By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Playing defensive back at Vanderbilt carries with it added pressure. Just ask LaDarius Wiley.
Wiley, a redshirt junior safety, plays in a secondary that garners extra attention from Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason. As a college player at Northern Arizona, Mason was a two-year starter and four-year letterwinner in the Lumberjacks' secondary. Mason also spent early parts of his career as an assistant primarily coaching defensive backs.
That's why Wiley knows his position group plays under a brighter spotlight at Vanderbilt - and his teammates react accordingly.
"As a group, we sort of mimic Mason," Wiley said. "We're a bunch of little Masons out there."
What does that mean, exactly?
"Just having that swag, because we are the quarterbacks of the defense," Wiley said. "Coach Mason's a very vocal guy. As defensive backs, we have to be very vocal. So we try to carry that out on the field."
Wiley and his counterparts face their first challenge this week when Vanderbilt opens the 2017 season on Saturday at Middle Tennessee (7 p.m. CT, CBS Sports Network). The secondary is one of the Commodores' most seasoned units, featuring six fourth- or fifth-year players and a host of starting experience. Wiley is one piece of an experienced unit that looks to be more aggressive from a year ago.
No one expects more from the defensive backs than Mason. Asked if he puts added pressure on his secondary, the head coach laughs.
"Everyday," Mason said. "Everyday there's pressure, between myself and [defensive backs coach Marc] Mattioli."
Wiley has embraced that pressure since arriving at Vanderbilt as one of Mason's first signees in 2014. The coach had recruited the Los Angeles native and Cathedral High standout while defensive coordinator at Stanford, but when Mason moved to Nashville, he knew he wanted Wiley as part of the Commodores' new foundation.
In 2016, Wiley put up his most productive season as a seven-game starter at safety who appeared in all 13 games. He finished with 50 solo tackles and 76 total stops, second to since-departed All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham. That means Wiley kicks off 2017 as the Dores' returning leader in both categories.
As Wiley heads into his fourth season on campus, Mason said he is proud of the redshirt junior's overall maturation.
"For me, I had had a prior relationship with him, and I sat in his home with his mother and father and brothers and convinced them that Nashville was the place for him to come to," Mason said. "He had multiple opportunities and he came all the way to the state of Tennessee to play football and get a great education.
"If you ask LaDarius, he'd say he's never looked back. He did what I asked him to do, and that's compete. He's going to make an impact on this 2017 team. I'm excited about his growth. All he's done is make me proud."
Wiley and his veteran teammates want more in 2017. Last season, the Dores' defensive backs managed just five interceptions as a group. Vanderbilt could use more ball-hawking in the secondary as it navigates a difficult schedule. That begins Saturday at Middle Tennessee, where Blue Raiders quarterback Brent Stockstill and All-American receiver Richie James form one of the most dynamic passing duos in the country.
But Wiley is more than ready for what lies ahead.
"We're battle-tested and we've learned a lot of lessons from the past," Wiley said. "This is a very work-driven group. Now we've laid down the work, and we're ready for MTSU."
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics. Check out his story archive and follow him on Twitter here.