Previewing Vanderbilt's defense and special teams

July 29, 2014

Offensive Outlook | Ticket Information

While the Commodore defense features a new scheme under Derek Mason, the unit also returns several top playmakers from the 2013 season.

Mason is expected to bring the same 3-4 defensive scheme he used at Stanford to the Commodores. For the last three years, Stanford's unit has been regarded among the nation's best, ranking among the leaders in several defensive categories and helping the Cardinal to three straight BCS bowl appearances.

Mason's defensive staff includes former Stanford linebacker coach David Kotulski as defensive coordinator, former California and San Jose State coach Kenwick Thompson as outside linebackers coach, former Utah State mentor Frank Maile as defensive line coach, and former Tennessee Titans' defensive back coach Brett Maxie as the Commodores' secondary coach.

The staff must replace five starters from a year ago. Key departures include All-Southeastern Conference performers Andre Hal and Kenny Ladler, and linebacker Chase Garnham.

Defensive Line
The Vanderbilt defensive line returns with three proven performers and several young Commodores seeking an opportunity for playing time.

First-year coach Frank Maile will mentor a unit that could qualify as Vanderbilt's most talented defensive line corps in recent years. The former Utah State DL coach will also guide the unit's shift to a 3-4 alignment.

Vanderbilt's 3-4 will be anchored by a pair of senior tackles with starting experience from a year ago, Vince Taylor and Barron Dixon.

Taylor produced 12 solo tackles and 18 total tackles as a 10-game starter in 2013. Coming off an impressive showing in spring drills,Vanderbilt coaches believe Taylor has All-Southeastern Conference abilities at the nose tackle position. Dixon was more productive thanTaylor last year, contributing 26 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and2.5 quarterback sacks. Dixon earned a single start while playing in all13 games for the Commodores as a junior.

Sophomore Adam Butler is arguably the Commodores' most versatile linemen. The 6-5, 310-pound Butler brings the ability to play tackle or end to the Vanderbilt defense. Butler is also a proven performer on the field,having contributed 16 solo tackles and six tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman in 2013.

The Commodores will be counting on a pair of youngsters, sophomore Torey Agee and redshirt freshman Jay Woods, to earn playing roles in the defensive line rotation. Agee brings excellent work ethic to the line corps while Woods possesses excellent natural abilities and could be a breakout player for the Commodore defense this fall.

Three intriguing newcomers - Nifae Lealao, Sekou Clark and Riley Tindol - could move into playing roles. Lealao is a highly recruitedNorthern Californian who possesses the size and quickness to play either tackle or end. Clark and Tindol are being targeted as defensive ends byCommodore coaches.

The reshaped 3-4 Commodore defense features several proven playmakers and excellent overall depth among the linebacking corps.Two top defensive starters from a year ago, senior Kyle Woestmann and junior Darreon Herring, highlight a position grouping that also features several young prospects expected to quickly impact the defense.The roster also includes several exciting young players in the corps ready to push for playing time this August.

New coaches Kotulski (inside linebackers) and Kenwick Thompson (outside linebackers) will look to mold the unit that played a 4-3 alignment in 2013. Six of the team's 15 linebacker prospects are former defensive ends looking to prosper at a new position.

Herring, a two-year starter, was one of the Commodores' most productive defenders in 2013, ranking second on the team with 84 total tackles and 10 defensed passes, and third with 47 solo tackles. Herring is supported by a trio of linebackers that contributed last year: junior Jake Sealand and sophomores Harding Harper and Ja'karri Thomas. Sealand was the team's fifth leading tackler last year.

Two talented redshirt freshmen, Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham,are expected to compete for substantial roles at inside linebacker after demonstrating explosive abilities last spring.

The candidates at outside linebacker include some of the team's most explosive players, including Woestmann, junior Caleb Azubike and sophomoreStephen Weatherly. All three were productive defensive ends for the Commodores in 2013: Woestmann contributing a team-high six sacks,Azubike registering four sacks among 9.5 tackles for loss, and Weatherly adding 2.5 sacks.Junior Jimmy Stewart also had 15 tackles and a pair of sacks last year and will be among those competing at outside linebacker.

The coaches also expect redshirt freshmen Jonathan Wynn and Landon Stokes to continue improving after posting impressive performances during spring drills.Senior Casey Hughes also could get snaps at outside linebacker.

The Commodores added a pair of linebacker prospects in the 2014 signing class: Hawkins Mann and Charles Wright.

Plenty has changed in just one year with the Commodore defensive secondary. Last year, Vanderbilt was returning a secondary that included two All-Southeastern Conference performers fully intact.This year, the staff looks to find new starters at every position.Given that reality, the spring performance of several players gave Vanderbilt's new coaching staff plenty of hope that the 2014 secondary will be just as effective as the 2013 unit.

The Commodores return two upperclassmen at safety in junior Jahmel McIntosh and junior Andrew Williamson, who might have departed spring drills as one of Vanderbilt's most impressive defenders.

While Williamson appears penciled in as the starter at strong safety replacing Kenny Ladler, McIntosh will compete with redshirt freshman Oren Burks among others for the open free safety role. Burks brings athleticism and physicality to the position. Two other redshirt freshmen, Jalen Banks and Ryan White, also will push for serious roles.

In addition to senior walk-onJosh Gregory, the new Commodore staff signed three highly regarded safety prospects, Khari Blasingame, Emmanuel Smith and Tre Tarpley.

New defensive backs coach Brett Maxie also must replace both starting cornerbacks from a year ago. Andre Hal and Stephen Clarke are currently in NFL camps with Houston and Miami, respectively.

Three sophomore cornerbacks - Paris Head, Torren McGaster and Darrius Sims - appear set to push for the vacancies at cornerback after gaining valuable experience last year.Defensive staffers also were impressed during spring drills with the talents of a pair of redshirt freshmen, Tre Bell and Taurean Ferguson.

The Commodore secondary also will include three impressive freshmen recruits: Tre Herndon, Bryce Lewis and Ladarius Wiley.

Walk-ons Alex Hysong and Dane Stubbs also will get plenty of preseason repetitions.

Special Teams
While the Commodores enter the season looking to replace two specialists that will go down among the best in team history, placekicker Carey Spear and punt returner Jonathan Krause, the team has several standouts returning among its special team corps.

The Commodores' top returning specialists are senior punter Taylor Hudson, sophomore kick returner Darrius Sims and dependable senior snapper Andrew East.

Hudson displayed accuracy and as a first-year punter, averaged 42.9 yards to rank among the SEC's Top Ten. He will face strong competition from sophomore Colby Cooke, who averaged 45.1 yards on 14 punts.

Talented redshirt freshman Tommy Openshaw is expected to compete with walk-on sophomore prospect David Holtgrave to become Vanderbilt's new placekicker. They will replace Spear, an All-SEC recipient and current Philadelphia Eagle who set several Commodore records during his career.

East is one of the nation's premier snappers, and will return to handle both punt and conversion snaps for the fourth consecutive season. East will be backed by three sophomores - Gaither Barker, Wilson Johnson and Jacob Schultz - among others.

The Commodores' top kick returners are Sims and Brian Kimbrow. Sims averaged 22.8 yards on 25 returns as a freshman. His career long return of 71 yards came at Tennessee. Kimbrow averaged 16.0 yards on 12 returns last years.

Sims, C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham are among those expected to contend for the open punt return role, though several other candidates could step forward in preseason camp.



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