After previewing the team's offense on Thursday, Vanderbilt's preseason football outlook concludes Friday with a look at the Commodores' defense and special teams.
DEFENSE Defensive Line
The Vanderbilt defensive line looks to continue the same aggressive and opportunistic play that characterized its performance in 2011.
Nine of 12 letterwinners return from a corps that helped Vanderbilt witness a tremendous, one-year turnaround in its defensive play. The unit produced across-the-board improvements last season, soaring from 95th to 18th in total defense, 99th to 25th in rush defense, 92nd to 29th in scoring defense, and 89th to sixth in total interceptions.
Second-year coach Sean Spencer has plenty of key contributors back from a year ago. The Commodores return their entire five-player rotation at tackle and four of their most productive ends from the 2011 squad.
Returning starters Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter are back for their final seasons at tackle. With nine sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss to his credit, Lohr has a chance to conclude his career as the most accomplished Vanderbilt defensive tackle since James Manley earned All-SEC honors in the mid-1990s.
Lohr and Nichter face plenty of competition trying to secure their starting roles. Jared Morse, Vince Taylor and Barron Dixon are experienced tackles who will contend for starting assignments. Conor Hart is another untested prospect. Thad McHaney, a big defensive end, can also contribute inside at tackle.
Walker May, elected as a co-captain leaving a superb effort in Spring Practice, is an All-SEC caliber player at end where the Commodores will need to replace Tim Fugger, a 2012 NFL draftee of the Indianapolis Colts. He is joined by senior Johnell Thomas, a five-game starter last year.
Barnes, Strong and Garnham will be asked to produce on the field and fill a leadership void left by the departure of three-time all-conference recipient Chris Marve, who graduated as the team's No. 8 all-time tackler and as one of the finest leaders in program history.
Garnham appears likely to replace Marve at inside linebacker.Blessed with outstanding physical abilities, Garnham impressed the coaches during spring drills with his growing knowledge of the defensive scheme.
Barnes was extremely productive when inserted into the lineup as an outside linebacker last year. In just nine starts, Barnes ranked fourth on the team with 59 total tackles. He also consistently caused turnovers, sharing the team lead with three forced fumbles and nabbing two interceptions, including one at Tennessee that he returned for a 100-yard touchdown.
Early in the 2011 season, Strong was one of the team's top defensive performers, contributing 13 solo tackles in four starts.
Darreon Herring, a freshman who enrolled last January, impressed with his athleticism and natural ability to find the football during spring drills.
Another promising linebacker exiting Spring Practice was redshirt freshman Kellen Williams at the inside role.
Harding Harper, Jake Sealand and Ja'karri Thomas are three other signees that bring plenty of promise to the linebacking corps: Sealand has tremendous leadership skills and appears to fit the inside linebacker role; Harper and Thomas are superb athletes who could make strong cases for playing time during camp.
The staff also used spring drills to introduce the Star position as a future linebacker-safety hybrid role. Junior Karl Butler was a spring standout playing the role. Redshirt freshman Larry Franklin also enjoyed snaps at the position.
Vanderbilt returns a bevy of talented cornerbacks and safeties from a secondary that ranked among the NCAA leaders in interceptions last year.
The Commodores must replace two productive starters in All-America cornerback Casey Hayward and three-year starting safety Sean Richardson. Hayward finished his career with a share of the team all-time interceptions record and was drafted by Green Bay in the second round. Richardson, among Vanderbilt's all-time Top 25 tacklers, also inked a free agent deal with Green Bay.
As a first-year starter in 2011, Wilson posted three interceptions and tied a team record by returning two for scores.
Junior Andre Hal earned Hayward's vacant starting role with an impressive spring performance. Senior Eddie Foster and junior Steven Clarke, will compete for key roles in multiple defensive back sets.
At safety, Marshall brings a reputation for punishing tackles at safety. He also possesses natural leadership skills. Ladler has been a productive player for two years, and enters the season with 110 total tackles, most of any current player in the secondary.
Two other returning safeties with plenty of talent, senior Eric Samuels and junior Karl Butler, will compete for starting roles. Samuels is one of the Commodores' top athletes, owning the skill to play safety or nickel in multiple receiver formations. Butler is a physical, hard-hitter, and appears tailored to the unit's "Star" hybrid position that was introduced during spring drills.
The Commodores return veteran and productive performers in all phases of special teams.
In 2011, Vanderbilt featured an efficient and innovative kicking game and big-play capabilities in the return game. With the starting punter, placekicker,snapper and returners back from a year ago, there's reason to expect continued improvement in Vanderbilt special teams.
Two-year starter Richard Kent is one of the nation's most underrated punters. Likely to finish his career among the elite punters in team history, Kent maintains one of the nation's top net punt averages. In 2011, Vanderbilt ranked No. 6 nationally in punt coverage.
Ryan Fowler and Carey Spear will compete for the team's placekicking duties. Both impressed during Spring Practice when Franklin and his staff placed even more attention on their kickers.
Andrew East is expected to return as the team's top snapper. He handled all of the snapping responsibilities last year as a first-year player. East will be backed by Connor Morrison among others.
Andre Hal, named as a second team All-SEC pick by Yahoo Sports last year, is back as a kickoff returner. Hal averaged 23.8 yards and returned one kick for a touchdown in 2011. The 'Dores also expect to have Warren Norman available for kick returns. In 2009, Norman set a Vanderbilt record by returning three kicks for touchdowns. Norman's 25.9-yard career average also ranks as a team record.