Dec. 27, 2013
Not much time had past following Vanderbilt's win in the Music City Bowl before safety Kenny Ladler began thinking about his senior season. He had played the best game of his career against NC State, leading the team with 10 tackles, intercepting a pass and recovering a fumble. He reveled in every moment of the celebration, but the back of his mind was filled with anticipation.
His senior season at Vanderbilt could be his last season of football, and he wanted to do everything he could to ensure it would be his best.
So a few days after the Music City Bowl, Ladler sat down with a pen and paper, and began jotting down goals for 2013. He had never done this before, but wanted to find another way to push himself to get better.
He wrote down team and individual goals, some of which were more attainable than others. He wanted to win the SEC East and be named first team All-SEC.
The goals would serve as motivation throughout the offseason. It pushed him in spring practice and in the weight room where he had the goal of becoming the strongest player at a skill position. It pushed him in the film room and on the practice field where he wanted to be the hardest working player.
"It is something I wanted to do myself," said Ladler of his goals. "Having those goals set high for myself helped me bring my game up higher and bring more attention to my skill level."
Every minute of extra work to achieve his goals has fueled Ladler to become better and paved the way to the best season of his career.
As a senior, he has totaled 87 tackles to lead the team and ranks second in the SEC among safeties. He has 60 solo tackles, which leads the team and is second in the SEC among all players.
In 2012, Ladler led the Commodores with 90 tackles and tied Javon Marshall for the team lead with 60 individual tackles. For his career, he is the team's active leader with 287 stops, including 197 of the solo variety.
A native of Stone Mountain, Ga., Ladler arrived on campus as an early enrollee in January of 2010. He was joined by former Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers as the only early enrollees in the class, but Ladler was the only one of the two to come straight from high school.
"I think it was one of the best decisions of my career," Ladler recalled. "Coming to school and getting adapted to Vanderbilt and taking classes early on in the spring ... just getting adapted to college life and also college football."
The transition came with many adjustments, but Ladler does not have any regrets about missing what would have been his final semester of high school. While Ladler's friends were at prom, he was exactly where he wanted to be: on the football field participating in spring practice.
"I love football and I felt like that was a way of pushing myself to another level," Ladler added. "Knowing that you are supposed to be in high school, but playing with college guys, it just raises your level of competition. It makes you want to get better. I think that really helped me a lot and pushed me to be a better athlete."
The added practices helped Ladler get a jump on the competition heading into the 2010 season. By the time training camp came around, he was already vying for a starting job. He would start nine games as a freshman, including the last eight.
Ladler was a steady performer on the field and it set the tone for a career that has only gotten better with time. Overall, Ladler's career has been a measure of consistency. If a tackle needs to be made, Ladler is going to make it. If a pass is thrown to Ladler's area of the field, he will be in position to defend it.
Since setting foot on campus, Ladler has played in 49 of 50 possible games, missing only the 2012 Presbyterian game due to injury, and has started 38 times. He would have started every game this year had it not been for a targeting penalty against Tennessee, which forced him to miss the first half of the Wake Forest game. The game was also Senior Day for the Commodores, and Ladler stole the show during pregame introductions when he was surrounded by more than 20 members of his family - many of which drove in from Georgia in an RV.
"It was like a family reunion," said Ladler. "(My family) watches it on TV, but didn't really have an opportunity to come up here week in and week out. I have parents and siblings that always come up and get to see me, but not my extended family."
"He would bring all of Stone Mountain if he could," laughed strong safety Javon Marshall.
Throughout Ladler's career, he has been a consistently good performer, but his play has not necessarily led to momentum-changing moments that are the result of turnovers. Entering 2013, Ladler's career consisted of four interceptions and two forced and recovered fumbles. The lack of turnovers played a role in Ladler being left off every postseason All-SEC team as a junior, despite finishing second among league safeties and 11th overall with 90 tackles.
To take that next step in his development, Ladler made it a priority to increase the number of turnovers he forced and set very high goals for himself. He wanted to finish with seven interceptions and reach 100 tackles, both of which are still attainable with one game remaining.
"Coming into last year, I felt like I was talented enough to be recognized," Ladler commented. "I just didn't have the production. I really wanted to make that a goal this year to have statistical goals to make sure I don't get overlooked once recognition for individual awards come around.
"I really wanted to focus on creating more turnovers and impacting plays during the season. During the spring I worked on stripping and forcing fumbles. Also, just taking more risks and attacking the ball. If I saw it, I went."
The emphasis has paid off. This season alone Ladler has more interceptions (five) and forced fumbles (five) than he did in his first three years combined. He also set a career high with seven pass breakups.
"He's always been a pretty good tackler and been pretty good around the ball," defensive coordinator and safeties coach Bob Shoop said. "I think he has taken the next step in seeing opportunities to strip the ball. He uses the hammer and the rake or the rip and punch technique and he has seen those opportunities and taken advantage of them.
