Better or worse? Previewing Vanderbilt's defense in 2019
Editor’s note: This is the 7th and final piece in a series previewing every SEC East defense. Coming Monday: Alabama.
I give Derek Mason credit.
It’s not easy to put your ego aside and do something outside of your comfort zone. To his credit, he did just that last year.
And even better, it yielded positive results.
Mason’s decision to remove himself as defensive coordinator and hire Jason Tarver paid dividends in 2018. Vanderbilt went from the No. 89 scoring defense to the No. 61 unit, and unlike 2017, the Commodores weren’t completely gashed in conference play.
So now the question is whether the Commodores, who rank No. 119 in percentage of returning production, can actually take another step forward.
Let’s dig into that.
Pressuring the QB: Better
The bar was set pretty low from last year’s group. An average of 1.77 sacks per contest was good for No. 94 nationally and No. 13 in the SEC behind only Georgia (oddly enough). Only 4 players had multiple sacks — 3 of them graduated — and Kenny Hebert had a team-high 4 sacks.
Did I mention the bar was pretty low?
And it’s worth mentioning that this year’s group will also lose Charles Wright, who had a disappointing, injury-plagued senior season in 2018.
But there is reason to believe that help is on the way. Mason praised the spring of Dimitri Moore, as well as young linebackers Alston Orji and Feleti Afemui. Dayo Odeyingbo also showed promise as a sophomore on the defensive line, and Mason is already high on early enrollee Daevion Davis.
Again, a lot of this is just predicated on my belief that it can’t get much worse than 2018. Maybe losing Wright put guys in positions that they weren’t ready to be in. That’s not an excuse, but it could explain the lack of production.
My guess says that improves in 2019.
Run defense: Worse
This is the area where that inexperience will hurt Vandy most. Despite the scoring defense improvement, this still wasn’t a very strong run defense. That group coughed up 195 rushing yards per game (No. 94) on 5 yards per carry. The Commodores surrendered 200 rushing yards in 8 games last year, including a 284-yard effort from Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
As long as that continues, Vandy’s ceiling in the SEC is 6 wins. And the signs point to it continuing.
Leading tackler Jordan Griffin is gone, as are extremely solid secondary tacklers Joejuan Williams and Ladarius Wiley. It’s not a good sign for a team’s run defense when 5 of its 6 leading tacklers are gone. And again, that’s not including Wright.
Could this young group improve in the second year in Tarver’s defense? It’s certainly possible. I just tend to think this conference has a way of exposing defenses that lack proven, sure-handed tacklers.
Pass defense: Worse
Losing Williams is brutal. Not only was he the program’s first defensive back drafted in 5 years — and the first of the Mason era — but he was also the highest Commodore picked since Jordan Matthews in 2014. A cornerback with his length who can match up on a team’s No. 1 wideout isn’t easy to replace, especially at a place that doesn’t exactly load up on 4-star recruits.
The Commodores will also have to replace the aforementioned Wiley and Donovan Sheffield, who had a combined 121 tackles, 8 passes defended and 4 forced fumbles. That’s from a group that ranked No. 85 against the pass last year.
The good news is that Frank Coppet returns after a breakout season in which he had 3 interceptions, and Illinois grad transfer Cameron Watkins will play immediately after appearing in 20 games the past 2 seasons. If the pass rush improves, it’ll help out a rather young secondary.
But my bet is that it’ll take a slight step back after losing an elite next-level prospect like Williams.
Special teams defense: Worse
The Commodores allowed a mediocre 8 yards per punt return (No. 60 nationally) and they were No. 114 with 23.8 yards allowed on just 16 kickoff returns. They blocked a punt and a kickoff without allowing a return touchdown of either variety.
The bar for improvement isn’t very high. The bad news is that I expressed my concerns about losing 5 of the teams top 6 tacklers. It’s hard to project significant improvement in that area.
Perhaps new special teams coach Devin Fitzsimmons can be the difference after joining Mason’s staff from the Detroit Lions. It worked out well for Mason the last time he went to the NFL ranks to address an area of need on his staff.
Whenever you’re talking about a team that ranks so far down in percentage of returning production, improvement isn’t likely. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It just doesn’t mean it’s likely.
It’s not like Vanderbilt is coming off pair of Top 20 recruiting classes, and while Mason got some nice additions via the transfer portal, no more than 1 of those players will make an immediate impact on the 2019 defense.
If Vandy improves defensively, it’ll be an encouraging sign that Tarver’s presence is making a major impact and that there are some underclassmen standouts emerging. Would it stun me if that happened? Not necessarily.
As of right now, though, I’ll say that Mason’s group feels the effects of some significant defensive turnover.