Wednesday, August 8, 2007

VSL Defensive/Special Teams Preview

Part II of VSL’s Football Preview will, not surprisingly, focus on the defense. This is a unit with equal parts potential and question marks (not unlike VSL, come to think of it).

Everyone who knows anything about Vanderbilt football knows the name Jonathan Goff. He is the engineering beast who opted to return to Nashville instead of heading to the NFL. He is, unquestionably, the centerpiece of our defensive unit. Expectations for improvement are high – last year the Commies were 10th in the SEC in total defense, and that’s As it seems is always the case with the Commies’ defense, questions arise when talking about the defensive line and the secondary. Just like we did with the offense, we will go position by position and break down what to look for from Defensive Coordinator Bruce Fowler’s squad.

Defensive Line

VSL’s Take

This is a bit tricky. The amount of time Vandy’s defense spends on the field depends in large part on the defensive front four. There’s reason to be optimistic about this unit. Last year was defensive line coach Ricky Logo’s first season, and things improved under his direction: compare the 25 sacks in 12 games last year to 27 sacks in the previous two seasons combined. This year we’re putting two seniors on the line who have proven they can make big plays. Senior defensive end Curtis Gatewood ranked 7th in the SEC with seven sacks in 2006, and will get a lot of attention from opposing offensive coordinators this year. Senior tackle Theo Horrocks put up five sacks, four forced fumbles, and 31 solo tackles last year. At almost 300 pounds, he’ll be giving interior linemen all they can handle. But while these guys proved they can make the big plays (Vanderbilt was a respectable 7th in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2006), consistency remains a question mark. Also in question are the other two spots on the line. Senior Gabe Hall and sophomore Greg Billinger (who was originally committed to play at Georgia) are battling for the other tackle position; sophomores Steven Stone and Broderick Stewart are contesting the other end position (a battle of Stone’s size versus Stewart’s speed). Don’t be surprised to see Horrocks’ backup Brandon Holmes (a 6’3”, 295-lb. junior who Stanimal really liked in the spring game) starting at the other tackle spot over either Hall or Billinger if they aren’t getting the job done. Unfortunately, Stanimal’s favorite player from the spring, Quavian Lewis, was kicked off the team and can’t help us out opposite Gatewood at end.

Bottom Line
We’re less concerned about depth here than we have been in years past. With that said, someone besides Gatewood and Horrocks needs to step up. We hope Logo can compel his guys to translate a proven ability to make big plays into more consistency in the trenches. Vanderbilt’s ability to get consistent pressure in the backfield—and prevent opposing teams from wearing the defense down the way SEC ground attacks have in recent years—is crucial if we hope to emerge from the doldrums of the conference.


VSL’s Take
Most years at about this time we’d be sweating bullets about the prospect of our defensive backs matching up against SEC receivers. Not so this time around. Strong safety Reshard Langford is the bruiser-in-chief and unquestionably the best player in the outfield. D.J. Moore returns at corner after making the SEC All-Freshman team, and if he can figure out a way to prevent big receivers from pushing him around (Moore is 5’10”, 175 lb.), he’ll be a solid playmaker. At the other corner, Myron Lewis shouldn’t have the same problem. A 6’2”, 195-lb. convert from safety, Lewis looks to start and CBJ et. al. are excited about his potential there. Sophomore Ryan Hamilton returns to start at free safety and, well, we just hope he’s improved after a rocky first season. We like Darlron Spead (3 picks in 2006) to give us some help in the nickel package. Will true freshman and potential two-sport athlete Jamie Graham start? No, but don’t be shocked to see him on the field. Same with strong safety Brent Trice – he and Graham have way too much athleticism for Fowler not to utilize them in some capacity in a secondary that ranked 94th in the country in pass efficiency defense in 2006.

Bottom Line
The secondary has some experience now, but is still very young. Having improved 25 yards per game in passing yards allowed from 2005 to 2006, there’s no reason not to think that over the next few seasons Vandy’s defensive backfield could rank among the conference’s better units. With that said, like the D-line, we see some kinks and question marks that we hope are answered in August. To be successful, opposing teams’ pass completion percentage must improve from the 60% mark we put up last season, which was good enough for dead last in the SEC.


VSL’s Take
We decided to save the best for last because it’s easier for us to be optimistic this way. Senior middle linebacker Jonathan Goff is the key to this defense. The All-SEC/NFL prospect is poised for a monster senior season, and – oh yeah – he’s also an engineer. At strong-side ‘backer is one of the hardest hitters on the team, senior Marcus Buggs. We hope Fowler runs him, Goff, and sophomore weak-side linebacker Brandon Bryant on plenty of blitz packages this season. Bryant is a potential All-SEC player who CBJ loves, having beat out Patrick Benoist for the starting role this spring. As good as SEC defenses are, we predict these three beasts will make for one of the top five linebacker corps in the conference.

