SEC: Walker May
The Commodores ranked 19th nationally in total defense (333.9 yards per game) and fifth in the SEC last year, but not many people are looking to throw compliments up Nashville way. Maybe they should because Shoop, who enters his third season as Vandy's defensive coordinator with eight senior starters, has steadily made his defense better and better.
The talent has mostly remained the same, but Shoop's meticulous commitment to detail and unity has influenced improvement.
That consistency helped the Commodores also rank inside the top five of the SEC in scoring defense (18.7 points per game) and passing defense (191.8 yards per game).
Where Shoop's defenses have really impressed is in the secondary. Teams have averaged less than 200 yards a game against the Commdores for the last two seasons and there's a good chance that trend will continue.
Vandy's secondary is headlined by senior cornerback Andre Hal and senior safety Kenny Ladler, who are two of the best players in the SEC at their respective positions. Hal broke up 14 passes and grabbed two interceptions last year, while Ladler made plays all over the field and led the team with 90 tackles.
Shoop considers Hal a five-tool player with his ability to press in man coverage, play off man, play Cover 2, blitz and support the run. Shoop said Hal doesn't do anything "incredibly excellent," but "he does all the things you ask out of a corner very, very well."
"Andre's a special player.," Shoop said. "He's one of the most under-the-radar players in all of college football. Sometimes he does things that maybe the average fan or person wouldn't see because the ball doesn't get thrown his way."
Shoop also said that watching Ladler develop has been one of the most rewarding parts of his job. When he first arrived, he saw talent and confidence, but Ladler had to expand. He had to find his range, cover tight ends and learn how to make plays off the edge. Now, all of that is second nature.
"Arguably in the spring and [fall] camp, he's been maybe our most consistent player on defense," Shoop said.
Helping those guys out will be safety Javon Marshall, who tied Ladler with 60 solo tackles and should help Vandy have the SEC's best safety duo, and senior Steven Clarke, who played nickel corner last year, but has made tremendous strides opposite Hal.
What really has the staff excited is the depth that emerged along the defensive line and at linebacker this spring. Play up front might even have these guys giddy. There's quite the foundation with ends Walker May, Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike, but Shoop is really excited about tackles Adam Butler, who could start as a redshirt freshman, Jared Morse, who Shoop thinks eventually could be a 10-year NFL pro, and Vince Taylor, who runs a legitimate 4.9 in the 40-yard dash while carrying 305 pounds.
"We've got eight guys who I think would play for most people in the conference, which I don't think we had that in the past," coach James Franklin said.
"Even just looking at them they look different. You have to be careful because a lot of guys look the part but don't play the part. We got a lot of guys who look like SEC players and are playing like SEC players."
Speaking of different looks, in order to help the defense more, Vandy's offense threw even more at it during fall camp. To combat the uptempo offenses the Dores will see -- starting with Ole Miss in Week 1 -- Vandy's offense gave the defense two different huddles to work with and the most challenging formations to face in rapid fire drills.
That constant movement challenged the defense's composure, condition and depth, which Shoop liked.
"That's what we're aiming for," Shoop said. "We want to see who's going to be mentally tough, who's going to be physically well-conditioned, who's going to communicate and get going. I'm kind of pushing the envelope, trying to see what we can align and execute in those situations.
"Part of the things those uptempo teams aim to do is vanilla you up. We're a fairly high-pressure team so we try to get out of that and get aligned and execute the defense."
Execution hasn't been an issues thus far, and with Shoop leading the way, this unit should continue to frustrate opponents.
Coach: James Franklin (15-11)
2012 record: 9-4 (5-3, SEC)
Key losses: QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, OT Ryan Seymour, DT Rob Lohr, LB Archibald Barnes, CB Trey Wilson
Newcomer to watch: Wide receiver Jordan Cunningham was rated the No. 13 receiver in the country in the 2013 recruiting class and will have every opportunity to see solid playing time this fall.
Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 29 vs. Ole Miss, Sept. 14 at South Carolina, Oct. 19 vs. Georgia, Oct. 26 at Texas A&M, Nov. 9 at Florida and Nov. 23 at Tennessee
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The tight end position is a major concern for the Commodores. Only three tight ends were on campus this spring, and all lacked consistency. The recent dismissal of junior college transfer Brandon Vandenburg was a big blow to the position. Redshirt sophomores Kris Kentera and Steven Scheu are the top guys at the spot, but neither has stepped up to take the position and neither has shown that he's ready to.
Forecast: The Commodores return 17 starters from a team that tied a school record for both single-season wins (nine) and SEC victories (five). Last year's team also scored more points (390) than any Vanderbilt team since 1916, and owned a top-20 defense. The Commodores have every reason to be thinking about competing for more than just another winning record in conference play, but these players are too focused to talk about or think about an SEC championship or even a bowl game.
What they can focus on is having a lot of firepower coming back on offense, including receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, who combined for 2,097 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Matthews could have easily left early for the NFL draft last year, but returns as one of the SEC's best receivers. A new quarterback will be taking snaps, with Austyn Carta-Samuels taking over, but he'll have a strong, deep offensive line that has a handful of players ready to rotate in and out each game.
The defensive line is strong, starting with ends May, Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike. There's more speed and experience up front than last year. There's also good depth at linebacker, starting with one of the top LBs in the league in Garnham, and quality starters in the secondary. Hal (CB) and Ladler (S) are two of the best players at their positions.
The Commodores have made tremendous strides under Franklin, and this team seems primed to take down one of the big boys in the SEC East. Vandy plays Georgia at home, while games against Florida and South Carolina are on the road. With a harmless nonconference schedule, another eight-win regular season certainly isn't out of the question for the Commodores.
Strongest position: Wide receiver
The Commodores have one of the top receiving corps in the SEC. Starters Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd are among the league's best duos. Indeed, Matthews could be one of the country's best receivers entering his senior season in 2013. He has 2,282 career receiving yards and 17 touchdowns on 150 catches; more than 1,300 of those yards came last year. Matthews is the star, but Boyd is certainly no slouch -- he caught 50 passes for 774 yards and five touchdowns in his second year on the field. Behind them, the Commodores have bodies, but not a ton of production. Senior Jonathan Krause only caught nine passes last season, but he's a very athletic player who can only go up in this offense. Five receivers were a part of Vandy's recruiting class, and all of them could be in line for immediate playing time, especially Jordan Cunningham, who was an ESPN 150 member.
At defensive end, the Commodores have one of the most underrated players in the SEC in Walker May. He's a little undersized, but registered 10.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last year. He has an extremely high motor and is hard to out-work. Junior Kyle Woestmann is another under-the-radar guy, but had five sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles last year. And sophomore Caleb Azubike could be a budding star in this league. He's rangy, fast and athletic and is coming off of a four-sack season. He had a great spring and should see the field even more this fall.
Weakest position: Tight end
Commodores coach James Franklin was very worried about tight end heading into spring, during spring and after spring. There were only three tight ends on the roster this spring, and the staff was never fully satisfied with their consistency -- or lack thereof. Kris Kentera led Vandy's tight ends with 10 catches last year, but redshirt sophomore Steven Scheu, who caught eight passes in 2012, has what it takes to grab the starting spot this fall. Then there's junior Dillon van der Wal, who has played primarily on special teams and as a backup tight end. He has yet to catch a pass during his career. Options really are limited for Franklin and his staff here. Finding someone to take the reins at this position is the first order of business for the fall.
We're splitting the linemen into ends and tackles, and we'll start with the guys on the outside:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, Jr., South Carolina: Clowney might be the best, most athletic player in the country, regardless of position. He has 21 career sacks (South Carolina's record is 29) and 35.5 tackles for loss, but has yet to play his best ball for the Gamecocks. He's a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and is easily the most disruptive defensive player in the country when he's going 100 percent. Oh, and he runs a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash while carrying 274 pounds.