"Where he has made the most strides is in his pass defense, clearly. What I would have said was a weakness two years ago, he has now turned it into a strength. He can do all the things a safety is going to be asked to do at the next level pretty well."
Ladler has not only improved from year to year, he has improved as the 2013 season progressed. His first takeaway did not occur until the fifth game of the season when he intercepted a pass against UAB. In the final eight games of the season, Ladler forced five fumbles and intercepted five passes.
During a three-game stretch against Missouri, Georgia and Texas A&M, Ladler forced at least one fumble in each game. Against the Aggies, he forced two. Just as his fumble streak was ending, an interception one was beginning. Starting with the Texas A&M game, Ladler had interceptions in four straight games.
His five interceptions this season are tied for second in the SEC, while his five forced fumbles lead the SEC and tie a modern day Vanderbilt record with Jamie Duncan (1996) and Shelton Quarles (1991).
Ladler has turned forcing fumbles into a form of art. He has mastered going for the strip, while still ensuring he makes the tackle.
"He's really worked on getting his hands in there and punching the ball out when the opportunity comes," Marshall remarked. "Sometimes it is a risk trying to get the ball out because the chance of securely tackling the person decreases."
The strides Ladler has made this season have helped him check another goal off his list: All-SEC. After the regular season, Ladler earned first team honors from the media and second team plaudits from the coaches.
Lining up as a free safety since his freshman year, Ladler spent the first two years opposite of Sean Richardson. The last two, Ladler has teamed up with Marshall. They have since formed one of the best safety duos in the SEC.
"There are some guys that make flash plays and you go 'wow' in the SportsCenter generation," Shoop said. "Kenny and Javon are really steady and consistent in their play and I think you can take that for granted if you don't watch them on a daily basis."
Before the two worked together in the secondary, they were competing for playing time as sophomores.
Ladler suffered a hamstring injury during the summer of 2011 and entered camp hurt. The competition between the two was fierce with neither player gaining much of an edge over the other. Marshall would play one series and Ladler would play the next. Marshall made eight starts and Ladler had five.
"It really pushed us," Marshall said of the competition. "I was competitive and I wanted some time to play. Kenny went through an injury and when he came back, we were both playing at the same time, so it really pushed us to be better players."
After starting the final eight games of the 2010 season, Ladler seemed to be entrenched as the starter in 2011. But his injury, and personnel changes during the offseason, created the position battle.
Fellow freshman safety Jay Fullam elected to transfer to Air Force to pursue the military and Marshall was moved from defensive back to safety under the direction of the new coaching staff led by James Franklin.
"Once he came to the position my sophomore year, we complimented each other with helping each other out at the position," Ladler said. "I think it helped make us both better players by competing at the position."
After Richardson graduated following the 2011 season, Marshall moved to strong safety. The head-to-head competition not only made the two better players, it gave them a better understanding of how the other one thinks and moves.
"I think at the safety position, those guys really ... one hand needs to know what the other hand is doing," Shoop said. "And they do a really nice job and have a nice feel for one another."
Ladler and Marshall compliment each other well. Marshall is the vocal one of the two, who can be seen barking at teammates and opponents. Ladler is more soft spoken, and would rather lead by example than by words.
"Kenny just leads through his actions," Shoop said. "He is very consistent. He is on time for meetings. He works hard in the weight room. He watches extra film. He knows the defense inside and out. He's just not necessarily a very vocal person."
One of the ways Ladler leads is by his work ethic. In trying to accomplish his goal of being the hardest working player on the team, Ladler has made it a priority to stay late and watch film, and to put in the extra hours in the weight room.
The extra work has propelled him to one of the best seasons by a safety in school history. His five interceptions are tied for 10th in school history, and he already shares the school record for forced fumbles in a season. Ladler is also on pace to become the first defensive back in school history to lead the team in total and solo tackles for two seasons.
He is a testament to what hard work and dedication can do for any player. In four years he has made a resounding impact on the program, not only with how well he has played, but how hard he has worked.
"During the offseason, they see him work and him out there working so when freshmen see that it becomes a habit and that is what really builds a culture," Marshall said. "A hard-working culture is built by what people like Kenny are doing during the offseason."
Ladler's hard work also transferred to the class room. He graduated in December with a degree in human and organizational development, and he achieved yet another goal when he finished his last semester with a 3.0 GPA.
It's been an unforgettable season for Ladler, who has been able to check off the majority of the goals he set nearly a year ago. With one game remaining in his career, he still has one more goal he would like to accomplish: another bowl victory. It would be a fitting ending for Ladler and the group of seniors that are some of the last remaining players to be a part of Vanderbilt's a 2-10 campaign in 2010.
"It has been a great experience being here," Ladler said. "It was like a roller coaster playing for different coaching staffs. I came here for a great education and to change this football program around and I feel like I was a big part of that."