Better or worse? Previewing Vanderbilt’s defense in 2020
The Vanderbilt Commodores struggled mightily in 2019, going 3-9 overall. The only time they finished within 2 scores of an SEC opponent was in a shocking 21-14 victory over Mizzou on Oct. 19.
So, is there any reason to hope things will be better in 2020? Well, there is actually some reason for optimism. Several key players are returning on that side of the ball. Defensive-minded head coach Derek Mason is back, facing plenty of pressure to win now or be fired.
How will the Commodores fare in a number of key areas this fall? Let’s break down whether this year’s unit will be better or worse than it was in a disappointing 2019 campaign:
If not for Arkansas (a phrase we’ll hear a lot in this piece), the Commodores would have had the worst scoring defense in the SEC last year. They gave up 31.8 points per contest. (The Razorbacks were a full 5 points worse, allowing 36.8 points per game.)
However, the pass defense wasn’t the biggest issue. The Commodores only allowed 227.8 yards per game through the air, good for 10th in the conference. Yes, that’s partially because opponents built big leads and then ran out the clock, but there are some playmakers in the secondary (even if the Commodores’ 6 interceptions were tied — with Arkansas, naturally — for the fewest in the SEC).
Tae Daley had 3 of those picks, and he returns. He finished 3rd on the team with 57 tackles and he also forced a fumble. He’s perhaps the best player in the Vandy secondary. He’s a ballhawk at the safety position, and he should have a good player alongside him this fall.
That player would be Frank Coppet. After a promising 2018 season, Coppet only played in 2 games in 2019 due to injuries. If he’s healthy, he’s another guy who can make the back end of the Vandy defense formidable.
There are some questions about Allan George and BJ Anderson at the cornerback positions, but they both got plenty of experience in 2019. If they can take another step forward this fall, Vandy’s pass defense could cut down that 227.8 yards-per-game average.
We all know that secondaries can’t cover receivers for 5 seconds each time the quarterback drops back to pass, so a competent pass rush is a defensive back’s best friend. Vanderbilt only recorded 20 sacks in 2019. That was good for, you guessed it, 13th in the SEC. It was 1 behind Arkansas and 1 ahead of Mizzou.
OLBs Andre Mintze (4.5 sacks) and Elijah McAllister (2.5) led the way in that category, and both return. The player who needs to emerge as a pass rusher (and is perfectly capable of doing so), is DE Dayo Odeyingbo. He had an impressive 12 tackles for a loss last year, but only 1.5 were sacks.
The Commodores will need some younger guys to get involved in the pass rush, too, but returning 3 of your top performers in that regard is promising. Topping 20 sacks shouldn’t be that difficult (unless we play a shortened season, of course), but the Commodores have the talent to finish higher than 13th in the SEC in sacks this year.
The run defense starts with talented ILB Dimitri Moore. He led the team with 99 tackles in 2019, including 6 for a loss. He’s involved in everything that goes on pre-snap with the defense, and he does a good job of finding the ball and making tackles.
Now then, let’s hit the bad news — this run defense was awful in 2019. Allowing 208.8 yards per game on the ground is, to keep things simple, not good. That was good for 13th in the SEC (ahead of Arkansas, which gave up a whopping 221.5).
As mentioned, that number has a lot to do with the fact that the Commodores were down big in many SEC games, causing teams to run out the clock. Opponents averaged 39.4 rushing attempts per game vs. Vandy last year, 2nd-most in the SEC. Still, it should be something that motivates this unit to be better in 2020.
Three redshirt seniors will need to step up alongside Moore to make that happen. Odeyingbo had 12 tackles for a loss last year, so he’s clearly a good run defender at the defensive end spot, but DTs Drew Birchmeier and Cameron Tidd need to do a better job of clogging holes on the defensive line.
Then there’s the guy who will line up next to Moore in the 3-4 defense — ILB Kenny Hebert. At 6-4 and 240 pounds, Hebert is a big linebacker and he had a solid season in 2019 — 34 tackles (7 for a loss) and 2 sacks. However, for a linebacker who played in 11 games, 34 tackles isn’t nearly enough. He’ll need to make at least 60 stops to help this run defense improve.
Yes, I predict the Vanderbilt defense will be better across the board. But it’s important to note that I don’t necessarily think this will be a great defense by any stretch.
Basically, it’s just going to be difficult to be worse than they were in 2019. There’s talent on this unit, though. If Daley, Mintze and Moore continue to put up numbers and make plays, all 3 could be playing on Sundays next year. Odeyingbo could be in that mix, too.
Mason needs his defense to have a big year to keep his job. And, the defense should be up to the task. That unit won’t have any favors done for it by the offense, though. As I previewed a couple of weeks ago, the Vanderbilt offense could be absolutely awful in 2020.
Best-case scenario? The defense steps up and keeps the Commodores competitive in several low-scoring games. We’ll see.