Initially, the linebacking corps was going to be a two-part preview; but with only ten scholarship linebackers on the roster, doing this as a single preview makes sense.
And with Clark Lea likely shifting Vanderbilt to the 4-2-5 defense he ran at Notre Dame, the Commodores probably won’t play that many linebackers — at least, not at the linebacker spot. Some of the bigger guys in this unit could effectively play a defensive line spot, while smaller guys could flex back into the third safety position.
Still, this is a unit that could improve in spite of some key losses — Andre Mintze is off to the NFL, while Dimitri Moore transferred (and wound up at Missouri State.) But Vanderbilt in 2020 was missing two key pieces in the linebacking corps — one an opt-out, the other due to injury — and their return should make a big difference.
Feleti Afemui, redshirt senior: The 6’3”, 245-pound Afemui started ten games at inside linebacker in 2019 — and then didn’t play in 2020, electing to opt out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. He’s back for 2021, though, and his performance in 2019 (46 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss) suggests that his return is a big deal.
Elijah McAllister, redshirt junior: The 6’6”, 261-pound McAllister looked like a future impact player as a redshirt freshman in 2019, when he had 26 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and three quarterback hurries. And then he missed all of 2020 with an injury. That said, if he’s recovered from his injury, he has the size and athleticism to make a major impact. Also of note: he was one of the first players on the team to get his jersey number, which probably tells you a bit about how much Clark Lea thinks of him.
Anfernee Orji, junior: Well, this is interesting. I’ve already written that Clark Lea is switching to a 4-2-5, and after talking about McAllister and Afemui... Orji, a 6’2”, 230-pound junior from Rockwall, Texas, started all nine games in 2020 and was the team’s leading tackler with 66. He’s obviously going to play, but how Clark Lea manages this situation will be interesting to watch.
Ethan Barr, sophomore: I give up on trying to predict which guys will have an impact as true freshmen. Barr was a late addition to the 2020 class who switched his commitment from Tulane; the 6’3”, 244-pound linebacker from Flower Mound, Texas, only played in all nine games with three starts, and he notched 37 tackles. He’ll play a role here.
Alston Orji, redshirt junior: The elder Orji was a big-time recruit coming out of Rockwall High School in 2018; in fact, according to 247 Sports, he was the eighth-highest rated recruit Vanderbilt has signed since 2000. The performance, though, hasn’t exactly matched that: in three seasons at Vanderbilt, he’s started two games, both last season. The talent still seems to be there; the impact hasn’t. We’ll see what that portends for 2021, but he starts the season behind the four players above him on the depth chart.
Michael Owusu, redshirt senior: A depth option over the last three seasons, the 6’5”, 231-pound Owusu has good size but hasn’t developed into much more than a backup, logging seven tackles and one sack in 2020.
Brayden DeVault-Smith, redshirt senior: Another fifth-year depth guy, DeVault-Smith actually has two career starts under his belt, but none in 2020. He’s a guy who seems to have been recruited over after making some noise earlier in his career; Ethan Barr, who joined the team in 2020, is simply a better option, which isn’t a knock on DeVault-Smith, but it’s hard to see how he beats the guys ahead of him.
Miles Capers, freshman: At 6’5” and 230 pounds, Capers could eventually develop into a defensive end; but for now, he’s listed as a linebacker. He had 57 tackles as a high school senior in Sumter, South Carolina, where his high school team was called the Fighting Gamecocks (insert jokes in the comments.) Anyway, he’s the freshman I could see making an early impact, but this is a pretty tough position group to crack.
Errington Truesdell, freshman: The 6’1”, 224-pound Duluth, Georgia, product has an extremely Vanderbilt name; he also has a good game, as he finished his high school senior season with 107 tackles, 14 for loss, and five sacks. I’d guess he’s ticketed for a redshirt year simply because of who all is ahead of him.
Michael Mincey, freshman: In high school, he ran the 100 and 200 meters on the track team, a scary thought for a guy who goes 6’1” and 232 pounds. He’s another guy who will probably redshirt.