By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE – The thermostat read 30 degrees when Vanderbilt departed the practice field on Wednesday morning.
Senior safety LaDarius Wiley – a native of sunny Los Angeles – found himself adjusting to the chill in the air.
“It’s not my type of weather,” Wiley joked, “but it’s always a blessing to be out at practice. Being out here and testing the elements is good for us.”
Vanderbilt can’t afford to let cold temperatures, or anything else, affect its secondary in 2018. That group loses four seniors and a host of proven production this spring, all while the Commodores’ defense attempts to bounce back from a down year. Wiley, a senior who led Vanderbilt with 88 total tackles in 2017, is expected to again play a key role in that secondary.
That’s why Wiley sees himself as a bigger leader this spring.
“Most definitely,” he said. “I got a little taste of it last year, but you had that safety net with guys like Ryan White and Arnold Tarpley and Willie [Herndon]. I do have to step up, but we have a great group of guys. Me and Joejuan [Williams] have taken it upon ourselves to sort of be the leaders of the group and be the vocal guys of the group.”
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That group expects to look different in 2018. White, Tarpley and Herndon are among the departures from Vanderbilt’s secondary in 2018. White recorded 60 tackles at safety and chipped in a team-leading two interceptions. Meanwhile, the cornerback Herndon was a starter in 36 of Vanderbilt’s last 37 games.
Now Wiley and Williams, a junior cornerback, return as the only defensive backs to have started multiple games in 2017. But head coach Derek Mason said Vanderbilt’s secondary still returns plenty of potential.
“LaDarius has played so much football here,” Mason said. “Joejuan Williams has played a lot of football, so I don’t feel like it’s a young secondary. You’ve got Donovan Sheffield, who’s played in ball games. We lost some guys, but with Zaire Jones getting experience a year ago, Tae Daley getting his feet wet, those guys are primed to take over those spots.
“Now what we’ve got to do is work on consistency and communication. Wiley’s the guy to lead this group.”
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This offseason, Mason hired Jason Tarver to take over as Vanderbilt’s new defensive coordinator. Tarver has overseen defenses in both college and the NFL, serving as co-coordinator alongside Mason at Stanford in 2011. Wiley said the new coach has brought with him a renewed focus on ball-hawking – music to the ears of Wiley’s defensive back teammates.
“This entire spring, it’s been about violent strips coming from behind, really focusing on getting the ball out of somebody’s hands,” Wiley said. “We’re annoying, and that’s what we want to be.”
That mindset has Vanderbilt’s secondary chomping at the bit to put 2017 in the rear-view mirror.
“I think we all have to step up,” Wiley said. “Being that we have had seniors who have left, I think these guys are ready to fill in.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.