One notable development in the offseason was Oren Burks’ move to the “Star” position — a new hybrid linebacker/safety position that seems to be tailor-made for Burks’ talents.
What’s not entirely clear is whether this represents a shift to a 3-3-5 defense or if Burks is simply taking over the second outside linebacker spot in the 3-4. With Stephen Weatherly off to the NFL, and with Nehemiah Mitchell moved to the defensive line, the candidates for one of the outside linebacker spots are a sophomore who had three tackles last year, and three freshmen. Perhaps the move is a response to the roster: while Vanderbilt is pretty well set at inside linebacker, moving Burks to outside linebacker might be a better move than putting an inexperienced linebacker there. Meanwhile Vanderbilt has a ton of defensive backs on the roster and there’s only so much playing time to go around.
So we’ll see if this is a permanent feature of the defense or simply a response to the current situation.
Landon Stokes, redshirt junior: Stokes took over as the starting outside linebacker opposite Stephen Weatherly midway through last season and, in five starts, he had 18 tackles and four pass breakups. He also had three tackles for loss and a sack in the Missouri game. At 6’4”, 240 pounds, Stokes has size that you often see in 4-3 defensive ends, which makes him a good fit for the outside linebacker spot in the 3-4.
Oren Burks, redshirt junior: Is Burks a safety or a linebacker? In the spring, Mason moved him to the “star” position, which is kind of a hybrid safety/linebacker position. Burks started all 12 games at free safety last season, but at 6’3”, 222 pounds, he’s not undersized for a linebacker. Look for Burks to play a big role in the Vanderbilt defense in 2016, regardless of how we’re defining his position; last year, he finished third on the team with 59 tackles and also led the team with three interceptions. He gives the defense a ton of flexibility to react to what the offense is doing.
Charles Wright, redshirt sophomore: Wright played in 11 of 12 games in 2015 but only had three tackles in his redshirt freshman season, and all three came in the Austin Peay game (but he did have 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack.) But with little in the way of depth at this position, the 6’3”, 237-pound sophomore should see plenty of playing time in 2016.
Caleb Peart, redshirt freshman: Peart was rated as a three-star defensive end as a recruit, but moved to linebacker at Vanderbilt and didn’t play as a freshman. Peart had a good spring and should see playing time backing up Burks in 2016.
Kenny Hebert: Hebert, at 6’4” and 220 pounds, seems like a redshirt candidate simply because he’ll need to put on weight to contribute, though injuries could force him into action. Hebert played defensive end and safety in addition to linebacker in high school and depending on how he develops, he may not stay at linebacker at Vanderbilt.
Andre Mintze: At 6’3”, 225 pounds, Mintze has good size for the linebacker position and may have been overlooked as a recruit thanks to a senior year injury (and, possibly, playing in an underscouted area.) Reports say he looked good early in fall camp and may have a shot at immediate playing time.