You might not have noticed Vanderbilt’s defensive line, because the defensive linemen didn’t register a ton of big plays. But the Commodores’ defensive front did its job occupying blockers and freeing up Zach Cunningham to stop everything in its path.
The bad news is that the Commodores have to replace Adam Butler, and while four players with starting experience return in the trenches, those four are also the only four linemen who have played a single snap in college. The depth on the line consists entirely of freshmen. The good news? A couple of true freshmen could be ready to play this season.
Nifae Lealao, senior: Lealao started 11 games at nose tackle and notched four tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Now the 312-pound senior is the top candidate to replace Butler as the leader on the defensive line. Lealao has to have a big year for the Commodores to maintain the defense at the 2016 level, as he’s really the only guy on the roster with the ideal size for nose tackle.
Jay Woods, redshirt senior: Woods was hobbled by an injury for much of his junior season, but still managed to play in all 13 games and notched a quarterback sack. The expectation heading into this season is for Woods to rotate with Lealao at nose tackle, though a couple of freshmen could also figure into the rotation.
Jonathan Wynn, redshirt senior: The third senior on the line started 10 games at defensive end in 2016 and figures to be a starter at end once again. Wynn doesn’t get into the backfield as much as you’d think a guy his size (6’5”/265) would with just three career sacks but does figure into the pass defense.
Dare Odeyingbo, junior: Odeyingbo started two games at end last year and could work his way into a full-time starting role opposite Wynn. The elder Odeyingbo notched four tackles for loss and a sack in 2016 and figures to be a big part of the defensive line rotation in any case.
Josiah Sa’o, Cameron Tidd, Drew Birchmeier, redshirt freshmen: Look, I don’t have a whole lot to tell you about these guys: all three of them are guys who have been in the program for a year and have good size, but haven’t seen the field yet. At least one of these guys — probably Sa’o -- will end up in the rotation at nose tackle, and Birchmeier and Tidd could see some playing time as backups. These guys could play a bigger role in 2018, but for now, they’re probably in the rotation.
Dayo Odeyingbo, freshman: The younger Odeyingbo has great size at 6’6” and 250 pounds. That’s half the battle to being a productive defensive end. The other half is technique, and while Odeyingbo notched seven sacks during his senior year of high school, it’s a pretty big step up from dominating offensive linemen at a small high school to jousting with SEC offensive tackles. Odeyingbo probably won’t redshirt — there’s really not enough depth here for him to do that — but is probably a year or so away from being truly SEC-ready. He’ll get playing time this year, though.
With that said, I could write a lot of the same things about fellow true freshmen Jalen Pinkney and Stone Edwards and I probably wouldn’t be that far off the truth. The point is one or two of these guys are going to play this year.
Jonah Buchanan, a late addition to the recruiting class, is the only true freshman defensive tackle on the roster and will probably redshirt.