Sept. 18, 2013
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Last season, during Vanderbilt's first nine-win campaign since 1915, the Commodores ranked sixth in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Opponents completed less than 54 percent of their passes as Vanderbilt was one of only four schools to allow fewer than 10 passing touchdowns for the entire 2012 season.
With three of four starters returning to a secondary anchored by senior leaders, no one is expecting a drop-off from the Commodore defense this season. Senior cornerback Andre Hal, who has been named to the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik, Thorpe and Maxwell Awards, appreciates the years his position group has invested in the program because of the advantage that gives them in communicating on the field.
"We have four seniors in the back, with me, Kenny [Ladler], Steven [Clarke] and Javon [Marshall]," Hal said. "We've all played since freshman year. We've had a lot of experience, a lot of playing time. We don't huddle up, we get our plays from the sideline, so we have to have good communication. I think that's why we've been so good."
Clarke, who came on strong at the end of the 2012 season before making a season-high five tackles in Vanderbilt's Music City Bowl victory over North Carolina State, is looking to fill the opposite corner position vacated by the graduation of two-year starter Trey Wilson. Clarke knows that the experience he and his classmates have built together allows each person to be confident his teammates will be filling their assignments. He especially counts on safeties Ladler and Marshall to have his back in coverage.
"They're going to be where they're supposed to be," Clarke said. "That's why we're so aggressive at corner. We're allowed to jump stuff because the safeties are going to be there."
Those tenets of communication and trust are the backbones of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's system. The third-year mentor, who also coaches the safeties during individual drills, has been able to put more responsibility on his players as they have grown into leadership roles on his defense.
"Coach Shoop is probably one of the best defensive coaches in the country right now," Hal said. "He puts us in great positions and he really trusts us. We'll be in the middle of the open-field, and he'll call zero blitz because he trusts us. I like that."
That trust from coach to player has permeated all aspects of the secondary. The group's most experienced member, Stone Mountain, Ga., native Kenny Ladler has started 26 games at safety for Vanderbilt.
"I have no doubt in my mind about those guys out on the field with me," Ladler said. "We've been together. We've experienced good and bad together. We all know what to expect from each other and how to operate out there with each other."
Competition has always had an important place for this group. Playing together for the last three years, all of the senior members of the Commodore secondary feel like they have made each other better.
Although linebacker Karl Butler is technically no longer a member of the Commodores' secondary, the New Orleans, La., native began his Commodore career as a defensive back. Butler was recruited as a cornerback but has changed positions a number of times as coaches looked for ways to keep him on the field. Butler and Ladler have worked together since they were both looking for time at the same position.
"When we first got here, he played free safety like me," Ladler said of Butler. "Even though I was starting, he was right behind me, and he was pushing me from my freshman year. Ever since, we were like iron sharpening iron."
Injuries in Vanderbilt's linebacking corps precipitated Butler's latest move, and Ladler was happy to see his friend excel in a new role that meant both could be on the field at the same time.
"He started making plays in practice and on special teams," Ladler said. "Coach Shoop would bring him in on third downs and have his package for him, and all of a sudden they moved him to linebacker and he's starting now. He's been doing well ever since he got his opportunity to play full-time."
At cornerback, Hal and Clarke have competed for playing time since they were freshmen in 2010, and even when Hal earned the starting spot last year, he still felt his classmate hot on his heels.
"Since freshman year, me and Steve competed for playing time," Hal said. "It's a nice competition. We just go hard, and I feel like we need that. We need competition to excel."
Clarke feeds off the back-and-forth with his preseason All-SEC teammate.
"Andre, one of his strongest points is that he's a real good competitor," Clarke said. "No matter who it is, he's going to go out and try to beat them every single time. We're a complete unit. All of us can run, cover and tackle. I feel like this is going to be a great year for all of us."
Competitive motivation has come not only from within the members of this year's senior class, but also from previous players who have since moved on to the professional ranks. Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson started on the 2011 Vanderbilt squad that earned a berth in the Autozone Liberty Bowl. Both former Commodores played for the Green Bay Packers a season ago, with Hayward finishing third in the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
Seeing the example set by former teammates, and the success that it has led to, has current players with professional aspirations keeping their proverbial noses to the grindstone.
"It does make you more hungry," Hal said. "You see him playing in the NFL, having success. He was just here with us. We saw the work he put in--watching film, how hard he practiced. It makes you want to do the same thing."
The defensive backs can also look across the line of scrimmage to see another group working hard toward its goals. The practices between the receivers and defensive backs are something to watch.
"They say they get to go against the best secondary, and I feel we get to go against the best wide receiver corps," Marshall said. "Those guys are so smart and they put in so much work. We're going to get that competition from them every practice."
"We don't see too much like those guys every week," Clarke added. "In practice, it's difficult, but we accept the challenge every day. We see some of the best competition day in and day out, so when game time comes it's not as hard as covering those guys."
Just as each player has his own assignment to fill on the field, the teammates recognize that they have certain roles to play off the field. Clarke sees himself as the group's comic relief, and identifies Marshall, the lone redshirt-senior, as the unit's motivator.
"He still jokes around, but he's more serious than anybody," Clarke said. "He motivates us. He basically plays the father role in our secondary. He knows how to keep us going, keep motivating us. I feel like that's his role and we all appreciate what he means to this team."
Anyone who has seen the All-Access videos on Vanderbilt's YouTube page can attest to Marshall's ability to motivate. As he prepares for his final season wearing the black and gold, Marshall is excited to go out with the same men he's grown with over the past four years.
"It's been a long journey, but a great journey," Marshall said. "We had some adversity in the beginning, but it's the same guys and we stuck together. No matter what the outside world said about us, we stuck together and we kept working. Now this is the final result. We're about to put together something special that the whole world can see. Really we're gonna leave our legacy and make history."