Vanderbilt’s tradition of producing elite cornerbacks is in good hands this fall. Torren McGaster quietly turned his third of the field into a safe space for birds, bees, and low-flying drones when he developed into a lockdown talent along the sideline. While his contributions may have been overlooked for a lack of gaudy stats, he’ll team with Tre Herndon and Arnold Tarpley to squeeze out the SEC’s top receivers in 2016.
That trio will be joined by two young players who represent some of Derek Mason’s finest work on the recruiting trail. Sophomore Donovan Sheffield and freshman JoeJuan Williams have the talent to play their ways into starting roles this fall, but the four-star duo have an uphill climb ahead of them. Williams and Sheffield may be this team’s future, but the present is pretty damn good, too.
Torren McGaster, redshirt senior: McGaster earned preseason All-SEC honors from Phil Steele, then was summarily ignored by the rest of the league’s press. All that tells me is no one watched much Vanderbilt football in 2015. McGaster broke up or defended 26 passes last season while doing everything Derek Mason asked him to as a specialty blitzer and second-level tackler.
He’s a big, strong defender who rarely gets burned. He doesn’t have elite closing speed, but McGaster recovers well when his receivers break their routes, and his long arms help him knock passes away at the last moment. He’s solid in the open field, but his biggest strength comes in the red zone. He locks opponents in a phone booth with him on a shortened field.
Tre Herndon, junior: Herndon broke into the starting lineup last fall and put together a solid season alongside McGaster; the pair helped limit Vanderbilt’s opponents to only 207 passing yards per game. At 6’1, he and McGaster give Mason a pair of big defensive backs who won’t get outjumped in the end zone. Herndon has quick hips and turns and runs well with receivers. He made mistakes last fall but recovered from them well; expect him to be better in 2016.
Arnold Tarpley, junior: Tarpley is officially listed as a safety on the team’s roster, but will be likely deployed as the team’s primary nickel back in 2016. He can play either position — he did in 2015 — and with his range he’s strong in coverage for the Commodores. His versatility shines through in his stat line; 36 tackles, five for loss, two sacks, and six passes defensed or broken up. He’ll fill a few different roles for Mason this fall.
Donovan Sheffield, sophomore: Sheffield broke into the Vanderbilt secondary rotation as a nickel back after missing the first six games of the season due to injury. The former prized prospect was active despite his limited appearances, notching a pair of tackles for loss and forcing four incompletions in the back half of the season. He’s a tough, athletic cornerback who doesn’t shy away from contact and accelerates through his tackles. He also has strong man-to-man coverage skills, which means Mason and company won’t have to worry about leaving him on an island in stretches.
JoeJuan Williams, freshman: Williams, by 247Sports’ assessment, is the fifth-best high school recruit to ever choose Vanderbilt. The 6’2 defensive back was the No. 2 prospect in the state of Tennessee. He has the size, strength, and athleticism to play cornerback or safety; if he stays at CB, expect Mason to use him to press receivers at the line and use his size to be a disruptive presence in the defensive backfield.
Williams turned down scholarship offers from Alabama, LSU, Penn State, Ohio State, and Tennessee to come to Vanderbilt. Don’t expect him to sit his freshman year.
Bryce Lewis, redshirt sophomore: Lewis was used sparingly as a freshman last season, but still played in 11 games as a special teams piece and occasional cornerback. He’ll fill a similar role this fall, but his growth as a player will give him an opportunity to break into the backfield rotation. A former three-star recruit, Lewis has the chops to stick to receivers in coverage, but he may need another year before breaking into Vandy’s stout secondary.
Frank Coppet, freshman: Coppet was a solid starter for one of the nation’s top high school programs last season, yet still flew under the radar in 2015. His only other Power 5 offer came from Illinois despite recording four interceptions for St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. At 5’11 he’s a little smaller than the long, lanky corners Mason prefers, but he’s got solid size for the position and the fluid hips to get him an edge in coverage. He may redshirt this fall thanks to a stacked depth chart ahead of him.
Elijah Hamilton, freshman: At 6’1, 190 lbs, Hamilton is more Mason’s long-armed style at cornerback. Like Coppet, he’s an undervalued recruit; his only other FBS offers came from Army and Navy. He doesn’t have the top-end speed that would have earned him more Division I attention, but he breaks down plays well and understands his responsibilities on the field. Like Coppet, he may be destined for a redshirt year due to Vandy’s depth.