For the past six seasons, Jamie Duncan and then Jamie Winborn anchored Vanderbilt's linebacking corps with the talent and ability that landed them All-American honors and spots on NFL rosters. For the 2001 Commodores, there will be no overwhelming presence entrenched in the middle of the defense.
"We have some big shoes to fill," admits linebacker Antuian Bradford.
Winborn's shoes will be filled, at least at the outset, by junior Mike Adam, who will join Bradford as an inside linebacker in Vanderbilt's 3-4 scheme. Bradford has one year of starting experience under his belt, while Adam started the first two games last year as an emergency replacement when Winborn served a two-game suspension.
"I have a big concern at that inside linebacker position," said defensive coordinator Herb Paterra. "We don't have a lot of experience. In everything in life you do, you have to have experience."
The experience Adam had as a two-game starter last season is one he would like to forget. He was part of a defense that surrendered 33 points and 429 yards in a season-opening loss to Miami (Ohio), then was benched at halftime the following week at Alabama.
"I sort of got thrown in there unexpectedly," Adam says. "I should have been more prepared. It was my first time playing in college, but that is all behind me. I'm not even worried about it. That is not the Mike Adam they are going to see this year."
Paterra feels like it will indeed be a different Mike Adam this season than the one that tried to start in place of Winborn.
"When you look back, we never knew for sure that we weren't going to have Jamie," he says. "We were preparing Jamie to play that opening game. The week of the game, we found out we didn't have him. So we had to force-feed a young guy, and that is a tough task. He has made great strides since then. We are expecting good things from him."
Adam knows that he needs to do his job as inside linebacker and not try to be the next Jamie Winborn.
"I don't think I have to be an All-American for us to have a good team," he says. "I don't think any of us do. The strength of our team on defense is that we are friends, that we all hang out together. We are going to watch each other's backs."
Bradford's locker was right next to Winborn's last season, so he had a front row seat to the media scrutiny the high-profile linebacker endured.
"He had a lot of pressure to perform," Bradford says. "Guys like me, Nate (Morrow) and Mike are more low-key. We don't have as much pressure. It is kind of good in a way, but at times, you also need a guy that has that presence."
The Vanderbilt coaching staff is hoping Bradford is that guy this year. After starting his career as a fullback/special teams player, Bradford now has a full year on his resume as a full-time starter.
"He made the transition (from fullback), but it was arduous for him," Paterra says. "Right now, he is in good position to have a good year because he knows the position."
Adam is looking forward to sharing the inside slot with Bradford.
"Antuian is great," Adam said. "He and Nate already have the respect and command of the defense. We make a good pair. When Jamie and Lamont Turner played together, Antuian and I were second-string together. We developed a rapport that year. It will show on the field this year."