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Vanderbilt’s best defensive player might be suiting up a cornerback, but the other spot is a question mark

If there’s one area where Derek Mason does well, it’s the defensive backfield.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Lost in the disaster that was Vanderbilt’s 2017 defense was the fact that the pass defense was actually pretty effective. The Commodores ranked 17th in Passing S&P+ and 20th in Passing Success Rate. (Granted, Vanderbilt also ranked 108th in Passing IsoPPP — an indication that when the pass defense got burned, it got burned badly.)

Vanderbilt’s sack rate was about average, and we’ve been over the issues in the front seven. This was a legitimately solid defensive backfield that unfortunately had to do too much.

The two starting cornerbacks in 2017 combined for 21 pass breakups. The bad news? One of those is gone. The good news? Derek Mason knows what he’s doing in this area of the field. There aren’t any surefire lockdown corners for the second spot, but there are at least plenty of candidates.

The Presumptive Starters

Joejuan Williams, junior: Williams was an important recruit for Vanderbilt: not only was he a four-star recruit, but he was a local kid, the kind of player that Vanderbilt has often struggled to land. And he’s pretty much lived up to expectations, with 10 pass breakups as a sophomore. The one knock on Williams is that his next interception will be his first.

Donovan Sheffield, senior: Like Joejuan Williams, Sheffield was a highly-touted local recruit from Ensworth High School. Unlike Williams, he’s struggled to find a consistent role on the team. One of the last remaining James Franklin recruits (Sheffield committed in 2012), he’s got one final chance to lock down a starting spot. But there are plenty of candidates to take the job if he’s not up to the task.

The Support

Frank Coppet, redshirt sophomore: Coppet was involved in an unfortunate incident last summer, which might have contributed to him seeing limited action. He’s mostly played on special teams to this point but might be ready to contribute in nickel and dime packages.

Elijah Hamilton, redshirt sophomore: Hamilton played in seven games as a redshirt freshman in 2017 and, like Coppet, didn’t register a stat. He’ll likely be in contention for the nickel back spot.

Alim Muhammad, redshirt senior: Muhammad came to Vanderbilt as a graduate transfer from Holy Cross, where he was a three-year starter and had three interceptions and 12 pass breakups in his career with the Crusaders. He’s probably a depth guy here but he’s experienced enough to make an impact if called on.

The Prospects

Randall Haynie, redshirt freshman: It was a bit of a surprise that Haynie, a well-regarded prepster from South Florida who had nine pass breakups as a high school senior, didn’t find his way onto the field as a true freshman — though that might well have been a function of a relatively deep and experienced defensive backfield at Vanderbilt. That won’t be a problem in 2018, and Haynie could find his way into a significant role.

Allan George, redshirt freshman: George was a late pickup in the 2017 recruiting class after being an All_State player as a high school senior in Alabama, where he had nine pass breakups and seven (!) interceptions at Andalusia High School. He’s another guy who could be ready to contribute in 2018.

BJ Anderson, freshman: Anderson also comes from Andalusia High School and also had seven interceptions and earned All-State honors. Expect him to redshirt, though it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him develop into a contributor.

Tre Douglas, freshman: It’s not every day that a Vanderbilt signee claimed offers from Ohio State and Clemson and yet that’s true of Douglas, a top 300 national recruit who was a three-time All-State selection in Georgia and won three state championships at Eagle’s Landing Christian. Douglas seems likely to be an early contributor at Vanderbilt.