Friday, August 7, 2009

VSL 2009 Defensive/Special Teams Preview

Vanderbilt’s recent success, culminating in a their first bowl appearance since 1982, and their first bowl win since the Eisenhower administration, was due to a defensive unit that has evolved into one of the stodgiest in the country. Last season, Vanderbilt had the 21st best scoring defense in the country, allowing just 19.6 points a game. But while this unit returns 9 of last year’s 11 starters, it’s the two that won’t be returning that have gotten much of the attention this off-season: cornerback D.J. Moore and safety Reshard Langford. Despite losing ½ of what was an exceptionally talented secondary, there is reason to be optimistic about the defensive unit Vanderbilt will put on the field. Bruce Fowler has been elevated to Assistant Head Coach, turning over the Defensive Coordinator position to Jamie Bryant, who was previously the team’s secondary coach and special teams coordinator. The defense the Commodores will be putting out on the field is an experienced one and will continue to be the strength of the Vanderbilt program in the 2009 season.

Defensive Line

I think Athlon’s preview has it right: “Vanderbilt likely will never boast one of the SEC’s top defensive lines.” With that said, under the tutelage of Defensive Line Coach Ricky Logo, the line has steadily improved and is no longer a doormat for the rest of the SEC’s big uglies. With 3 seniors and a junior expected to start, this unit has a lot of experience and enough talent to make plays. The key for any defensive line is their ability to stop the run. The run stopping anchor is defensive tackle Greg Billinger. Billinger, who at one point committed to Georgia, is 6’3 and weighs in at 287 lbs, and recorded 47 tackles last season. Joining Greg on the interior is Adam Smotherman, a 6’4 290 pounder from Symrna. Smotherman has been solid, but faces a challenge from sophomore T.J. Greenstone for his starting job. At 6’3, 278 lbs, Greenstone is negligibly smaller, but probably the more athletic of the two. As Athlon points out, Billinger, Smotherman, and Greenstone handled the majority of snaps on the interior last season, and there is no reason to expect any different this year. What was a 3-man rotation last season will be aided by the emergence of redshirt freshman Rob Lohr, who is expected to get a lot of time as well. At 6’4, 290 lbs., Lohr is already one of the biggest guys on the interior, and he’ll continue to get bigger. Given Vanderbilt's 12 games in 12 weeks schedule, depth will be an issue across the board. The more guys who can play (and play effectively) on the line, the better for the Commodores.

Broderick Stewart and Steven Stone are expected to start at either defensive end position. What Stewart lacks in size for an end (he’s 6’5, but only weighs 225 lbs.), he more than makes up for in speed. Considered by many to be one of the better SEC pass-rushers, Broderick broke his leg in November against the Volunteers. With the entire spring and summer to heal, Commodore fans should expect at least one sacked lunch every Saturday in the fall. Joining Stewart on the other end is Steven Stone. Stone has almost 50 lbs. on Broderick and also boasts a 6’5 frame. As Mo Patton wrote for Lindy’s, Stone will need to put pressure on the quarterback (especially early as the secondary gels) for the Commodores to be successful.


Despite the dominance of the secondary last year, Vanderbilt’s defensive strength has always been it’s linebacking corps. This season will be no different. All 3 starters are returning, including the emotional leader of the defense Patrick Benoist. The 6 foot senior played much of last season with a club/cast on his arm, yet still took home 2nd Team All-SEC honors, and led the team in tackles with 109. This year, Athlon made Patrick a member of their 3rd Team All-SEC preseason squad. While Benoist is the leader, sophomore Chris Marve is hailed by most as the star of the unit. The 6’0, 228 lbs. redshirt sophomore is a beast and reminds many (or at least Bobby) of Jonathan Goff. Marve started all 13 games last season for Vanderbilt, and led the league in forced fumbles with 4, including the one that sealed the Ole Miss win in Oxford. Chris was named a Freshman All-American by, and was voted 1st Team All-SEC Freshman squad by the league coaches. Marve was tops among the Commodores with 56 unassisted tackles, and was second on the team in QB hurries (3), third in total tackles (105), fourth in sacks (3) and fourth in tackles for loss (6.5). Marve had at least five tackles in 12 games, including 10 in the Music City Bowl win over BC. In Lindy’s, Mo Patton opined that Marve would be the team’s MVP. We have no reason to disagree.

Rounding out the unit is junior John Stokes. Stokes, a 6’5, 228 pounder from Memphis was probably the first “big recruit” CBJ and the Commodores were able to sign, and has been an impact player since arriving on campus. John sat out the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, but all signs indicate he is fully recovered. Athlon thinks converted safety Brent Trice (6’3, 210) will challenge Stokes for his starting spot, but we don’t. While Trice’s cover skills will certainly net him some time, barring injury, the linebacking unit appears to be set. The player to watch at linebacker is senior Brandon Bryant, who missed last season will a broken leg. We’ve hyped Bryant for the past few seasons hoping he would be a factor for the defense. He’s been unlucky with injuries, but hopefully this season (his last) will be the one where he puts it all together.


This is the only unit on the defense not to return all its starters from last season. Losing Reshard and D.J. (and nickel back Darlron Speed) certainly leaves big shoes for this unit to fill, and might take a few games to gel. Still, any team that expects to be able to use and abuse the Vanderbilt secondary will be in for a rude awakening. The unit will be led by 2 seniors, cornerback Myron Lewis and safety Ryan Hamilton. At 6’3, Lewis has steadily improved his cover skills after being converted from a safety after arriving on campus. Lewis earned 2nd Team pre-season honors. Ryan Hamilton, the other senior, is a good/athletic safety. He doesn’t pack the punch Langford did, but has consistently made big plays for Vanderbilt during his tenure.

