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2019 Vanderbilt Football Position Preview: Linebacker

Can a young linebacking corps make strides in 2019?

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

The first thing that jumps out at you about Vanderbilt’s 2019 linebacking corps: It’s young. The Commodores’ 12 scholarship linebackers include just one senior, three juniors, six sophomores, and a pair of redshirt freshmen. (There isn’t a single true freshman, though Anfernee Orji may end up there.)

That happens when three of the top four players at the position have graduated. Jordan Griffin was Vanderbilt’s leading tackler last season, and Josh Smith started 12 games. The team’s breakout player on defense in 2017 — Charles Wright — struggled with injuries all season and played in just five games. Still, those are big losses.

The good news is that if the Commodore linebackers are young, there’s talent here. It’s a group that could be a real force — in 2020. In 2019, it’s about being good enough. But a lot of these players are in their third year in the program — and at least one has already made an impact.

Starters, perhaps?

Dimitri Moore, redshirt sophomore: Four of Vanderbilt’s top five tacklers in 2018 have moved on; the lone exception is Moore, who started ten games and had 84 tackles on the season. The 6’3”, 230-pound Moore is likely the one guy who we can call a lock to start, probably at inside linebacker.

Caleb Peart, redshirt senior: This may just be a placeholder, because I really have no idea who wins the battles for the starting spot. The 6’1”, 235-pound Peart, the lone senior in the group, has started five games over the last two years — three last year — and made 14 tackles last season.

Kenny Hebert, redshirt junior: The 6’4”, 232-pound Hebert looked ready to have a breakout early last season. Hebert had seven tackles and three sacks in the first two games last season — and then he disappeared, finishing the season with 14 tackles and four sacks, though he did play in all 13 games. Could he be ready to sustain a breakout all season?

Colin Anderson, redshirt sophomore: Interestingly, the plan last season wasn’t for Moore to be the redshirt freshman at inside linebacker; it was Anderson. The 6’2”, 228-pound Anderson started the first game of the season — and then a foot injury limited him the rest of the way. Anderson played in just eight games and finished the season with five tackles — three in the MTSU game.

The Depth

Alston Orji, sophomore: It’s not every day that Vanderbilt lands a recruit from Texas who had offers from Texas and Texas A&M — which is why Orji’s performance as a true freshman, finishing with just four tackles, might have been seen as a disappointment. But there’s too much talent here to ignore, and the odds are that the 6’2”, 240-pound Orji will make an impact sooner rather than later.

Andre Mintze, redshirt junior: Injuries have derailed the 6’3”, 242-pound Mintze, whom the coaches have liked for a while and though he’s played in 22 games over the last two seasons, he’s had a total of 15 tackles, five for loss.

Lashawn Paulino-Bell, junior: Another player from Florida prep powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas, albeit with a circuitous route here: Paulino-Bell played at Michigan State in 2017 before spending last season at East Mississippi CC. At 6’4” and 243 pounds, he has good size to play the hybrid DE/OLB role on the defense.

Michael Owusu, redshirt sophomore: Another guy with good size for the outside at 6’5” and 235 pounds, Owusu played in 12 games and made four tackles, two in the Florida game, where I recall him earning the ire of Gator fans for alleged dirty play, which was extremely rich from a team that employs Todd Grantham as its defensive coordinator.

Feleti Afemui, redshirt sophomore: The 6’3”, 240-pound Afemui started the bowl game (with Dimitri Moore fighting an injury) and had two tackles in his first season of action.

Brayden DeVault-Smith, redshirt sophomore: An afterthought in the 2017 recruiting class (his other scholarship offer: Tennessee State), the 6’3”, 230-pound Pearl-Cohn product started the Nevada game and had eight tackles on the season — six in the first two games.

Elijah McAllister, redshirt freshman: We haven’t seen what he can do yet, but at 6’6” and 258 pounds, McAllister screams upside. We’ll see if he gets into the outside linebacker rotation in 2019.

Salua Masina, redshirt freshman: The 6’3”, 225-pound Masina was a four-star recruit who redshirted in his first year on campus.