Will those strong second-half showings continue in 2009? Probably. Vanderbilt welcomes back most of the key elements from its 2008 defense. The notable exceptions are cornerback D.J. Moore (who turned pro rather than return for his senior year) and safety Reshard Langford.
Moore, in particular, will be missed. A two-time All-SEC pick, he recorded 58 tackles, 7 pass breakups and 6 interceptions as a junior last fall en route to second-team All-America recognition. He also played some wide receiver and returned kicks.
The Commodores are attempting to fill the void left by Moore's departure by moving one of their top receiver prospects, 6-0, 192-pound Jamie Graham, to cornerback. The other corner spot is in great hands. Lanky Myron Lewis (6-3, 205) recorded 76 tackles, 6 pass breakups, 5 interceptions and 5 sacks last fall.
If Graham pans out and a suitable replacement for Langford is found, Vandy's 2009 defense could be among the SEC's finest. That's because the Commodores have surprising experience, quality and depth in their front seven.
Weakside linebacker Patrick Benoist (6-0, 220) is back after posting a team-high 109 tackles last fall. Middle linebacker Chris Marve (6-0, 228) is coming off a 105-tackle campaign that included four forced fumbles. Strongside linebacker John Stokes (6-5, 235) recorded 31 stops in 10 starts last fall.
The front four returns intact, as well. Steven Stone (6-5, 272) is back for another year at one end after posting 42 tackles and 5 sacks a year ago. The other end is Broderick Stewart (6-5, 230), who recorded 29 stops and also checked in with 5 sacks.
Vandy's defensive prowess was one of the most surprising developments of the 2008 SEC season. The Commodores allowed just 319.6 yards and 19.6 points per game. They forced six turnovers in the upset of Ole Miss and limited 12 of 13 opponents to 24 points or less. The exception was national champ Florida, which hung 42 on them.
With four of the top five tacklers back from that stop unit, Vandy should be even stouter in '09 ... if suitable replacements for D.J. Moore and Reshard Langford can be found.
The Commodores also must find a replacement for kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt, who hit 13 of 18 field-goal tries last fall. Someone also must step forward to succeed D.J. Moore on punt returns (14.4-yard average) and kickoff returns (19.4-yard average). On a positive note, punter Brett Upson is back after averaging 40.4 yards last season.
Bottom line: Stockpiling enough talent and depth to field an SEC-caliber defense always has been Vandy's biggest challenge. It appears that challenge has been met.