Vanderbilt, on the other hand, has struggled for the last ten years to bring in quality defensive linemen, and the results are evident in the record. Dinardo recruited a pair of quality tackles in Brian Boykin and James Manley, but it seems as though the Commodores have been doomed to struggle in the D-line department ever since the departure of that pair.
Not to knock any of the players who have spilled blood on the field for the black and gold... but for what seems like the last decade, the Dores have been short on SEC-caliber guys to play up front. Woody Widenhofer went so far as to change the scheme to a 3-4 for three years, largely because of a lineman shortage.
Bobby Johnson recognized the problem right away, but it took him a while to get his arms around it. After his hiring in December, 2001, he immediately restored the familiar 4-3 scheme, but realized that finding the personnel to run it would be a challenge.
"We feel like we've got some good players already that can fit in a 4-3 scheme," Johnson told me that first spring, but a glance at the roster suggested otherwise. No one knew at the time how good a promising redshirt freshman end named Jovan Haye would be. The 2002 team returned a couple of hard-working, serviceable veterans in Brett Beard and Chuck Losey, but the rest of the corps was thin and almost totally inexperienced.
With his third recruiting class, signed earlier this year, Johnson took the shotgun approach: seven of the class's 20 scholarships went to D-linemen. At last, as the 2004 season dawns, "Help is on the way" (to steal a catchphrase from the Democrats).
If there's any unit on the Vanderbilt squad that should be vastly improved over the previous two seasons, it should be the defensive line. In addition to the seven signees, the corps should be bolstered by the arrival of (at last) Ray Brown, who last week was playing tackle with the first team; and redshirt freshman Greg Jacobs, a star from last year's scout team.
Of the freshmen, David Carter might be the brightest star so far. Fork Union Military Academy head coach John Shuman told us last winter that Carter would report as a ready-made prospect, and he was correct. With a cat-like quickness off the ball and an array of moves to evade blockers, Carter could become the pass-rush specialist at end that Vandy has not seen in a while.
Lincoln County's Theo Horrocks also appears to be an end capable of getting to the quarterback. Though his moves may not be as polished as Carter's, Horrocks seems stronger and just as explosive off the line. In pads, Carter and Horrocks almost look like twins, though Carter is slightly taller.
Gabe Hall, also from Fork Union, is a tackle through and through. At 6-2, 300, he's a bit squatty and much less mobile, but he appears more than capable of holding his own against SEC offensive linemen. Likewise Lamar Divens (who's seen work at both tackle and end) and Brandon Holmes (who, surprisingly, looks a lot closer to 275 or 280 than the 250 at which he's listed) look capable of filling in at tackle if needed. All three are unusually strong and gifted for true freshmen.
Vandy's defensive coaches have employed a liberal substitution strategy to maximize the push from their defensive linemen. New linemen enter the game every few downs to keep the players from wearing down. But last year, Turner struggled at times even to fill out a two-deep line.
Now, he can mix and match these raw linemen in with experienced players like... Haye, Robert Dinwiddie, Aaron Carter, Matt Clay, Chris Booker and Ralph McKenzie. Suddenly, the potential is there for a much-improved unit. You can almost count on a rash of injuries to strike a defensive line unit at some point... but with this kind of numbers, the Commodores appear capable of withstanding at least some adversity, knock wood.
After observing this unit in fall practices, I doubt that Vanderbilt has ever been this deep in quality defensive linemen in at least the last 20 years. In fact, since last spring, THREE defensive linemen have been moved over to offense (Trey Holloway, J.P. Day, and Gales). In parting, I ask you... when was the last time that happened?
Photos by Brent Wiseman, copyright 2004 for VandyMania.com.