By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Following Vanderbilt’s 28-6 win at Middle Tennessee last Saturday, head coach Derek Mason was careful not to take all the credit for his team’s stout defensive performance.
“I don’t think I’ve ever called a bad defense,” Mason said. “But what it comes down to is players making it come alive. Tonight, those players made it come alive.”
Vanderbilt’s offense stole much of the spotlight in the win over the Blue Raiders. But the Dores’ defense was just as impactful in the victory, particularly up front. Vanderbilt kept pressure on prolific MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill all night, finishing with four quarterback hurries, five sacks and eight tackles for loss.
That kind of effort was just what the Dores needed after last season. Vanderbilt recorded an SEC-low 15 sacks as a team in 2016, and it lost lineman Adam Butler to graduation after the senior led the squad with four sacks. But Mason’s defense looked ferocious in getting to the quarterback against MTSU. Outside linebacker Charles Wright, a first-year starter, notched three sacks, while defensive end Dare Odeyingbo chipped in two. The five team sacks were its most in a game since 2013.
For Week 1, Mason was pleased that his defense set the tone.
“Our defense was fast and physical,” Mason said. “We talked about that. I talked about having better pass-rushers in 2017 than I had in ‘16. I thought tonight, those guys brought it.”
That pressure prevented Middle Tennessee’s explosive offense from taking flight. Even in last season’s 47-24 loss to Vanderbilt, Stockstill still threw for 399 yards while being sacked just once. The quarterback managed just 166 yards on 18-of-31 passing in between five sacks on Saturday. Stockstill’s first-quarter interception by Bryce Lewis set up a Ralph Webb touchdown that gave the Dores an early 14-0 lead.
“All camp, we had an emphasis on getting pressure on the passer and trying to build on some of our inadequacies last year,” Odeyingbo said. “We were just a driven group that really wanted to get back there today. We just really got after it.”
Wright took things a step further. Prior to facing MTSU, the redshirt junior scribbled down three individual goals for the matchup: two sacks, one tackle for loss and one tipped pass. “I just like to speak things into existence,” Wright said.
Wright’s prediction was near perfect. Asked to critique his own performance after the win, Wright laughed.
“I was one off,” he said, referring to the tipped pass.
Odeyingbo and Wright are just two of the pieces to Vanderbilt’s puzzle on defense. The Commodores entered the fall looking to absorb the loss of All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham, a second-round pick by the NFL’s Houston Texans. Now Wright and Odeyingbo join the likes of linebackers Oren Burks and Emmanuel Smith, tackle Nifae Lealao and end Jonathan Wynn in aiming for a more aggressive defense in 2017. That challenge begins up front.
“We just mesh really well in the front seven,” Wright said. “I can make an inside move, and Nifae will be able to cover me and come out and contain, and vice versa. Whoever’s in, we just mesh really well together.”
But don’t expect one game to satisfy these Dores.
“There is always room for improvement,” he said. “We can always get better. We’re just shooting for the stars.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics. Check out his story archive and follow him on Twitter here.