By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The question pertained to Vanderbilt’s offensive line, but head coach Derek Mason still made a point to mention Nifae Lealao.
Lealao, a senior defensive tackle for the Commodores, served as a bright spot in the trenches during Vanderbilt’s Spring Showcase on Saturday. Afterward, when asked whether the ‘Dores offensive line won the day, Mason managed to single out Lealao as a force along his defensive front.
“When Nifae wants to be in the backfield, he’ll get in the backfield,” Mason said. “I don’t care who’s blocking him.”
To Lealao – now a leader heading into his final season at Vanderbilt – Mason’s words only heightened expectations surrounding the senior’s role in 2017.
“That praise,” Lealao said, “comes with a lot of responsibility.”
Lealao should shoulder more responsibility this fall as one of seven returning starters on Vanderbilt’s defense. The defensive line, in particular, is in search of more production after the departures of linemen Adam Butler and Torey Agee. Individually, Butler led the Commodores in sacks (four) and finished second in tackles for loss (7.5).
ELLIS: What we learned at Vanderbilt's Spring Showcase
This spring, Lealao joined returnees Jonathan Wynn – a nine-game starter a year ago – and Jay Woods as linchpins of a revamped defensive front. And that group is not just looking to replace lost talent; it hopes to be more aggressive this season. Vanderbilt finished last in the SEC with 15 total sacks in 2016. Getting to the quarterback has been a priority this spring, one that remains on the minds of the upperclassmen up front.
"This season, it’s big for me, Wynn and J-Wood. We’re the seniors this time,” Lealao said. “After this, it’s up to us. We’re ready and able to take on that leadership.”
Mason, who recruited Lealao while at Stanford as the Cardinal’s defensive coordinator, said the Sacramento, Calif. native has matured considerably since arriving in 2014 as the first Polynesian player in Vanderbilt football history. Now Mason considers Lealao among the most ferocious defenders in the SEC.
“I think he’s one of the best defensive linemen in this conference, in terms of interior linemen,” Mason said. “That’s something we’ll have to continue to build around.”
Building is the key word in that sentence, as Lealao can’t stop every SEC offense by himself. Junior Dare Odeyingbo and redshirt freshman Drew Birchmeier are expected to provide depth on the line behind the senior trio of Lealao, Woods and Wynn. Plus, Vanderbilt still must account for the loss of Zach Cunningham, a consensus All-American in 2016, at linebacker.
So as a senior, does Lealao feel pressure ahead of his final season on West End?
Not so fast, he says.
“I don’t really see it as pressure,” Lealao said. “As a young guy under Adam and Torey last year, and two seasons ago behind Caleb Azubike, I’ve been able to learn from each of them, know what I need to do on the field and what to say off of it. Having three years under my belt has encouraged and matured me. Now I can go all-out for my senior year.”