On the one hand, Vanderbilt returns a deep and talented linebacking unit in 2017. On the other hand, Vanderbilt loses Zach Cunningham, a second-round pick of the Houston Texans. The Commodores aren’t going to replace Cunningham with a player of a similar caliber; there isn’t one on the roster.
That said, Vanderbilt’s linebacking corps should be fine in 2017. The impact of losing Cunningham to the NFL is being overstated in a lot of outlets; you can make an argument that Vanderbilt will have a harder time replacing Adam Butler on the defensive line than replacing Cunningham. That’s not to say that Butler is a better player than Cunningham, but it’s hard to think of a unit where Derek Mason and staff have recruited better.
Oren Burks, redshirt senior: Burks began his Vanderbilt career as a safety; last year, he moved to the Star position, a hybrid safety/linebacker. This year, he’s just going to be a linebacker. Burks’ all-around defensive contributions last year were outstanding: 59 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, an interception, a fumble recovery, and six defensed passes.
This year, Burks is essentially going to be tasked with replacing Zach Cunningham. That’s a tall task, but it’s pretty hard to think of a player better suited to it, and he’s going to be the leader of the defense.
Brothers Emmanuel Smith (senior) and Josh Smith (junior) could occupy two of the other starting spots at linebacker. Interestingly, both played in nine games last year and missed time due to injury. Josh Smith is the physically larger (6’4”/240) of the brothers and also has more upside; he could develop into a star player at linebacker.
Redshirt junior Charles Wright had a strong year in 2016 in a reserve role and looks like a good bet to be the fourth starting linebacker. Wright had 3.5 tackles for loss and forced a fumble in the Tennessee game. Junior Jordan Griffin had 21 tackles in a reserve role last year and is a contender for a starting job as well.
A pair of redshirt sophomores should provide depth. Jay Hockaday redshirted last season with a leg injury after playing as a true freshman, while Caleb Peart saw limited action last year and should play a bigger role this year. Redshirt freshman Andre Mintze could be in line for playing time after missing last year with an ACL tear, as could Kenny Hebert.
The Commodores signed five linebackers on National Signing Day in February and the most likely to get early playing time is Dimitri Moore, who enrolled early and participated in spring practice. The true freshman has good length and size at 6’3”/215 and could be in line for a reserve role this year. Michael Owusu, a late pickup from California, has a frame (6’5”/228) that suggests he could ultimately wind up on the defensive line if he adds weight.
In such a deep position group, there are likely to be a few redshirts. Redshirt candidates include Colin Anderson, Feleti Afemui, and Brayden DeVault-Smith — the last one the lone Tennessean in the 2017 class.