The line of scrimmage on defense was the biggest focus during spring camp as the Commodores coaching staff were determined to develop their talent but also find some pass rushing among all the lineman. The biggest name coming back for the 2017 season is nose tackle Nifae Lealao. By all accounts from the coaches during camp, Lealao is looking and playing the best football of his career right now and could be poised for a biog breakout senior campaign. Lealao is honestly the Commodores best pass rusher at this time and that's something that needs to change. You of course want someone who can get into the backfield, stop would be runners as well as get after the quarterback but you don't want your nose tackle to be your best sack specialist. Finding someone to penetrate the backfield from the defensive end positions was the biggest focus of camp. The guy who fits this role the best during the 2017 season is senior to be Jonathan Wynn. It has taken some time for Wynn to grow into his body and develop the way he and the staff needs him to but he could finally be ready to bust out and reach his maximum potential. Wynn is a big, long and tall guy who plays the edge very well against the run but needs to get after the quarterback a bit more. He has the abilities to do do and the coaches are hopeful he does just that during the upcoming season.
Besides finding pass rushers, depth was the other factor during camp. Building a line full of guys who can come in and contribute to the team is big for the staff to find and they have some options to choose from. The guy who may have the biggest upside and someone who will play a major role on the d-line in 2017 is junior to be Dare Odeyingbo. The Texas native has shown signs over the past two years are developing into a dual guy on the line who could stuff the run but also cause damage chasing the quarterback. Odeyingbo is a highly talented guy who could breakout in 2017 and if he does to his full potential, it becomes a game changer for the Commodores defensive line. Another guy who will be asked to contribute a lot in 2017 will be veteran Jay Woods. The Georgia native dealt with injuries throughout his entire junior season but is back at 100% and ready to get back on the line. Woods is a versatile guy who can play the nose but also swing out to end. His versatility is big for the Dores d-line as he gives the team someone they can line up in mulitple positions.
Beyond the top three lineman, Vanderbilt incorporated several red-shirt freshman into spring camp with the opportunity at seeing how much they had developed over the past year. Cameron Tidd, Drew Birchmeier, Josiah Sa'o all sat out last season continuing to develop their games and mature into the college atmosphere. This season, all three will be asked to play and play a lot. Vanderbilt isn't tremendously deep on the line so Tidd, Birchmeier and Sa'o will all get the chance to play this year with the opportunity to take on a bigger role, depending on who goes after it.
The Commodores top position group of the 2016 season is now one the youngest and least experienced groupings on the team. The linebackers was led in 2016 by All-American Zach Cunningham but he is now headed off to the NFL and the staff must find a replacement for the Dores leading tackler. They also lost the services of Ja'Karri Thomas, who had a good senior season and Landon Stokes, who decided to not return for his senior year. Vanderbilt must find some guys to step up and take on lead roles but they do have a vet who has been through the fire and will not only lead the linebackers but lead the defense as well. Senior to be Oren Burks is headed into his final season at Vanderbilt and his abilities at outside linebacker will be valuable to any success the Commodores defense has in 2017. Burks is the team's smartest and most head strong player and a guy who is willing to take the load on his shoulders and lead his team in anyway possible. The star position in the Commodores 3-4 defense is manned by Burks but who takes over on the other side, replacing Stokes at outside linebacker?
That is a battle that started this spring and won't be settled until deep into fall camp. Finding a starter at outside linebacker will be a battle that is fought between sophomore Caleb Peart, junior Charles Wright and red-shirt freshman Andre Mintze and Kenny Hebert. Peart and Wright have the most experience of the four with Wright possibly being the guy who gets the starting nod come fall. Wright has shown glimpses over the past two years of his natural ability to get into the backfield. His continued maturity may have him poised to become a starter in 2017. Peart is a bit undersized but continued to show this spring his ability to find the quarterback and use his smaller frame to get to the backfield with ease. Mintze and Herbert are two long and tall outside backers who reek of athleticism and pure pass rushing skills. Both players will see the field in 2017 but how much will be determined by their continued development throughout fall camp.
