Vanderbilt’s run defense was perfectly fine in 2016. With Adam Butler clogging the middle and freeing up space for Zach Cunningham to make plays, Vanderbilt ranked 54th in Rushing S&P+, 72nd in Rushing Success Rate, and 77th in Rushing IsoPPP.
In 2017, those numbers were, respectively, 91st, 99th, and 120th. And that was with three dominant performances to open the season, which should tell you how well the run defense did the rest of the way.
With Butler graduated and in the New England Patriots’ defensive line rotation, Vanderbilt turned to senior Nifae Lealao, whose most notable moment was yelling “Bama, you’re next” in front of a television camera in the aftermath of a win over Kansas State. That ended with a 59-0 beatdown. Lealao and oft-injured backup Jay Woods combined for 5 tackles for loss and one sack in 2017.
Both Lealao and Woods are now gone, and Vanderbilt’s defensive tackle unit now consists of a slew of underclassmen who weren’t highly regarded as recruits — and one who was, but who hasn’t played football in two years. It’s actually hard to be optimistic about this position.
Cameron Tidd, redshirt sophomore: Tidd is the closest thing that Vanderbilt has to an experienced defensive tackle — and that’s not saying a whole lot. Last year, he played in all 12 games and started three, notching sixteen tackles and a sack. Tidd is probably the favorite to start here in 2018.
Drew Birchmeier, redshirt sophomore: Birchmeier was injured to start 2017 but did play in six games and earned a start later in the season. At 6’4” and 295 pounds, he was rated higher as a recruit than Tidd and might have a bit more upside.
Darion DeBrossard, redshirt junior: Vanderbilt still hasn’t figured out what it wants to do with the 6’4”, 295-pound DeBrossard, who played on the offensive line in 2016 and at the start of 2017 but moved to the other side of the ball late in the 2017 season. At this point he looks like a depth guy at defensive tackle.
Josiah Sa’o, redshirt sophomore: Sa’o played in six games last season as a reserve and made a tackle against Alabama A&M. He’s listed at 295 on the roster but is one of the players Derek Mason said is now over 300 pounds, so maybe he’s ready to contribute?
Jonah Buchanan, redshirt freshman: Listed at 285 pounds, which isn’t really big enough to play the nose guard in a 3-4, Buchanan might need another year in the weight room before he’s ready to contribute.
Rutger Reitmaier, redshirt freshman: Reitmaier, a local product, is easily the most highly-regarded recruit in this group. He’s also in a weird situation: after leaving Oregon at the end of last summer, he enrolled at Lipscomb for the fall semester and then officially joined Vanderbilt’s team in the spring. He didn’t go through fall practice in 2017, so he’s basically a true freshman who went through spring practice. The upside is here, but he also hasn’t played football in two years. Will that be enough to make a contribution in 2018?