A lot of the defensive improvement is owed to better defensive line play this year. Recently, I talked with several members of the Commodore defensive line, defensive line coach Rick Logo, and Coach Bobby Johnson about the defensive line play.
Two weeks ago in part one, you heard from the defensive tackles. Today, in part two, you will hear what the ends have to say. Finally, in part three, you'll hear from the coaches.
Chris Booker, Curtis Gatewood, Broderick Stewart, David Whittington, and Steve Stone make up a deep and talented quintet of defensive anchors. Improved play at the terminal spots has led to opponents not gaining much ground when they run wide. The improved pass rushing from these two spots has opened up interior lanes for Jonathan Goff and Marcus Buggs to come through with additional success.
Booker is the greybeard of the group. The fifth year senior from Brandon, Mississippi, is one of the smartest players in college football. A double major, in economics and engineering science, Booker has a vast array of knowledge in many fields; he can explain nuclear fission, the art of options' trading, and 20 ways to ruin a quarterback's day all in one breath.
Gatewood is a fourth year junior with the most tools. He can rough it up with offensive tackles and win the battle, and he has the lateral movement more likely to be seen in outside linebackers. The combination of strength and speed is something many Vanderbilt defenses have lacked over the last quarter century.
Stewart is a redshirt freshman who plays more like a senior. A gifted student, he is mechanical engineering major from Newnan, Georgia. Stewart has excellent athletic skills. He could play basketball and run track at Vanderbilt if he wasn't playing football.
Whittington quickly learned the techniques and details required to play end after starting his Vanderbilt career at fullback. The redshirt sophomore from Lafayette, Louisiana, is similar to Gatewood in that he has excellent lateral movement for a player his size. Combining that movement with strength to boot makes for excellent backside pursuit.
Stone is a redshirt freshman from Conway, Arkansas. Like fellow freshman Stewart, he is athletic and could help Kevin Stallings over in Memorial Gym if he wasn't playing football. The Eagle Scout is mature beyond his years, and he will form a dynamic duo with Stewart when both become upperclassmen. Note: Stone was not available on the day I interviewed the defensive ends.
VandyMania: When you are in the defensive huddle, and you hear the play called, which one makes you the most excited so that you cannot wait for the play to begin?
Booker: I love playing a 3-technique (guard-tackle gap more used by a defensive tackle than an end) and I have to get out and contain. It's something that I haven't done in a while and something I'm not used to, so it gets me excited and gets my adrenaline going. I love to pass rush, but the 3-technique is my favorite.
Gatewood: I like the straight pass rush on 3rd & long. I love to get in my stance and fire off, because speed is our strong point. Having Broderick or Chris on the other side, it motivates me to get it going.
Stewart: For me, speed is my strength, so it's pass rushing. As soon as I can get a free rush, whether it's inside or outside, I'm ready to go. It gets me going.
Whittington: I like any defensive line stunt because it takes the thinking out of the play. You don't have to concentrate as much on your reads; you can just take off and play ball.
VandyMania: In that same huddle, what defensive play call is one you don't look forward to carrying out your assignment?
Booker: I hate when the offense pulls off a trick play. I'm one of those guys where I see this guy do this and that go do that, and I know I'm supposed to do this and that against that type of action. I want to go down my progressions. Trick plays are hit or miss whatever you do defensively, so I just hate them.
Gatewood: I like the finesse game, so any play where there's a double team block on me, it makes it hard on me. That's one type of play I wish the offense wouldn't run. I'd love to have those plays erased from their playbooks.
Stewart: Any play where I have to go inside head up on a guard or center is going to be a little tough.
Whittington: One of the hardest assignments for me is playing the six-technique (head up on a tight end or in the gap outside the tackle if there is no tight end on that side). Whenever the tight end goes down (inside release), it's hard to try to get under them and still play your gap. SEC tight ends are quick, and they get off the ball fast. It's hard to maintain inside leverage on them.
VandyMania: Although you probably won't face it this year, the inside veer (triple option) run by Air Force, Navy, and a few other teams is a difficult assignment for an end. In most blocking schemes, you are not blocked, and the quarterback tries to outsmart you. Discuss your thoughts on this play.
Booker: Any defensive end will tell you the same thing. Just having a quarterback knowing that he's going to be hit and knowing that he's got to make the pitch without bracing himself for the contact without anything to stop it is great. We cannot hit the quarterbacks in practice; they wear red jerseys. In a game, they aren't protected, and we get to go out there and get them. It's a lot of fun.
Gatewood: I love the thought of getting to the quarterback and hitting him hard before he can pitch the ball. It really excites me to see the quarterback coming my way with the ball and try to get to him before he pitches it.
Stewart: Being a defensive end, I'm responsible for the quarterback on the triple option. It's the greatest feeling of all to be able to hit the quarterback. In practice, we cannot hit the quarterback even though sometimes they hit us. Any time I get to hit the quarterback, that's like achieving a goal—it's a defensive end's dream.
Whittington: It all depends on who has what responsibility on the play call. The hardest part when moving into your position is trusting that somebody will pick up the other players in the option. You have to be able to focus on your responsibility and trust that your teammates will take care of the others.
VandyMania: What advice would you give to a top-rated defensive line recruit who has signed to play football at Vandy?
Booker: Speed is a big difference between high school and college. The playbook is definitely harder. I'm an engineering and economics major, and the hardest class I have is the football playbook. It's easy for me to study and sit down and write the answers on a test in the classroom, but when you have somebody who weighs 330 pounds across from you, and you have to remember what play, what checks, and what they like to do, it's much harder. That's definitely one thing a top-recruit would have to learn to do before he could play.
Gatewood: The first thing I would tell this recruit is to study your playbook every day before you go to bed. At Vandy, the coaches expect a lot out of you, and because you go to Vanderbilt, they expect you to be on another level intellectually.
Stewart: If you're a top recruit, you're probably already ready to do a lot of things. My biggest advice to give a top-rated recruit would be to expect the speed and strength of the players to be a lot better. At Vanderbilt, he would need to be prepared for the tough classes in addition to having to learn the playbook. Everything is not going to be handed to you like it was in high school.
Whittington: It's the best conference in the nation with the biggest stadiums, loudest fans, and best game atmosphere. In college, you're doing a lot of the same things that you did in high school, but they have different names. You have to make sure you can group all the different stunts into a certain category and not get them all confused and mixed up.