(Note: Roster could change)
Vanderbilt will be looking to some youth this spring as they transition from a veteran led line to more of a youthful group of guys looking to take that next step. The Commodores are losing key guys in Adam Butler, Torrey Agee and Nehemiah Mitchell but return a few players who have the experience playing in the SEC and a few others who have the talent but have yet to see the field. Your top three guys on the line headed into spring practice look to be Nifae Lealao at defensive tackle with Jonathan Wynn and Dare Odeyingbo manning the defensive end spots. Lealao is headed into his senior season coming off the best year he has had yet in a Vanderbilt uniform. Lealao has steadily gotten better through his career and could be poised for his best season yet. Wynn and Odeyingbo had solid seasons in 2016, especially Wynn who began to come into his own by the end of the season. The Georgia native provides the Dores a solid pass rusher from the end position while also playing well against the run. Odeyingbo is a versatile lineman who can line up inside or stay on the end. He had his moments last year but another year in the system and the weight room, could blossom his game into another atmosphere.
Multiple guys will be asked to take on bigger roles this year. Depth is needed and Vanderbilt has several options to choose from. Jay Woods is the lone veteran who could start but comes in on rotation as someone who can be plugged into the interior of the line or play outside against the edge. Riley Tindol has yet to see the field that much but could be asked for much more as a junior to be. Tindol has the size and versatility to play inside or out. Three red-shirt freshman will be looked upon this spring and fall to provide depth but also hopefully become that next guy, who will become a fixture along the Commodores defensive line. Drew Birchmeier, Josiah Sa'o and Cameron Tidd all sat out last season as true freshman and used that time to get stronger and more acclimated to the Commodores defensive system. Sa'o fits the mold of Woods and Odeyingbo as someone who has enough strength and quickness to play tackle or end in the 3-4. Tidd and Birchmeier have the versatility to do the same but could flourish on the outside as pass rushers but stout on the against the run as well. This spring will be big for all three as the Commodores will need this fall to provide depth and produce on a consistent basis.
If one position could look different in 2017, it would be the Commodore linebackers. This spring will be huge for the linebackers as Vanderbilt has to replace an All-American in Zach Cunningham and a few other guys who provided good snaps and production. Focusing on the outside linebackers first, Vanderbilt is better suited here to compete headed into spring practice. The Commodores return starters in Oren Burks and Landon Stokes and both players will be leaned upon heavily in 2017 as both players have years of experience under their belt and leadership to provide not just for the defense but the entire team as well. Burks could blossom this spring and eventually become an All-SEC candidate by season's end. Stokes has had an up and down career but gives the team size and strength from the outside linebacker position. If Stokes breaks through as a senior and gives the team a consistent pass rusher from the outside, the defense could be ranked among the best in the Southeastern Conference.
Behind Burks and Stokes, Vanderbilt has several young players who did receive game action last year or red-shirted learning on the job. The top two candidates to backup Burks and Stokes are Charles Wright and Caleb Peart. Wright shined at times last year and showed the coaching staff his ability to rush the passer but also provide good play stopping the run. Wright could be due for a breakout season this year. Peart is a bit undersized at outside linebacker but uses his speed and strength for his size to get into the backfield. Peart is the type of guy who can be used in a variety of ways. Two red-shirt freshman will be on the field this spring and will be given every opportunity to carve out playing time in the 2017 season. Kenny Hebert and Andre Mintze are very talented young men who both have the height, size, athleticism and speed to create havoc on the edge and if they show these abilities during spring practice, playing time this fall will be in the cards for them. Vandy likes to rotate their defensive players, so Wright, Peart, Hebert and Mintze will have their moments this season to show their skills and hopefully stand out as a significant contributor.
