Vanderbilt Camp in Review: Defense

Casey Hayward (VM/Don Yates)

The Vanderbilt Commodores recently completed preseason camp. VandyMania.com's Reid Harris was a regular at Commodore practices and files this review of the Vandy defense. The 'Dores will open the season on Saturday night against Elon at Vanderbilt Stadium.

Defensive backs:

As onlookers expected before preseason camp, the Vanderbilt secondary had the strongest performance of any unit on offense or defense during the 2011 preseason. Senior and three-year starter Casey Hayward leads a talented group of defensive backs that could be one of the best units in the conference. After an impressive camp, junior Trey Wilson has earned the other starting cornerback position after battling Eddie Foster and Andre Hal for the starting spot. Though neither Foster nor Hal will start against Elon on September 3rd, both could see a considerable amount of time on the field. Coach Franklin has consistently emphasized the importance of getting the best players on the field as often as possible, hinting that one of the talented defensive backs could see extra time in place of a member of the shallow linebacking corps.

Much like the cornerbacks, the safeties in Vanderbilt's secondary have shown themselves to be a strength of the Commodore defense. Led by senior and three-year starter Sean Richardson, safeties Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall looked nearly as impressive throughout camp, making it nearly impossible for quarterback Larry Smith to hit targets downfield. Although Franklin has announced that Ladler has won the starting spot after starting nine games last year as a true freshman, Marshall will challenge Ladler for the starting role and will certainly see time on the field. In addition to their success in pass coverage, the secondary was able to apply pressure to quarterback Larry Smith on blitzes with some consistency, something that defensive coordinator Bob Shoop seems to be very fond of.

Linebackers

Despite having arguably the best player on the team in All-SEC middle linebacker Chris Marve, the linebacking corps entered camp as the shallowest unit and one in most need of improvement. After Marve, redshirt junior linebacker Tristan Strong had the most impressive preseason camp and was able to hold off Archibald Barnes to win the starting job. Strong played in all 12 games last season and will look to continue improving as the season progresses. In particular, Strong showed an ability to effectively drop into pass coverage, an area that Vanderbilt outside linebackers have struggled with in past years. True sophomore Chase Garnham was announced as the other starter at outside linebacker and is the youngest linebacker to crack the two-deep on the depth chart. As a true freshman last season, Garnham played in every game.

After nearly beating out Tristan Strong for a starting linebacker position, redshirt junior Archibald Barnes is the most serviceable reserve at linebacker. Former safety Al Owens had an impressive camp at linebacker as well and may be able to meaningfully contribute on the field, particularly in pass coverage. Although as a unit the linebackers did improve during preseason camp, they still are the weak point of the defense and will need to continue developing over the course of the season to help contribute to an otherwise very talented defense.

Defensive line

The defensive line was arguably the most competitive unit during preseason camp with a large number of players competing for the four spots on the line. After starting eight games last season, redshirt senior T.J. Greenstone was overtaken by redshirt junior Colt Nichter for a starting position at defensive tackle alongside Rob Lohr. Nichter had as impressive a camp as any defensive player, taking advantage of the aggressive new style of play. He uses his combination of strength and quickness to break through the middle of the offensive line and apply pressure to the quarterback on nearly every play. Although Greenstone has lost the starting job, he will still see plenty of time on the field. As many as five defensive tackles are expected to be rotated into the position during games including Jared Morse and Vince Taylor. Though he was injured for most of the preseason, freshman Barron Dixon showed impressive power when he was able to contribute during the preseason. Fellow freshman Conor Hart moved from defensive end to defensive tackle during the preseason and will likely spend the 2011 season learning behind a group of very experienced linemen.

There was a similarly high level of competition at the defensive end positions with Tim Fugger holding onto his starting role and redshirt junior Johnell Thomas earning the starting spot. Thomas' selection as the starting defensive end was perhaps the most surprising selection of the week one depth chart. Redshirt freshman Kyle Woestmann challenged Thomas for the position and began showing marked improvement towards the end of the preseason. If Woestmann continues playing at the same level he did the last week of preseason camp, he could overtake Thomas (or at least get a large amount of time on the field) as the season progresses. Redshirt sophomore Walker May did not practice in full contact at all throughout the preseason due to an undisclosed injury, but he may also challenge Thomas for a starting spot as he becomes healthy. Freshmen Darien Bryant showed himself to be arguably the fastest defensive end coming off the corner, although he may be a liability against the run defense due to his lack of size.

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