Vanderbilt defense shows improvement

Crack, boom smack; that's the sound of the 2006 Vanderbilt Commodore defense slamming their opponents and making big plays. For Vandy fans it's a refreshing improvement from last season when the defense gave up 29 points a game.

Saturday night against TSU the Vanderbilt defense destroyed all hope of a Tiger upset. Vanderbilt limited the Big Blue to just 71 yards rushing despite the fact that TSU boasted the top running back in their conference. The Commodores also forced 6 fumbles and had 2 interceptions. One of those interceptions, by Marcus Buggs, resulted in a Commodore touchdown. Commodore coach Bobby Johnson liked what he saw in that interception; It electrified the team, "That play really got us out of the doldrums. It was a big momentum changer and gave us a little breathing room. Marcus really did a great job of getting his foot down for the touchdown," said the coach of Bugg's play. The interception was created by intense pressure on the TSU quarterback. Play like this is becoming more commonplace with the 2006 Commodore defender. However, big plays on defense haven't just been limited to the TSU victory. These Commodores also came up with key plays in their previous three games. Let's take a look at some of the reasons for the defensive resurgence.

By utilizing a mix of veteran and new players, the Commodores have more athletic personnel. True freshman D.J. Moore, who won the South Carolina high school state championship in the high jump, is a prime example of the improved talent. Moore, who has great speed and leaping ability that give him an edge, has recovered a fumble and broken up a pass in addition to 10 tackles. Moore's toughness and ability has earned him a starting position at cornerback. Moore, along with newcomers Ryan Hamilton, Darlron Spead, Joel Caldwell and others have boosted a Commodore defense that has steadily improved its talent level since Bobby Johnson's arrival. Ben Koger, a fifth year veteran safety, made a key ankle grabbing tackle against Alabama, which prevented a second half touchdown. Veterans Jonathan Goff, Curtis Gatewood, Theo Horrocks, Chris Booker, Kevin Joyce, Josh Allen and others also bring experience and depth along with athletic talent to the unit.

Better coaching and schemes are also helping the Vanderbilt defense. While the Commodore defense as a whole hasn't changed its scheme much, the defensive line has. The hiring of defensive line coach Rich Logo is already paying dividends for the Commodores. Vanderbilt has 22 tackles for losses in just 4 games. During the entire 2005 season Vandy had just 50. Scheme changes have led to increased pressure on opposing quarterbacks and less opportunity for the opposition's running backs. In 2005 Vanderbilt had 8 total interceptions. This season the Commodores already have 4 after just 4 games.

Logo has been a boost to a defensive line that has suffered the past few seasons from an ineffective scheme. Logo has taught his linemen better game preparation skills and implemented more stunts and games that help fill the gaps on the line.

A strong special teams is also a boost to the defense because of its affect on field position. While Logo's coaching has been a boost to the defensive line, Warren Belin's has had an equally constructive effect on the special teams. Vanderbilt has significantly reduced an 11-yard per punt return average in 2005 to just 2.8 yards a return so far in 2006. Belin has also helped the kickoff coverage units become more head hunterish. During the TSU game Jared Hawkins recovered a key fumble on a Tiger kickoff return which helped Vanderbilt pull away from the Tigers. This scrappy play is exciting to fans and gives Vanderbilt a chance to win.

In addition to the previously mentioned statistical improvements, the Commodores have also enhanced several other vital defensive statistics. The Commodores have forced 7 fumbles so far in 4 games this season. How many do you think were forced during the 2005 season? 16? 13? 10? No. Too high, try 9. Yes, with 8 games remaining the Vanderbilt defense is only 2 recoveries away from matching its 2005 forced fumble total. How about fumbles recovered? Vanderbilt has 5 so far this season. How many did they have in 2005? If you guessed 6 you were right. Vanderbilt is only one fumble recovery from matching the 2005 total.

The 2006 defense still has some work to do but it's obvious that Commodore coaches and defenders are on to something and improving. The results so far speak for themselves. Only the future knows how much more this unit can improve. Let's see how much more they can improve Saturday against Temple.

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