"When you watch them," Koenning continued, "they're like a ‘bend but don't break' defense."
Last season's 12-9 win over the Commodores marked Dennis Franchione's first victory at Alabama, but it didn't come easily. "Defensively, they're patient, and they play solid," Franchione said. "I think it will be a tough game--a hard fought game, and we'll have to play well for four quarters."
Most of the Vandy players are back again, but the off season brought a change in the Vanderbilt coaching regime. Out went "Woodbyball" with its reliance on a 3-4 defensive set. This year the Commodore staff is utilizing a more traditional 4-3 defense. "They'll still get into some 3-4 schemes," Koenning explained, "but not very many. On some of the passing downs we've seen some of that."
According to Koenning, Bama's goal will be to play error-free football. "We've got to eliminate mistakes," Koenning said. "Last year we went to Nashville and moved the ball up and down the field and didn't get into the endzone. That was shooting ourselves in the foot. We had penalties and missed assignments."
The Commodores total 11 sacks on the season, six of which have come off blitzes. "Vanderbilt does a great job of being patient defensively," Koenning said. "They'll take their shots at you, but they don't give you a rhythm by taking them every down."
Recognizing that their squad will face a talent deficit in most SEC games, the new Vanderbilt staff tries to take as much time off the clock as they can, limiting the other team's offensive chances. "Offensively we need to control some of the clock," Koenning said. "We're not going to get very many shots with their offense. We've got to be productive when we have the ball. They're a grind-it-out type of offense that keeps the ball away from you."
Vanderbilt is very young at outside linebacker, rotating two sophomores and two freshmen in the two slots. But on the inside senior Hunter Hillenmeyer is among the SEC leaders in tackles. "They're very disciplined in their linebacking corps," Koenning said. "Hillenmeyer is a good linebacker. They're always in a position to make the play. They do a nice job of coaching them."
Across the defensive front the Vandy linemen weigh 265, 276, 292 and 252. "They may be slightly undersized on the defensive line," Koenning acknowledged. "But they're still pretty big kids up front at the defensive tackles. Last week in our match-up with Tennessee, their defensive ends were great speed guys. Vanderbilt's ends can move fairly well.
"But I think we match up well."
Cornerback Rushen Jones was selected to the pre-season All-SEC squad, and strong safety Justin Giboney is his team's leading tackler. "They've got a pretty good secondary," Koenning said. "Giboney and (free safety Jonathan) Shaub and Jones all do a really nice job. They adapt to formations very well. You won't find them mis-aligned very often at all. They usually have a guy in the middle of the field to guard against the big play."
Last year Neal Thomas' right leg provided Bama's margin of victory, as the Tide kicked four field goals to win by three points. Franchione hopes to do better this time around.
"We haven't scored a touchdown on Vanderbilt since I've been here," he recalled, "but we did win the game and we'd like to do that again. I suspect we'll have to score some touchdowns if we're going to win it this year."