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2016 Vanderbilt Football Position Previews: Inside Linebackers

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On paper, this is one of Vanderbilt’s strongest units. But what happens if, God forbid, something happens to Zach Cunningham?

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

When we talked about Vanderbilt’s defensive line, perhaps we forgot to mention this.

The Commodore defensive line may not do a lot of things that show up in the stats, but they’re pretty great at freeing up the linebackers to make plays.

Vanderbilt’s linebacking corps was arguably one of the team’s biggest strengths in 2015 — and while the Commodores do have to replace a pair of starters there, the biggest star in the unit is back to wreck shop in 2016.

And behind Zach Cunningham and Nigel Bowden, the Commodores have a pair of sophomores who are ready to contribute... but may not be needed if the starters remain in good health.

Projected Starters

Zach Cunningham, redshirt junior: As a sophomore, Cunningham led Vanderbilt in total tackles (103), forced fumbles (4), sacks (4.5), and tackles for loss (16.5), and was named first team All-SEC, the only Commodore to earn All-SEC honors last year. Cunningham isn’t penciled in as a starter, he’s written in Sharpie. Any questions?

Nigel Bowden, redshirt junior: Ironically, Cunningham might not have been a starter last season if not for Bowden getting injured. Bowden started the first two games of the season alongside Darreon Herring, but an injury suffered in the Georgia game caused him to miss the rest of the year. But he received Freshman All-SEC honors in 2014, when he started 11 games and led the team with 78 total tackles, including two tackles for loss and a sack. Now he figures to slot in replacing Herring at the inside ‘backer spot opposite Cunningham.

The Depth

Josh Smith, sophomore: Smith, the star recruit in Vanderbilt’s 2015 recruiting class, saw action in all 12 games last season and notched seven tackles. It’s a testament to the strength of this unit that Smith can’t crack the starting lineup, but his presence may mean that in a disaster scenario of one of the starters getting hurt, Vanderbilt may not suffer all that much.

Ja’karri Thomas, redshirt senior: The lone senior in the group, Thomas saw action in 10 games last season, mostly on special teams though he did see some action at linebacker. Thomas notched 14 tackles on the season, though five of those came in the Austin Peay game. Thomas is strictly a depth guy at this point and probably won’t see significant action even in the event of an injury to a starter with several talented underclassmen in the linebacking corps.

Jordan Griffin, sophomore: As a true freshman in 2015, Griffin appeared in 11 games and made nine stops, the second-most of any freshman on the team behind only Khari Blasingame. Blasingame has since moved to running back, perhaps a testament to how much faith Derek Mason and company have in Griffin and Josh Smith to serve as depth behind Bowden and Cunningham.

Jay Hockaday, sophomore: Another guy who saw action at inside linebacker as a true freshman, Hockaday participated in eight games and made two stops as a freshman. He’ll primarily see action on special teams this year, as he’s behind Griffin and Smith (never mind Cunningham and Bowden) on the depth chart at inside linebacker.