Bottom Line
Couldn’t be more excited about this unit, but God forbid one of them gets hurt. Vanderbilt is long on talent but very short on depth in this key position, with two inexperienced sophomores and a freshman standing ready to fill in. In a 4-3 defensive set that relies on speed more than size, Goff and Co. are going to be needed every Saturday to keep the D glued together.

Special Teams

VSL’s Take
Hmmm...what do we say? A school like Vandy is at a severe disadvantage in special teams because at most SEC schools, special teams personnel come from fantastic depth charts and often consist of guys who would be starting on offense or defense at many other Division I-A schools. In our case, lack of depth traditionally translates into sub-standard special teams play. Even more disturbingly is the fact that the skill position outlook is dismal after an embarrassing 2006 season. Kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt made only 8 of 17 field goals and only 7 of 52 kickoffs resulted in touchbacks (wow, can’t wait to kick from the 30 yard line when the new rule goes into effect this year). Sophomore Brett Upson finished 10th in the SEC with 37.4 yards per punt last season. We were 12th in punt returns and 10th in kickoff returns. In a move that makes us cringe, Earl Bennett will probably be returning both punts and kickoffs again this year. All we can say to risking Earl’s body on special teams is, “Why?” We’d prefer to see someone like newcomer Jamie Graham or speedster Udom Umoh bringing back punts and kickoffs. Alex Washington got abused taking back kicks.

Bottom Line
There comes a point when all we can do is shut our eyes and hope against hope that we don’t lose games on special teams. Consider that Vanderbilt was a couple field goals (Arkansas and Ole Miss) and two blocked punts (Florida) away from going 7-5 last season. More than anything, we just need a modicum of fundamental consistency on field goals, kickoffs, and punts. If we manage to prevent this area from being the hinge on which games swing, it will be a successful 2007 for special teams. We’ll leave it on a positive note, though: Brett Upson’s quality hang times helped the Commies to rank #17 in the nation in punt coverage – something to hang your hat on, I guess.

The Big Picture

10th place in the SEC and 74th place in Division I-A in total defense made for an unhappy 2006 season as the Commies went 4-8. Even in big offensive games like Kentucky (621 yards of total offense), the defense failed to capitalize by making the necessary stops (UK picked up 597 yards of offense in that game). A big part of the problem was not so much defensive ineptitude as (a) the offense’s helplessness in the red zone, and (b) special teams feebleness. However, we cannot entirely absolve the defense of responsibility for the team’s woes, and thus are happily optimistic that a more experienced secondary combined with excellent linebackers and a D-line that’s had a full season under the able direction of Ricky Logo will add up to marked improvement in 2007. If the guys hope the “BCS” chant at practice will be taken seriously at all, defensive and special teams improvement will be imperative. We want the 352 yards allowed per game to drop under 300, which would put us in the middle of the pack among SEC defenses (based on the 2006 numbers). We also want to see opposing offenses put up less than 20 points a game against the Commies. Those two goals, along with Hahnfeldt improving his field goal percentage from 47% to 67%, including 80% from inside 35 yards, are the benchmarks we’ll be keeping tabs on. Do those three things and this will be the season when the Commodores turn the corner and extricate themselves from the proverbial cellar. Incidentally, it will also make us feel much better about the amount of time and energy we’ve invested in this team. As for whether or not that vindicates us in the eyes of our readers – well, forgive us for not caring.

Photo Credits:

1. Theo Horrocks (Neil Brake/
2. D.J. Moore (Mandy Lunn/Tennessean)
3. Jonathan Goff (Tim Casey /Alligator Staff)


Douglas James said...

WHY would CBJ risk His Name Is in returning kicks. I have seen enough players get injured there to know you put your young guys and back ups in to return kicks not your best offensive weapon. If not Jamie Graham then another back CB,WR or RB. Not to mention returns are about speed which is not EB's elite skill. ......

Anonymous said...

Stanimal, how about a complete listing of the Benchmarks and week by week updates on them as the season progresses.

August West said...

Saw this in the Tennessean this morning:

"According to a press release distributed by Vanderbilt earlier this summer, Lewis left the team with intentions of transferring to a Division I Football Championship Series (formerly I-AA) program. However, Lewis indicated he has hopes of returning to the squad in 2008."

It doesn't help this year, but everyone seemed excited about his potential down the road...