Yet as Vanderbilt linebackers coach Warren Belin looks at the trio of Commodore linebackers which will take the field Saturday afternoon against Ole Miss (11:30 a.m., Jefferson-Pilot TV, WSM-650), he has to be quietly smiling to himself.
Vanderbilt's finest defense in modern times was almost unquestionably that of 1997, a year which saw the Commodores lead the SEC in total defense. Led by a trio of senior linebackers-- Jamie Duncan, Antony Jordan, Carlton Hall-- the 1997 defense set a standard by which all subsequent units would be measured. Duncan and Jordan went on to NFL careers.
Six years later, Vanderbilt will start a trio of sophomores that many close observers cautiously believe has a chance, given time, to be every bit as good-- if not better-- than that illustrious 1997 trio.
"We're all athletes-- we all can run," says Herdley Harrison. "Except for Otis, we're all experienced."
Can Moses lead Vandy to the promised land?
"I think Moses [Osemwegie] is going to be ready to go for us," says Bobby Johnson with a grimace, and with all of his fingers and toes crossed. And then he knocks on wood.
He grimaces because he knows just how big an impact player Osemwegie can be-- provided he can stay healthy. Commodore fans saw glimpses of his greatness last year, as he was able to play in 11 of 12 games. His best games came early in the season-- he started against Georgia Tech and Furman and registered ten tackles in each game. But before the season was over, he had hurt just about every body part there was to injure-- and the nicks and bruises took a toll on his effectiveness.
Vandy fans who are also Nashvillians were well aware of Osemwegie, one of the most honored athletes ever to graduate from Montgomery Bell Academy, when he signed in 2001. Along with teammate Dominique Morris, he led the Big Red to three straight Division II state titles in football, and two straight in basketball. He was named both Mr. Football and Division II MVP in basketball his senior year.
Amazingly, there was a time when some thought he was way too nice, too quiet to become a football star. But his high school coach, Ricky Bowers, knew differently.
"He's very quiet and unassuming, a truly gentle person," Bowers told the Tennessean in 2001. "Until the ball is snapped. Then he's probably our most aggressive player."
In most circles, his M.B.A. teammate Ingle Martin was a more highly regarded prospect. Martin, a quarterback coveted by Vanderbilt, signed in 2001 with Steve Spurrier and Florida, while Osemwegie and Morris signed with the Commodores. Two years later, Osemwegie looks like an emerging star, while the jury is still out on Martin's collegiate career.
With 53 total tackles in 2002, Osemwegie (6-0, 225) is Vanderbilt's leading returning tackler.
A hidden gem from Georgia
Herdley Harrison was one of those gems that flew under recruiting gurus' radar screens. But Bobby Johnson was very familiar with Harrison while he was head coach at Furman, and kept in touch in late 2001 after accepting the Vanderbilt position. Of the three sophomore linebackers Harrison is the youngest, and the only one recruited to Vandy by Johnson.
You just knew Herdley Harrison was going to be something special when his coach at Marietta (Ga.) High School, James "Friday" Richards, called him "probably the finest athlete to come out of this school in the 20-plus years I've been here." That's quite a statement, when one considers that Marietta has produced football players like Georgia's Eric Zeier and Clemson's Travis Zachery, and basketball stars like Georgia's Ezra Williams.
Marietta, an enormous high school located in the football hotbed of Cobb County, Ga., had more than enough players to platoon on offense and defense. But Harrison, who played tight end and defensive end for the Blue Devils, played every down of his senior year, including special teams.
"Herdley never came off the field for us," said Richards. "He played a little bit of everything. When you get to the point where you can play both ways, every down, in a program like ours, that's saying something."
Harrison was Mr. Everything at Marietta High-- team captain... MVP... "Mr. Marietta." When he reported to campus in the summer of 2002, Belin knew instantly he had a player. Last year's linebacking corps had plenty of depth, but Belin knew early on that Harrison could help the team from day one. He cracked the two-deep at strongside linebacker, and ended up starting the Commodores' last six games after an injury sidelined Eric Byrum.
Harrison has switched from No. 43 last year to a coveted single-digit number, 4. He has also let his hair grow into a fashionable cornrows 'do for 2003. "I couldn't find anybody to cut my hair," he laughs. "So I got it braided."
Otis, my man
Few Commodore players' debuts have been as eagerly anticipated by fans as that of Otis Washington, who will wear No. 52 Saturday and attempt to fill the enormous hole vacated by Hunter Hillenmeyer.
Much has been made of the fact that Washington was the victim of a drive-by shooting when he was nine years old. Much has been made of the fact that he was kicked out of school last year for subpar academics, and won his way back onto the team with hard work in the classroom. Much less has been made of his enormous potential as a middle linebacker.
But ask his teammates, and they'll tell you. The 5-11, 225-pounder from Saginaw, Mich. has impressed coaches and teammates alike since arriving on campus in 2001. A "fireplug with an attitude," they call him. He'll be starting ahead of junior Pat Brunner, who has two years of experience in the middle. Bobby Johnson calls him "the guy who's really going to help us," on defense.
"He's just a difference-maker," said Saginaw High School coach Don Durrett, who also utilized Washington at fullback. "He did things for us you just can't teach." Many have forgotten that the former Saginaw star turned down Notre Dame and Iowa because he "just felt at home" at Vanderbilt.
"He has a knack of getting to the football," says Johnson. "Put him in a race for 60 or 100 yards, and Otis is not going to be real fast. But at about 15 yards, Otis is going to be one of the fastest guys on the field."
With his bulging biceps and tree-trunk-like thighs, Washington packs a wallop for unsuspecting ball-carriers. His short, stocky frame and his ferociousness remind many practice observers of Jamie Winborn, Vandy's All-SEC linebacker from 1998-2000.
Can Washington follow in the great middle linebacking tradition left by Hillenmeyer, Winborn and Jamie Duncan?
Even with as much potential as the starting three possess, the second-string linebackers should expect plenty of playing time, according to Harrison. Eric Byrum, Pat Brunner and Marty Morgan make for an experienced and capable set of backups, and newcomers like Funtaine Hunter and Kevin Joyce are waiting in the wings.
"Last year, even though Hunter [Hillenmeyer] had zillions of tackles, if he could have had a couple of plays out, he probably could have done even better," said Harrison. "This year we should have a little rotation going on. The sky's the limit. We should be two-deep at each position-- at least."
With Washington finally on board, fall camp has fostered on a sense of urgency and single-mindedness among the linebacking corps. Washington fondly remembers the bonds of comraderie he felt playing in high school alongside Saginaw linebacker Ronald Stanley.
"It was something else to play with that man," Washington says of Stanley. "I'd always look across to him, and it gave me strength. When we looked at each other, we knew what time it was... it was 'time to go.'"
"I think I have that same kind of relationship with Moses here."
On Saturday afternoon, for the trio of Washington, Osemwegie and Harrison-- it's finally time to go.