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Vanderbilt Football 2023 Position Preview: Defensive Line

The depth is getting better.

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

Vanderbilt’s play at the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball, seems to have gotten much better entering Clark Lea’s third year. We talked about the offensive line earlier and at the very least, it’s not a problem area any more; it might even be good.

The defensive line is basically the same. Six of the twelve scholarship players on the defensive line have entered the program in the last couple of years, and so have four of the six scholarship players at the Star position (which we’ll talk about in a couple of days, separately from the defensive line.) Normally, I wouldn’t think it good that a big chunk of the defensive line are freshmen and sophomores, but remember, in this case that means they’re Clark Lea recruits. What’s more, a couple of freshmen are coming in with college-ready bodies.

There aren’t stars here, but there’s more depth than what we’ve become used to.

Daevion Davis, redshirt senior: Davis, at 6’2” and 288 pounds, tore his ACL toward the end of the 2021 season and missed all but one game in 2022 while recovering from the injury. His absence hurt a young defensive line last year; his return should be a big boost. He’s started fourteen games in his career.

Christian James, redshirt senior: In terms of playing time, the 6’4”, 290-pound James was the main beneficiary of Davis’s absence last season, starting all 12 games at tackle. He had 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Those aren’t huge numbers, but he’s a solid player who should see plenty of time on the field this season. Remember, both Davis and James have another year of eligibility remaining if they want it.

Devin Lee, junior: Lee missed some time to injury last season, but still played in nine games with four starts; he had 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Assuming good health, Vanderbilt should have three solid defensive tackles with some experience before we even get into the youngsters.

Nate Clifton, redshirt senior: Clifton, who’s started 25 games over the last three seasons, feels kind of typical of Derek Mason-era recruits who worked out: not a spectacular athlete, but he’s a guy who does his job and who doesn’t hurt you to have on the field. Last season, he had three tackles for loss and a sack from the defensive end spot.

Brayden Bapst, redshirt senior: Vanderbilt has spent three years trying to figure out what the best spot for the 6’8”, 275-pound Bapst is; he’s played offensive tackle, tight end, and now on the defensive line at various points. Last season was his first on the defensive line, and he got into five games and notched four tackles.

Michael Spencer, redshirt junior: A former walk-on who I’m pretty sure is now on scholarship, Spencer appeared in four games last season after playing eleven in 2021 — perhaps a sign that Vanderbilt’s depth has gotten better. Still, he’s got good size at 6’4” and 323 pounds.

Darren Agu, sophomore: The 6’6”, 242-pound Agu was ready to play, appearing in eleven games as a true freshman and making fourteen tackles with a sack, providing a pretty consistent presence in a limited role. He should only get better from here.

Yilanan Ouattara, sophomore: Nick Howell got visibly excited when somebody asked him about the 6’7”, 305-pound Ouattara in fall camp last season. That didn’t translate into much on the field in ten games as a true freshman, when he logged just four tackles all season, but remember that the kid from Cologne, Germany, came in pretty raw. It’s been rare that Vanderbilt has had a player with this kind of physicality on the defensive line.

Bradley Mann, redshirt freshman: The 6’6”, 281-pound Mann seemed on track to make a bigger impact as a true freshman, but an injury limited him to three games. He’s a good bet to see significant playing time at defensive end this season.

Linus Zunk, redshirt freshman: Zunk, a 6’6”, 263-pound defensive end from Berlin, Germany, didn’t see the field as a freshman. He probably won’t play a big role this season, especially with the depth here, but he should get into the rotation at some point.

De’Marion Thomas, freshman: A 6’2”, 321-pound player from Tulsa, Thomas already has the size to play defensive tackle and could factor into the rotation early on at Vanderbilt.

Ted Gregoire, freshman: Like Thomas, Gregoire has good size at 6’3” and 311 pounds. He does come from less of a football state (New Jersey) and you wonder how much time he’ll need to adjust to the SEC; I’ve heard less about him than Thomas since camp started.