Replacing the inside linebackers will be a tougher job than improving the outside. You can't replace a talent like Cunningham, you can only hope to try. Well Vanderbilt coaches feel pretty good about their situation because finally former 4-star recruit Josh Smith will be given the opportunity to become a full time starter and hopefully become the next great Commodore linebacker. Smith has patiently waited for his spot to open and the 2017 season will be his moment to shine. An ultra talented player, Smith is a big, fast and physical guy who has provided good depth over the past two seasons but now will be asked to be the guy and he should be more than ready to take on that role. Joining Smith on the inside will be a work in progress. A few true freshman, that will arrive in the fall, could be given a great chance at playing time, as the Commodores aren't as deep on the inside as they are on the outside. The lead candidate this spring to join Smith is Jordan Griffin. The Tampa area native has played several snaps over the past two years and saw increased time this past season as a sophomore. Griffin is a smaller inside linebacker who plays bigger than his size. He is a quick, instinctful guy who plays well against the run. Griffin could be a great compliment to Smith and his athletic roaming game play. The other guy to watch this spring is Nashville native, Jay Hockaday. The former CPA standout has yet to receive much game action but could be given the shot this spring to earn a starting role. Hockaday is a very athletic guy who stands tall at 6'3 and has the length and speed to play sideline to sideline. This spring will be big for him as he tries to finally carve out his role on the Commodores defense.
Possibly the deepest overall position on the team, the Commodores secondary is poised for a big season in 2017 as they return the majority of their two and three deep but also return several talented players who will be expected to take a serious jumps in their game. Vanderbilt could already have their starting cornerbacks headed into spring practice. A two year starter, Tre Herndon returns this spring as a senior and the veteran of the secondary. Herndon hasn't been spectacular throughout his career but he has been pretty solid and provides the Dores dependability on the outside. JoeJuan Williams played as a true freshman last year and immediately showed the coaching staff and fan base of why he was such a highly recruited prospect. The Nashville native came in last year and gave the Commodores a third dependable boundary cover guy and this year, Williams will be asked to become a full time starter and possibly the Dores #1 guy on the outside. Providing depth behind Herndon and Williams will be Taurean Ferguson, Donovan Sheffield, Bryce Lewis, Elijah Hamilton and Frank Coppet. Ferguson looks to be the top guy in the slot. He does well at playing against the run and giving good coverage in the middle of the field. Coppet could take over in that role, after Ferguson graduates. Coppet is a physically tough cover guy who is versatile enough to play anywhere in the secondary. Sheffield is much of the same way. More suited for the outside, Sheffield can provide excellent depth to the boundary but also stay inside playing the nickel. Lewis was given the opportunity at more playing time last year and had some struggles. He is a talented guy with size, who just hasn't had much experience on the field. Hamilton is the guy who has the biggest upside of any cornerback, besides Williams. The Georgia native is a long and tall prospect who red-shirted last year as a true freshman to gain more weight and strength but also continue learning about his position. Hamilton is a name to watch during spring practice as he could find up way up the depth chart come fall camp.
The safety positions are locked down and ready to go. Probably the deepest group on the team, the Commodore safeties equal a mix of experience, size, athleticism and a hard hitting mentality that Coach Mason expects. Looking at the depth chart, it is hard to find a spot for any of the young safeties on the roster to find playing time. The Commodores look set with their starters and backups headed into spring practice. Returning for the 2017 season include Ryan White, Arnold Tarpley, Emmanuel Smith and Ladarius Wiley. All four guys could be considered starters as Coach Mason likes to rotate his players and all four guys played significant snaps during the 2016 season. White ended the season 2nd on the team in tackles and gives the Dores a stout run stuffer from the secondary. Tarpley and Wiley are both versatile guys who can line up all over the field. Smith could be in for a breakout season and he is headed for his senior year and appears ready to reach his maximum capabilities.
A great problem to have for the Commodores coaching staff is talented depth behind a group of proven starters. Former Father Ryan standout Andrew Rector has seen minimal snaps during his career so far but should see extensive minutes this year as a key guy on special teams and someone who can fill in for any of the starters at either safety position. Two young prospects could be the future at safety for Vanderbilt. Both red-shirting in 2016, Zaire Jones and Austin Quillen are two talented safety prospects who shined on the scout team last year and jumps into spring 2017 ready to show what they can add to an already talented safety group. Jones in particular, could be too talented to keep off the field. Look for both Jones and Quillen to play significant roles on special teams and eventually carve a role in the safety rotation.