception at least once this game.  I think they're going to see heavy reps for the Commodores this game in an effort to get them up to game speed, giving them a big shot at making a play.

One thing I am curious about is if we're going to get another defensive back moving to the offensive side of the ball.  Both Ladarius Wiley and Taurean Ferguson played some wide receiver in high school, and Coach Mason has shown he isn't scared to move a defensive guy if he thinks it is going to help.

Safeties

This defense lives and dies off its safety core.  The good news for us is, this safety core is a pretty good one.

Oren Burks returns as a starting free safety from last year, with Ryan White, Emmanuel Smith, and Tre Tarpley all coming in off years where they contributed to the cause.  The thing about the Vanderbilt's safeties is  they're expected to come up in the running game, they're expected to hit wideouts over the middle, and they're expected to play much like the Ravens/Steelers/Titans did in the early 2000s.  When Vanderbilt recruits safeties they aren't exactly looking at you to cover super well (though if you can cover, it will help) but they are looking for guys who can make an impact in the physical aspect of the game.

This is a deeper group than corner, so the same idea applies.  If someone is good enough to move to offense, don't be surprised if they make the move.  Especially with Zaire Jones, Austin Quillen, and Frank Coppet all coming in this fall.  I'm expecting to see this group really step their game up this spring, as they're replacing Andrew Williamson and Jahmel McIntosh, two guys who were heavily rotated in and started for the Commodores.  Don't be surprised if Jones comes in as the hungry freshman and makes some big plays early.  Also don't be surprised if Emmanuel Smith and Tre Tarpley duke it out to see who will take more reps.  Tarpley has the edge coming off a great year last season, but Emmanuel Smith was highly touted for a reason and I don't expect him to lay down lightly.  This group has potential to be really exciting this year, and is without a doubt the thing the offense needs to watch out for the most in the spring game.

Potential Starting Lineup

Sack

Using last year's depth chart (along with spring reports) here is what I expect to see later this month, all unofficial of course.  Starters in bold, possible position moves in italics.

DT: Adam Butler, Torey Agee, Nifae Lealao or Kade Mayle

NT: Jay Woods, Nifae Lealao, Darrion DeBrossard

DE: Jonathan Wynn, Dare Odeyingbo, Riley Tindol

OLB: Landon Stokes, Caleb Peart, Charles Wright

ILB: Nigel Bowden, Ja'Karri Thomas, Jay Hockaday

ILB: Zach Cunningham, Jordan Griffin, Khari Blasingame (also playing FB)

OLB: Josh Smith, Nehemiah Mitchell, Caleb Peart

CB: Torren McGaster, Joejuan Williams, Ladarius Wiley

S: Oren Burks, Tre Tarpley, Zaire Jones

S: Ryan White, Emmanuel Smith, Andrew Rector

CB: Tre Herndon, Taureaun Ferguson, Donovan Sheffield

Nickelback: Tre Tarpley, Donovan Sheffield

Hopefully you've enjoy my Spring Game Preview, be on the lookout for the offense coming out next week!