For a while in 2017, it looked like Vanderbilt would have a seamless transition after losing three starters — including Zach Cunningham, now with the Houston Texans — from the 2016 team’s linebacking corps. The defense held its first three opponents to 13 points, total, and junior linebacker Charles Wright was a monster.
Then reality set in. Some of that was on the defensive line, which wasn’t doing enough to occupy blockers when faced with Southeastern Conference offensive lines, but the linebacking corps faded as well once SEC play started. A defensive front seven that looked excellent against Middle Tennessee and Kansas State looked overmatched in conference play.
The good news is that this year, Vanderbilt returns three of the four starting linebackers and basically the entire depth chart, and there are a couple of promising freshmen joining the mix as well. At outside linebacker, both starters return.
The Returning Starters
Charles Wright, redshirt senior: Wright was a revelation at the beginning of the 2017 season. As a first-time starter at outside linebacker, he terrorized Middle Tennessee with three sacks, then added another against Alabama A&M and two more against Kansas State.
That he ended the season with nine sacks — after starting the year with six sacks in three games — might explain why he wasn’t named to the All-SEC team. Eight of his nine sacks came in Vanderbilt’s four nonconference games. Injuries might have played a role, but he still enters 2018 as the undisputed leader of Vanderbilt’s linebacking corps.
Caleb Peart, redshirt junior: Technically the other starter at outside linebacker in 2017, though he only “started” two games (Vanderbilt ran the first play of the game in the nickel in ten games last season.) Peart ended the season with just 11 tackles and might have some difficulty holding onto this spot in 2018.
Josh Smith, senior: One of the highest-rated recruits of Derek Mason’s tenure, Smith has struggled to find consistent playing time. Though he played in all 12 games last season, he didn’t start a single one — and in fact has only made one career start (against Tennessee in 2016.) He did have 21 total tackles in 2017, including seven in one game (against Missouri.) This is the last chance for the 6’4”, 240-pound senior to make an impact at Vanderbilt.
Andre Mintze, redshirt sophomore: Mintze came back from a knee injury that cost him the 2016 season and played in 11 games as a redshirt freshman, finishing the season with 1.5 tackles for loss. He figures to be the primary backup behind Wright in 2018.
Kenny Hebert, redshirt sophomore: The 6’4”, 230-pound sophomore from New Orleans got into four games in 2017 and made one tackle. He’ll be available to spell the starters, but I wouldn’t expect huge contributions in 2018.
Michael Owusu, redshirt freshman: At 6’5” and 235 pounds, Owusu has the frame to eventually move to defensive end, though for now he’s functioning as a hybrid end/outside linebacker in the 3-4. That versatility could earn him playing time in 2018, though he’s still probably a year away from making major contributions.
Elijah McAllister, freshman: McAllister’s jersey number (41) and position give him a lot to live up to. At 6’6” and 235 pounds, he’s another guy who could end up adding weight and moving to defensive end. For this year, he’s a backup and may redshirt under the new rules.