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Vanderbilt Football 2021 Position Previews: Defensive Line, Part 1

Is Vanderbilt switching to a four-man front?

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Under Derek Mason, Vanderbilt famously (or infamously, depending on your view of it) ran a 3-4 defense.

That was quite different from the defenses that Clark Lea ran at Notre Dame. Lea ran a 4-2-5 defense at Notre Dame, and what that means for the Vanderbilt defense in 2021 isn’t exactly clear. The numbers on the defensive line aren’t exactly what you would need to run a four-man front; but then again, Mason’s 3-4 alignment left the roster with a bunch of “linebackers” who are really more like defensive ends in a four-man front (for instance, 6’6”, 245-pound Elijah McAllister.) That leaves Lea the option of just switching some of those guys into de facto defensive ends.

What’s more, the switch to a four-man front will probably solve the biggest problem that Mason’s post-Adam Butler defenses had: the inability to find a big nose guard for the middle of the front. On a four-man front, the defense can just field two relatively smaller tackles.

Anyway, on to the preview. There are 13 scholarship defensive linemen on the roster so I’m splitting this into two parts, but this actually has a clean split: seven returnees in the first part, followed by six newcomers (that’s counting Ohio State transfer Alex Williams, who barely played in 2020) in the second part.

Daevion Davis, junior: Davis, by Clark Lea’s admission, was one of the first players to completely buy in to Lea’s program — evidenced by the fact that he was one of the two players who went with Lea to SEC Media Days. The 6’2”, 285-pound junior from Huntsville, Alabama, has started five games over the last two years, but I would expect him to start a lot more than that in 2021.

Raashaan Wilkins Jr., redshirt junior: Wilkins, a 6’3”, 307-pound tackle from Chicago by way of Wisconsin and Monterey Peninsula College, started all nine games in 2020 and should be penciled in as the other starter at tackle alongside Davis. In 2020, Wilkins had eight tackles, two tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery, and he has good size for a defensive tackle in a four-man front.

Malik Langham, redshirt junior: Langham saw his most consistent action since high school last season, after playing in two games at Florida as a true freshman in 2018 and then sitting out the 2019 season as a transfer. (Remember when transfers had to sit out?) He played in all nine games last season and had seven tackles. At 6’5” and 290 pounds, Langham will probably back up either tackle or end.

Derek Green, redshirt sophomore: Green saw his first action at Vanderbilt in 2020 after sitting out the 2019 season as a transfer from Oklahoma, where he’d enrolled early but left before the season started. The 6’5”, 320-pound Green from Richlands, North Carolina, had five tackles last season and offers good size in what will probably be a reserve role in 2021.

Nate Clifton, redshirt sophomore: The 6’5”, 267-pound Brentwood Academy product saw his first game action in 2020, and worked his way into the starting lineup toward the end of the season, starting against Mississippi State, Florida, and Tennessee, and logging six total tackles with a sack. While he did get those starting assignments, I’m curious to see if he’ll be able to hold off some newcomers (specifically Williams and incoming freshman Marcus Bradley) to hold down the job.

Christian James, redshirt sophomore: While James didn’t start a game in 2020, the 6’4”, 270-pound sophomore from Memphis had a productive year, notching 11 tackles (second-most of any defensive lineman on the team) and a tackle for loss in the Ole Miss game. I won’t be surprised if he earns a starting spot at end this season.

Lorenza Surgers, redshirt junior: A late addition to the 2018 recruiting class, Surgers hasn’t played much in three years at Vanderbilt, appearing in six games (four in 2020) with a pair of tackles in the LSU game last season. The 6’5”, 258-pound Surgers is probably still a depth option on the line.