The inside linebackers is a different story as the Commodores are looking to replace both starters but have several options to choose from. One of the best performances during spring practice this year was junior to be Josh Smith. The Murfreesboro native has had to play behind starters to past two years but now the role on the inside is officially his and he seems ready to take on such a big role. Smith was outstanding in camp showing his ability to find the ball with ease and make tackles sideline to sideline. His older brother, Emmanuel Smith. made the move up to inside linebacker and showed during spring practice that he could not only play that position but possibly play it at a high level. The older Smith will have a chance to start this fall but will have to hold off Jordan Griffin and others. Griffin is a short but stout and physical backer who just seems to have a nose for the ball. His strong work ethic could be too hard for Smith and others to work past. Both Smith's and Griffin will have to fight tough during fall camp as Vanderbilt has several other options behind them and guys with a lot of talent.
Jay Hockaday is a talented red-shirt sophomore who has yet to be given the chance to play on a consistent basis but for this upcoming season, he will be asked to contribute a lot on special teams and even compete for a starting gig at inside linebacker. Hockaday will have to continue to develop as this spring he saw the arrival of a true freshman who is talented to enough to not only see the field in 2017 but fight with other vets for a starting role. Cedar Hill (Tx) linebacker Dimitri Moore early enrolled at Vanderbilt and immediately made a name for himself on the field. Moore still needs to time to mature with his body but the talent is there. He is fast, aggressive and has the height to see over the line. Moore has all the tools you want at inside linebacker so it's not a question as to if but when the talented true freshman will see the field.
Besides the running back position, the Commodores secondary could be the strongest and deepest position group on the team. Vanderbilt did lose the their top corner back in Torren McGaster but return everyone else from the secondary, including a deep group of safeties who could honestly be considered one of the top position groups in the SEC. The back end of the secondary is led by senior Ryan White. The Louisville native had a breakout junior year where he ended up 2nd on the team in tackling and was a force in stopping the run. This spring, White appeared to be in his best shape of his career and ready to lead this team back to a bowl game. His counterpart at safety is actually an ongoing battle between several guys. Red-shirt freshman Zaire Jones began to make a name for himself on the scout team last year and this spring camp, he continued his strong play and has given the coaches something to think about come the fall. If Jones isn't able to take over a starting role, that position could easily go to Ladarius Wiley. The rising senior has been a contributor since the moment he arrived on campus and seems to be comfortable at safety now and playing the best ball of his Vanderbilt career. Wiley and Jones will continue to battle into the fall and whoever wins the job, will have to continue to fight the other one off as both guys are very talented and could easily start over the other.
You can't forget about Arnold Tarpley either. The Pennsylvania native is headed into his senior year as the Commodores most versatile defensive back and someone who could start at safety or nickel in the Commodores defense. Regardless if Tarpley is a starter or not, he will be on the field a lot and be asked to contribute in many ways. Andrew Rector and red-shirt freshman Austin Quillen will also provide depth at safety as well as be key contributors on special teams.
The corner back role opposite of Tre Herndon is up for grabs but a certain local sophomore is in prime position to take over that role. Nashville native JoeJuan Williams saw the field in 2016 and surprised many with his maturity and capabilities at playing corner back as a true freshman. Well he didn't surprise many during spring camp as he was one of the hottest talks of practice. Williams is a big, long and tall cover corner who has all the traits of an All-SEC caliber player. By his play during spring practice, Williams looks poised to start in 2017 and began his ascension into star power. Herndon is back for his senior year and looks ready for his best season yet in a Commodores uniform. Herndon is the most experienced corner back on the roster and is a great vet for the younger Commodores to learn from.
A few of those youngsters competed with vets this spring to earn playing time this fall and even compete for bigger roles. Senior to be Taurean Ferguson is the Commodores top nickel back and he has played that role going on three years now. He is back to fill that role again and fits nicely in the role for what the coaches ask him to do. His backup this fall and someone Ferguson could groom nicely is red-shirt freshman Frank Coppet. The South Florida native is a physical, run stuffer at nickel and someone who could play on the outside if need be. The corner back who could have the biggest upside but also someone who stood out this spring is red-shirt freshman Elijah Hamilton. Standing 6'2 196 lbs, Hamilton has the size and length wanted at cover corner. He had a stellar year on the scout team and will be asked to provide depth and minutes this fall. Juniors Donovan Sheffield and Bryce Lewis will provide depth on the outside and give the Dores two guys who can play a variety of roles in the secondary. Sheffield in particular has yet to breakout but has the talents to do so. He could play outside or even swing to the nickel during the fall. The secondary in general is young on the outside but grizzled at the safeties. It's a good combination of talent, youth and depth and it gives the Commodores a position group to lean on as the other parts of the defense improves.