This is the next installment of a multi-part series analyzing every facet of the 2001 Vanderbilt Commodores. The series analyzes the personnel, coaching, and intangibles from each functional unit of the team, and will culminate in an overall analysis and season prediction. Today, I'll break down the defensive backfield.

The lack of depth and experience in the front seven were examined by a previous edition of this column. Thankfully, for the defense's sake, almost all of the familiar faces in the secondary are back, but it is a secondary that ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in pass defense. Does that mean we have a bunch of players back who are not SEC caliber, or does it mean the secondary is in for a great year?

Look Back to 2000

SEC Rankings

  • 7th ranked Passing Defense (212.6 ypg)
  • 9th ranked Pass Efficiency Defense (114.1)
  • 8th ranked in Interceptions (11, though 4 came from linebackers)
  • 5th ranked in Passing First Down allowed (99)
  • Defensive backs accounted for only 1 sacks and 1 quarterback pressure (Justin Giboney)
  • Defensive backs accounted for only 4 of 45 tackles for loss

The secondary had a very uneven year in 2000. There were games such as Miami (OH) and Florida where the passing yards seemed to mount for our opponents with relative ease. There were also outstanding performances where the pass defense was extremely stingy, such as yielding only 133 and 158 yards to Ole Miss and Tennessee respectively. Much of the success and failure of this group had to do with a substandard pass rush by both SEC and Woody Widenhoefer standards. There was a year-long failure to produce consistent pressure from blitz or standard packages. Despite this problem, the cornerbacks were the foundation of the defense. Jimmy Williams played well enough to be drafted by Buffalo, and Rushen Jones earned a reputation as one of the toughest young cornerbacks in the league. Aaron McWhorter also filled in well during Williams' absence.

The safeties were both encouraging and discouraging at once. Harold Lercius has taken over the role of strong safety, which had previously been held by current Pittsburgh Steeler Ainsley Battles. Lercius had difficulty as a sophomore, but responded with a very solid junior season. On the other hand, Jonathan Shaub was coming off a surprising freshman season, and hopes were great for him to improve on his early successes. Shaub, who was hampered by a shoulder injury most of the season, failed to live up to the play of his freshman season, and by the last six games had yielded his position to Justin Giboney. From that point on the secondary began to jell, as both tackling and coverage showed some improvement.



5Aaron McWhorter6-1192R-Jr.Ft. Worth, TX
11Rushen Jones6-1195R-Jr.Memphis, TN
20Lorenzo Parker5-11182R-Fr.Farmington Hills, MI
26Dominique Morris6-0180Fr.Nashville, TN
28Cheron Thompson5-11175Fr.Atlanta, GA
30Ian Gaines5-11188So.Denton, TX
31Ronnie Swoopes6-2185Fr.Athens, GA
48Kelechi Ohanaja*6-1185Fr.Arlington, TX

* deferred scholarship recipient


7Mike Martin5-10188Jr.Tampa, FL
13Jonathan Shaub*6-1201Jr.Brentwood, TN
14Justin Giboney6-0195Jr.Englewood, CO
18Justin Purkey6-3209 R-Jr.Mt. Juliet, TN
23Harold Lercius5-11195R-Sr.Casselberry, FL
25Ben Koger**6-1190Fr.Brentwood, TN
27Jerrol Jackson6-2196R-Jr.Birmingham, AL
32Nick Lyle 6-2210R-Fr.Cincinnati, OH
37Ethan McDaniel***5-10178Sr.Gordo, AL

* will redshirt due to shoulder surgery
** deferred scholarship recipient
*** walk-on

The Breakdown

  • 13 scholarship players available
  • 7 upperclassmen (2 CB's and 5 safeties)
  • 6 underclassmen (5 CB's and 1 safety)
  • 5 have seen game action at this position (not counting Martin now at safety)
  • Returning players account for 2 of 7 interceptions by defensive backs in 2000 (Jones and Lercius 1 each)
  • Returning players account for 17 of 27 pass breakups by defensive backs in 2000 (lost Jimmy Williams with 7 and Jonathan Shaub with 3)


The cornerbacks should be especially strong, as Rushen Jones and Aaron McWhorter appear ready for excellent junior seasons. For being a redshirt junior Jones brings a wealth of experience to the position. He has started for the majority of two years, and used his sophomore season to solidify his standing as one of the conference's top cornerbacks. At 6-1 and nearly 200 pounds Jones is larger than most cornerbacks on the college level, which brings an imposing physical presence in press coverage and good tackling to the field. These attributes are vital to a blitzing defense, which need strong jamming at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing on pass patterns and give blitzers a bit longer to pressure the passer. In coverage Jones has steadily improved upon his technique, which has helped him make up for a lack of true breakaway, world-class speed. Though McWhorter is close to the same size as Jones, he brings a slightly different style to the defense. While not as physical as Jones, McWhorter has his own strong points. McWhorter has slightly more speed, and he has become one of the coaching staff's favorites due to his sound fundamentals and skills. The staff is very comfortable with each of their starters, and each have enjoyed good fall camps thus far.

