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For the second year in a row, Vanderbilt has to replace a NFL Draft pick at inside linebacker

First it was Zach Cunningham, now the Commodores must replace Oren Burks.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s a spot on the field where Derek Mason’s player development has shined, it’s the linebacking corps.

For the third year in a row, Vanderbilt had a linebacker drafted by the NFL in 2018. First it was Stephen Weatherly, a seventh-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2016 (who technically counts as a defensive end, though he played linebacker at Vanderbilt.) Zach Cunningham was a second-round pick of the Houston Texans in 2017, and this year, Oren Burks was a third-round pick of the Green Bay Packers.

(The bad news? Only one other player under Derek Mason has been drafted, and that’s offensive tackle Will Holden.)

Last season, Burks started 11 games at inside linebacker and fellow senior Emmanuel Smith started six games. The Commodores do return a couple of seniors with starting experience, though they’ll have to fend off challenges from promising freshmen. As the centerpiece of Vanderbilt’s defense — for better or worse — under Mason, this is one of the interesting places to watch on that side of the ball in 2018.

The (Sorta) Starters

Jordan Griffin, senior: Odds are pretty good that Griffin, who replaced Emmanuel Smith in the starting lineup down the stretch in 2017, will be one of the team’s two starters at inside linebacker. Last season, Griffin had 62 total tackles, including 12 against Kentucky and 8 against Missouri, and had at least four tackles in each of the team’s final nine games of the season. If there’s going to be a breakout star on the defensive side of the ball in 2018, Griffin is a good bet.

Andrew Rector, senior: We’re stretching the definition of “experienced” here, though Rector does have the most experience at this spot aside from Griffin — which is, well, a little telling, because he’s played in 20 games in three years and got a start in the South Carolina game last year — and his statistical line for the season consisted of three tackles against Alabama A&M. He converted from safety to linebacker last season and at 205 pounds, is still the size of a safety. He was listed as the starter going into camp, but he’ll have to hold off a lot of promising freshmen to keep this spot.

Freshmen, Freshmen, and More Freshmen

Dimitri Moore, redshirt freshman: Moore was an early enrollee out of Cedar Hill, Texas, last year and figured to be in the mix for playing time, but an early injury led to a redshirt. The potential here is pretty good, and he should be in the mix for playing time this year.

Colin Anderson, redshirt freshman: Anderson reportedly impressed during his redshirt year and might be the favorite to start at inside linebacker alongside Griffin — though there are multiple candidates here. He’s solidly built at 6’2” and 225 pounds.

Brayden DeVault-Smith, redshirt freshman: DeVault-Smith, a local product from Pearl-Cohn High School, was going to be a preferred walk-on in the 2017 class, but picked up a scholarship offer just before signing day. His high school stat line — 155 total tackles and 26 tackles for loss as a senior — is insane, and he’s got good size for the position at 6’3” and 225 pounds.

Feleti Afemui, redshirt freshman: We’d have used the location of Afemui’s high school (Maui) as an excuse to go scout him, too, but the 6’3”, 230-pound Afemui could be a good player with time as well. You’re starting to notice a pattern with this position group: little to no experience, but plenty of upside; it’s just a matter of sorting out who’s ready to play and who needs time.

Alston Orji, freshman: It’s not every day that Vanderbilt lands a recruit from the state of Texas who had offers from Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma, but that’s exactly what happened with Orji, who was the highest-rated recruit in Vanderbilt’s 2018 signing class. Expect the 6’2”, 228-pound freshman to see the field early and often.

Salua Masina, freshman: Masina signed with Vanderbilt about a month after 2018 Signing Day, and at 6’3” and 215 pounds, we’ll just mark this one down as “go spend a year in the weight room and get back to me.”