Vanderbilt ranked among the nation's best in many defensive categories in 2012. The Commodores were once again strong against the pass, balanced against the run and largely kept opponents off the scoreboard.
The Commodores return six starters from the unit this spring, as well as 14 other contributors from the two-deep and position rotations. The defense also features ten redshirt freshmen that are looking to make an impact in 2013.
VandySports.com recently caught up with Commodores Defensive Coordinator Bob Shoop to get an update about the progression of a few key position battles along the unit.
A year ago, depth at defensive end was a big question mark as only two players possessed sufficient depth within the projected rotation. The Commodores answered that question with a strong performance on the edges last fall, as players like Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike emerged on the two-deep and veterans Johnell Thomas and Walker May enjoyed career years.
This spring, the Commodores return all but Thomas to the lineup, but also feature a few more younger parts that are starting to make a difference as well.
"Things are progressing very well. In the winter program, they really stepped up and did a good job," Shoop said of the defensive ends. "Let me start with the older guys, we think very highly of Walker, very highly of Kyle and Caleb, we think we have a very good situation there. We have three guys that are upper level SEC players that all play the run well, and all have been very productive for us.
"We've been looking for that fourth guy to step up and it's been very competitive. Jimmy Stewart does some things very well and it's his time now to that, its his third year in the program. Darien Bryant, its the same thing, he was very productive in the scrimmage on Saturday and he's getting better, he has his body weight over 230 pounds and he's fast and explosive and twitchy. And then Stephen Weatherly, he has the potential to be an outstanding defensive end. He's got the length that you look for. He just looks like a big league, SEC defensive end out there with his long arms and long legs. I'm a former Steeler fan and he looks like L.C. Greenwood to me out there from the Steel Curtain. He's been very productive. He needs to tough up some just like any freshman would.
"In the SEC, I always say this, it's a line of scrimmage league and you have to be able to line up and play physical and that's still a question mark on some of those younger guys, but things are progressing well."
Overall, Commodore defensive ends produced 130 combined tackles with 31 tackles resulting in a loss and 17 sacks in 2012. With improvements across the board among the five returning players, as well as the potential addition of a player like Weatherly, the unit could see those numbers climb in 2013.
Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin has also seen improvement at defensive end and along the line of scrimmage overall.
"I think it's a huge improvement," Franklin said. "I just think the defensive line in general, when you look at it in terms of length and athleticism from three years ago, is improved. That's no disrespect to anyone [from the past], we've always had great kids and good players, but we're just starting to get more of them. We're starting to get more length. Stephen Weatherly, Caleb Azubike and those guys, I mean, Stephen had one play where he came off the edge today to start the practice, a two-point play, and no one touched him. And that wasn't because the offensive tackle wasn't trying too, he just came off the edge.
"I think that's a huge improvement in our program. Not only the length and the speed, but the size too. Our weights are up, and we've got a chance to be up, on average, about 25 pounds heavier at defensive end, which is going to help us against the run as much as anything."
One of the Commodores biggest defensive question marks going into the spring was at cornerback as veteran Trey Wilson graduated. Andre Hal returns from a brilliant junior season that saw him emerge as one of the SEC's top cornerbacks. The All-SEC performer could be on the verge of an All-American type season.
Across from Hal, veteran Steven Clarke has started to emerge. The three-year letterman has always possessed speed and physicality, but according to Shoop, he's starting to make the transition from more of a nickel corner into a true corner, capable of matching up with SEC receivers on the perimeter.
"I think he's used his experience to his advantage and I've seen him improve this year," Shoop said of Clarke. "Steven used to make me nervous, I thought he had kind of a boundary corner, nickel skill set where you could roll him up and he was physical and tough, and could blitz, but he's trying to turn himself into a complete corner. He's improved. In one-on-one's you can see it, he's more confident and has experience.
"By no means though is the job his however," Shoop added. "I'm very excited about Torren McGaster as he continues to develop and get better. Paris Head is very smooth and quitely goes out and plays very consistently. Brandon Banks is a little undersized, but he's explosive and fast. And then, Jacquese Kirk, who just moved over from the offensive side, had an interception in practice today and is re-learning the position in high school and I think will provide solid depth for us."
Clarke has accumulated 52 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss, two pass breakups and two fumble recoveries during his career. The Florida product spelled Wilson throughout the 2012 season, so in addition to the experience he has on special teams and at nickel, he's also seen several snaps on the outside. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound athlete is one of the fastest players on the team and has served as a kick returner and even running back during his Commodore career.
Another question mark going into the spring has been depth at safety. The Commodores return veteran starters Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall, but despite the fact that both are rated among the best at their position going into the 2013 season by observers and even NFL scouts, the Commodores need as many bodies as they can get for the two-deep due to the positions wear and tear.
Vanderbilt moved former Ensworth star Cory Batey from receiver to safety during the off-season in a move to create more depth at the position. The 6-foot, nearly 210-pound prospect looked a bit out of place when camp first opened, but in the last week, things have changed.
Now Batey looks like he might not only provide depth in 2013 but he could be a factor at the position for years to come.
"Absolutely, it's began to click," Shoop said of Batey. "You know we didn't really make that move until after we got back from spring break. We had talked about it and kicked it around and I had talked to Cory, but we really made the decision that Tuesday after spring break, just four days before the first practice. You've seen it, we put a lot on our safeties as far as communication, leadership and things like that and I thought he was a little overwhelmed at first, but he's done a real good job in developing. I think it was a good change for us.
"Being able to watch Kenny and Javon every day has really helped him. Kenny has really improved his game, and I think he's about to take off. Javon's very consistent and it's great to see him out there today. Jahmel's improved a lot, and with Cory and Drew Williamson, I think that maybe three weeks ago, the question might not have been the starting safeties but the depth at safety, but I feel a lot better about that situation now as long as they work and continue to develop. We still have 8 practices now and then 29 in August to get them ready for Ole Miss, so we still have lots of time."
Vanderbilt will add another prospect to the mix this summer when prized 2013 signee Jalen Banks enrolls. Both Ladler and Marshall are physical at the point of attack and that has caused both to miss some time during their careers. Rising sophomores Andrew Williamson and Jahmel McIntosh saw significant action last fall as reserve safeties as well as special teams contributors. Batey played both ways in high school and some believed the highly athletic Nashville product may have projected better to defensive back during his evaluation process.
The Commodores ranked 19th nationally in total defense in 2012, including 38th against the run and 14th against the pass. The Commodores were sixth overall in pass efficiency defense and 15th in scoring defense. The unit was very stingy in the red zone, surrending just 17 touchdowns over the course of 13 games. Vanderbilt also ranked 25th in third down conversion attempts and 21st on first downs allowed.
Vanderbilt will hold its second public scrimmage inside Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday morning. Gates will open around 9:30 a.m. CT. It will be the last chance for fans to see the Commodores before the annual Black and Gold Spring Game on April 13th.