The starters are not the only ones the staff is high on. Backups Lorenzo Parker and true freshman Dominique Morris have drawn praise throughout the preseason as well. Parker, who was briefly moved to receiver last fall due to his outstanding speed, has made a major impact since the spring. As a redshirt freshman, he has moved to second on the depth chart behind Rushen Jones. Opinions inside the program feel that Parker could be as good, if not better, than Fred Vinson. One of the biggest surprises this fall has come the from Nashville product Morris. Morris managed to garner enough attention to pass Ian Gaines on the depth chart behind Aaron McWhorter. Morris's story is an intriguing one. His recruitment was hot and cold. While SEC teams and respected defensive minds at Vanderbilt and Mississippi State were sold on his abilities, it did not seem to be the consensus. Morris was not a star in high school beginning with his sophomore year like so many other top prospects, which caused his steady improvements to be noticed only by the observant. Morris slowly molded himself into a threat on both sides of the ball, as his abilities grew into his body. It should also be noted that Morris has had a edge on most of the other freshmen as his high school, Montgomery Bell Academy, meets occasionally with Vanderbilt's defensive staff to implement schemes and ideas. All of these factors have added up to likely playing time for Morris.

Adding depth are Ian Gaines, Cheron Thompson, and Ronnie Swoopes. Gaines has been a fine athlete looking for a place to entrench himself on the team. He has played defensive back, running back, and now defensive back again. Gaines was a contributor on special teams last season, and should figure into that mix again this year. Thompson has had impressive moments throughout the fall as well, but he looks to be headed for a redshirt year, as he is caught in a numbers crunch. He appears to have a very high upside. Ronnie Swoopes was originally scheduled to enroll in January, and begin his football career in the spring of 2002 as a deferred scholarship recipient. Swoopes appears to be in the same mold as Rushen Jones, but he will almost certainly be redshirted.

The two safety positions return mostly intact. Harold Lercius and Justin Giboney, both starters in 2000, return at strong safety and free safety respectively. Lercius, who has started 25 consecutive games, has been a mainstay at both safety positions since 1998. From 1998 through 1999 he started 14 consecutive games at free safety before switching over and starting at strong safety for the 2000 season. Lercius will once again man the strong safety spot, and if healthy, he looks to earn at least 36 collegiate starts. Getting thrown into the mix so early in his career began a rocky start to his career, but two years of experience and a move to strong safety combined to produce a good junior season. Lercius was able to improve his tackling, which is critical at strong safety due to the position's frequent necessity to step up for run support. Lercius should enjoy a good senior season and function as the "quarterback" of the defensive backfield. Giboney had began a starting streak of his own, having started six consecutive games to end the 2000 season. The streak could have been even longer, as Giboney was slated to start as a freshman, but fractured his ankle on the first play of his first scheduled start. He then lost his starting position to begin the 2000 season to Jonathan Shaub, but regained it again later in the season. He is now entrenched as the starting free safety, and looks to be in store for a good season. Giboney knows the scheme and his role in it, and has the athleticism to make plays. The starters look to be in good shape.

Depth at cornerback allowed the staff to add competition at free safety last spring, which was fortuitous as former starter Jonathan Shaub recently underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, by moving Mike Martin to free safety. Martin, who saw action as the nickel back last year, is a stocky, powerful junior, but lacks the height seen in most prototype safeties. Despite this drawback he has the aggressiveness and hard hitting to make opponents forget about size. Martin exhibited good coverage skills while at cornerback, which in combination with his tackling should allow him to get significant playing time. Jerrol Jackson will back up Lercius at strong safety. Jackson, as opposed to Martin and Lercius, has the prototypical body at safety. Jackson is known as a hard hitter, which is need at strong safety, but has not consistently shown the necessary coverage skills.

Beyond the first four, the roster begins to thin. Nick Lyle is a redshirt freshman, who has made great strides since arriving on campus. He is presently slotted at free safety, but could make a move on the strong safety spot next season, which will be vacated by the graduating Lercius. Lyle is a likely candidate for special teams play this season. Justin Purkey is also at safety after beginning his career at quarterback, though his most likely contribution will come on special teams as the holder for kicks.


I like this group of players. This could be one of the finest groups we have had in the secondary in some time. Though there are not the obvious stars like a Corey Chavous, Fred Vinson, Eric Vance, or Jimmy Williams, this group is solid two deep at every position. The corners should be rock solid, and there is a plethora of experience at safety, even after losing Shaub for the year. There is also versatility in the group. Mike Martin is at safety now, but could easily be a strong cornerback. Giboney and Lercius have also worked at cornerback in the past. We have some good speed guys, some good physical hitters, and some nice combinations of both.

If there is a weakness in the secondary, it would be lack of size at safety. Without the big, physical specimen like Eric Vance or a pure, mistake-free tackler comparable to Ainsley Battles, the lack of size could indicate another season of difficulty tackling the physical, SEC-type 225 pound running backs who are building up steam after breaking through the front seven. While this is a problem for our secondary, when it occurs it reflects more upon the front seven than the secondary. The closest guy to filling that hole, while also being ready to play, is Jerrol Jackson. If he can prove his coverage skills, this particular weakness could be negated, as he is a ferocious hitter.

As long as we can generate adequate pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the outlook for this group is among the best on the team. They should be able to improve to an upper level pass defense. The talent is available.


  • A more seasoned, deep, and solid secondary will allow for more risk taking by the front seven, and a return a more aggressive style of play up front.
  • Jones' and McWhorter's interception total will surpass Williams' and Jones' total of 5 from 2000.
  • The secondary will be better, but pass defense will still place around 5th or 6th in the SEC. The lack of huge strides will be primarily due to improved/revamped pass offenses on the schedule, such as Duke, Ole Miss, and MTSU.
  • The secondary will allow right around 200 yards per game.
  • Rushen Jones will make 2nd Team All-SEC.
  • Harold Lercius will one of the team's top 3 tacklers.

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