Thursday, July 17, 2008

VSL's 2008 Football Preview (Part II: The Defense and Special Teams)

Vanderbilt’s defense, which ranked 16 in the country last year, will have to be equally stout for the Commodores to have a shot to go bowling. Defensive Coordinator Bruce Folwer has a good thing going, despite being ravaged by graduation. 7 Starters return, and those filling in for the likes of Goff, Gatewood, and Horrocks have some experience. While Vanderbilt will never be “reloading” the way a Florida or Georgia does, Fowler’s unit won’t be “rebuilding” either.

Defensive Line – Young at Heart?

Not surprisingly, when asked this off-season what his biggest concern was, Coach Bobby Johnson quickly said it was the defensive line. As has been discussed ad nauseum in the offensive preview, Vanderbilt lost a lot to the NFL and graduation – perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than on the D-Line. Three of four starters will be new, with junior Stephen Stone the only hold-over from last year’s 16th ranked defense. For some time, VSL has been hoping Greg Billinger (Jr.) and Broderick Stewart (Jr.) would “bust out.” Last season, Stewart appeared poised to make the jump Commodore fans have been hoping for, finishing in the top-10 in the SEC in sacks despite not starting. At 6’5, 228 lbs., Stewart and Stone have the potential to be a dynamic duo on either end. Still, as always, depth will be an issue.

Greg Billinger’s spring performance has many thinking this is finally the year the 6’3, 290 lbs. tackle delivers. Brett described Greg’s play as “inspired” during the spring, which will be needed as the defensive line is rounded out by sophomore tackle Adam Smotherman (6’4, 275 lbs.). According to Athlon, the staff has been “pleased” with Adam, despite a nagging knee injury that has limited his snaps thus far. Vanderbilt’s inexperience on the second team is no where as pronounced as with the defensive line. The depth chart going into the season has the second unit boasting a freshman, two sophomores, and a junior. The drop-off between the two units could spell trouble against a solid running attack in the second halves of games.

Linebackers – Under Pressure

Players like Jonathan Goff and Marcus Buggs are never easy to replace under the most ideal of circumstances. For a team like Vanderbilt, who is never as deep as the rest of our SEC brethren, the task is made that much harder. Despite all that, Vanderbilt coaches are as excited about their linebacking corps. as any unit (except perhaps the secondary) on either side of the ball. Junior Patrick Benoist (6’0, 218 lbs.) will be “replacing” Goff, who was truly the anchor of the Commodores defense for the past few years. Patrick was instrumental in last year’s win at South Carolina (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 force fumble). Joining Beniost is junior Brandon Bryant (6’0, 230 lbs.) and sophomore John Stokes (6’5, 238 lbs.). John Stokes was the prized recruit of CBJ’s 2007 recruiting class. Playing special teams primarily as the long-snapper last year, Stokes (a highly touted recruit out of Memphis who, according to Athlon’s, turned down offers from Alabama, Michigan, and Tennessee) is the future of Vanderbilt’s defense. He is an absolute stud and will be counted on heavily if Vanderbilt’s defense hopes to be as stout as it was last season.

The 2nd unit of linebackers is young, with 2 sophomores and a freshman spelling Benoist, Bryant, and Stokes. Still, sophomore Nate Campbell (6’3, 230 lbs.) is likely to challenge Bryant for time according to Athlon, with red-shirt freshman Chris Marve (6’0, 238 lbs.) from White Station High in Memphis also expected to get some serious run.

Secondary – The Pride and Joy

This is by far the best unit Vanderbilt has. It’s the only group not affected by graduation or the greener pasteures of the NFL. Junior cornerback D.J. Moore is the best player on either side of the ball (and don’t be surprised if he plays both sides at stints throughout the season). D.J. was All-SEC First Team at the end of last season, has been selected to Athlon’s First All-SEC Team and Lindy’s Second All-SEC Team, to say nothing of being placed on the Jim Thorpe pre-season watch list for the best defensive back in college football. The other cornerback is junior Myron Lewis, who has been the source of some disagreement between the VSL crew. Bobby thinks that whenever there is a big play through the air, chances are Myron Lewis is involved. Seamus, on the other hand, is a Myron Lewis apologist. Regardless of where you come down in that debate, it isn’t hard to find reasons to be excited about this cornerback duo. Playing field corner against teams’ marquee receivers will be D.J., a guy who led the conference in INTs, was third in passes defended, and was the only cornerback in the top 15 of the SEC in tackles during the 2007 season. At the base corner is Lewis, who overcame the difficult transition from safety to corner last season and (notwithstanding a big play or two given up) finished fifth in the conference in passes defended (a stat that combines breakups and interceptions) and eighth in fumble recoveries.

Rounding out the secondary are strong safety Reshard Langford (3rd Team All-SEC according to Athlon) and junior free safety Ryan Hamilton – both of whom can really play. In Nicklel situations, Darlon Spead (junior, 5’10, 185 lbs.) will also get some run.

All in all, this unit should continue to build upon their national #18 pass defense ranking of last year. But that doesn't mean a thing if we can't stop anyone up front.

Special Teams – Opps, We Did It Again?

Uh…this unit scares us. A lot. Last season, special teams errors and missed opportunities featured prominently in several losses (Alabama and Tennessee, immediately come to mind). Bryant Hahnfeldt is a senior and is expected to start the season. But after only hitting 65% of field goals last season (13/20), don’t be surprised at all if freshman Ryan Folwler doesn’t get some kicks (or win the job outright). Brett Upson, a junior, isn’t a liability, but he’s not the kind of player who can “switch” field position with his foot. Last season, Brett averaged 39.2 yards a punt, and downed 22 kicks inside the 20. For Vanderbilt, the key on special teams is coverage down field. Not giving up big plays, and not making stupid ones that pro-long drives (1 roughing the kicker penalty this season is too many), will be key.

On the returning end, D.J. Moore will be a weapon for the Commodores. Last season, D.J. had 32 kickoff returns for an average of 25.7 yards per return. Even better, Moore had 7 returns of 40 yards or more. His ability to give the Commodores a short field to work from will be critical. Alex Washington, with a few exceptions, was a very effective punt returner, and will be relied upon to give the Commodores field position when the Commodore defense can get stops. Also, don’t be surprised if Jamie Graham doesn’t also get some chances to make plays returning the ball, especially as D.J. becomes more and more of a “mark.”


Douglas James said...

Great article in the City paper about how good the secondary will be this year. Moore has alot of hype going into this year. I have to think if he just equals what he did last year he will declare early.

Douglas James said...

Not smart

Stanimal said...

Not smart at all