More interesting than the returning starters are the replacements in the secondary. While no one wanted to see D.J. go, Commodore fans have been excited about his replacement since he burst on the season at the end of last season. Casey Haywood, a 6’0 sophomore, was a difference maker last season, especially after D.J. went down in the bowl game. All the previews heralded Haywood as a key component of the Commodores secondary. While it is unlikely Casey will be as dynamic as D.J. (so far, there is no indication he will play special teams or line up with the offense), his cover skills will be invaluable to a Commodore team who, in years past, have been vulnerable to the deep ball. 6’2 sophomore Sean Richardson is expected to round out the starting line-up and serve as Reshard’s replacement at strong safety. While Richardson is just a sophomore, he played in all but one of the Commodores games last year as a true freshman. The player to watch in the secondary is Jamie Graham, who after trying to breathe some life into the offense last year by playing both wide receiver and running back after Jared Hawkins went down, returns to the defense. Graham is expected to spell Haywood and will likely see time lining up with the offensive in addition to his duties as the return man. Mo also thinks Commodore fans should be on the look-out for Alan Strong, a 5’10 junior cornerback who Patton says is one of the fastest players on the roster.

Special Teams

Up until last year, Vanderbilt fans constantly bemoaned the cruel twist of fate that forced them to rely on the right foot of placekicker Bryant Hahnfeldt. Its possible Commodore fans will long for the “good ol’ days” now that Hahnfeldt has graduated. Replacing Bryant is redshirt freshman Ryan Fowler, although punter Brett Upson took snaps at PK in the spring and is expected to battle for that job as well. Speaking of Upson, the reigning Music City Bowl MVP has always been an important part of the Commodores overall game plan (whether fans wanted him to be or not). He was huge part of Vanderbilt’s success last season, especially during their 5-0 start. Brett averaged a career-high 40.1 yards on 68 punts last season, nearly a third which ended up inside the opponent 20-yard line. Brett had 13 punts of 50 yards or more, including a season-long of 60 yards at Wake Forest. Field position is always key in football. Given Vanderbilt’s defensive prowess, and the uncertainty that surrounds the offense, that is even more true for the Commodores. For Vanderbilt to be successful, they have to do the “little things” well, and one of the biggest “little things” is punting.

As much as Vanderbilt will miss D.J. Moore as a lock-down corner in the secondary and a playmaker (or massive decoy) on offense, his absence will probably be most pronounced on special teams. By the middle of last season, teams were kicking the ball away from Moore, often resulting in worse field position or a penalty, just to avoid putting the ball in his hands. The unenviable task of replacing D.J. falls to sophomore Jamie Graham, who has seemingly done it all (including play basketball) for Vanderbilt. Graham has shown signs of brilliance in the return game, but is certainly (at least not yet) not the weapon that D.J. was.

Bottom Line

This year’s Commodore team will depend heavily on their defense, especially early on the in season as the team implements a new offense (and hopefully turn the reigns over to a new quarterback). Just how key is Vanderbilt’s defense to their success? Consider that 4 out of 5 “Key Commodores” in Athlon’s preview are on the defensive side of the ball (and the one offensive player, Terrance Jeffers, might not even be eligible). The unit is experienced, but certainly lost a lot with the departures of Moore and Langford. The strength will be the linebackers, but the key will be the front 4’s ability to stop the run and put pressure on the quarterback. As we highlighted in the Offensive Preview, Vanderbilt's success last year had a lot to do with their turnover margin. The Commodores have to stay on the "plus" side of this stat if they are going to make it to another bowl game.

On special teams, the question really is who the place kicker will be now that Hahnfeldt has graduated. Fowler was highly touted coming out of high school and had a year to acclimate to college after sitting out last season. Still, there is perhaps no position in football that is as pressure filled as that of place kicker, especially for a team that doesn’t have the easiest time scoring. If Fowler wins the starting spot, could it be that the most important real estate on West End is between the freshman kicker’s ears? For our sanity and yours, we certainly hope not.

Editor's Note: The final installment of VSL's 2009 Preview, The Schedule, will appear early next week.


Anonymous said...

great preview. i didn't even think about hahnfeldt leaving and win or loss situations being put on a freshman's shoulders but that being said could he be any worse? i don't think so. maybe even better. that i hope for.

i think our D Line does some work this year and gets to the QB a few times a game. can't wait. 4 weeks.

Anonymous said...

You may not know this but Alan Strong transferred to TSU earlier in the summer

Clark said...

I second anonymous. I'm not sure how Mo missed out on that one. Alan would have been a great part of the Vanderbilt secondary, except he doesn't go to Vanderbilt anymore. I personally have been wondering when it would happen, as he didn't gel with the coaching staff or many of their position philosophies. He will be missed though. It's sad that the most lasting impression of him will be getting ejected from a game for choking another player last year.

Anonymous said...

I dont think that was the most lasting impression, i think it was the win over Auburn when strong downed the ball on the 3 and a couple of other hits, check the punting stats 08 year compared to others... you may find a surprise

Anonymous said...

I dont think that was the most lasting impression, i think it was the win over Auburn when strong downed the ball on the 3 and a couple of other hits, check the punting stats 08 year compared to others... you may find a surprise