3. Alvin "Bud" Dupree, Jr., Kentucky: He's moving from outside linebacker, but Dupree has been one of the best pass-rushers in the league the past two years. He has nine sacks in two years and had 12.5 tackles for loss last year. Dupree has exceptional speed off the edge and should be even more dangerous with his hand in the ground this fall.
4. Chaz Sutton, Sr., South Carolina: Even though he was a backup last year, Sutton was still third on the team with five sacks. He really played well when the Gamecocks had four ends on the field (rabbits package) for passing situations. Plus, he'll be freed up a lot this season with teams concentrating so hard on Clowney. Sutton will have plenty of opportunities to make big plays this fall.
5. Dante Fowler Jr., So., Florida: Fowler plays that hybrid linebacker/end "Buck" position, but could see more time at end this fall. He's extremely athletic and fast off the edge and had eight tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last year. He looked really good this spring and if he continues to improve, he could push fellow Buck Ronald Powell to outside linebacker this fall.
6. C.J. Johnson, Jr., Ole Miss: Johnson should be fully healed from the broken leg he suffered this spring. He has really come a long way in his two years with the Rebels and should establish himself as one of the league's best pass-rushers this fall. He led the Rebels with 6.5 sacks last year and collected 28 solo tackles.
7. Walker May, Sr., Vanderbilt: He might be one of the most underrated players in the SEC. He started 13 games last year, recording 41 tackles, including 10.5 for loss and three sacks. May had at least one tackle for loss in eight games last season, and had five games in which he registered three or more solo tackles.
8. Jermauria Rasco, Jr., LSU: Les Miles didn't seem to concerned with Rasco stepping in at end this spring. He might even be a more polished pass-rusher than predecessors Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, which is scary to think about. He didn't record a lot of stats last year, but he had two years to learn from Mingo and Montgomery, and should have a big season on LSU's rebuilt defensive line.
9. Dee Ford, Sr., Auburn: Ford was one of Auburn's best players last year and finished the year leading the team with six sacks and added 6.5 tackles for loss. Ford was pretty impressive a year removed from a season-ending back injury. He's explosive off the line, is very good in the pass game and should be Auburn's best defensive player this fall.
10. Ed Stinson, Sr., Alabama: With Alabama's three-man front, the versatile Stinson will mainly be outside, but has a chance to move around to give the Tide different looks. Stinson was second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and had three sacks last season. Of his 30 tackles last year, 20 were solo.
2. Florida: Sure, the Gators lost All-American Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter, but Florida rotated enough guys in last year to have good experience coming back across the board. Star lineman Dominique Easley will play at his more natural position at tackle this year, but will move outside at times. He led Florida with four sacks last year and was consistently disruptive all year. Florida is loaded at end with sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard returning. Ronald Powell, who is coming off of two ACL injuries will rotate with Fowler at the hybrid linebacker/end "Buck" position, while Damien Jacobs and Darious Cummings will help out at tackle.
3. Arkansas: While Arkansas featured one of the league's worst defenses last year, the Razorbacks were solid up front. Arkansas returns one of the best defensive end combos in senior Chris Smith and junior Trey Flowers. They combined for 15.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss last year. Inside, you have seniors Byran Jones and Robert Thomas. Jones has started 29 games in his career and had 52 tackles last year. Thomas steps into a starting role this fall after recording five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last year. The Hogs have young reserves, the staff is excited about guys like JaMichael Winston, Brandon Lewis, Darius Philon, DeMarcus Hodge and Deatrich Wise Jr.
4. LSU: The Tigers lost a lot up front, but this team is used to reloading along the defensive line. Tackle Anthony Johnson has the meat and ability to be one of the best at his position, and excels as both a run-stopper and pass-rusher. He'll be helped by junior Ego Ferguson, who has all the talent to be successful but is still looking to reach his full potential. The staff is expecting big things from end Jermauria Rasco, who might be a better pure pass-rusher than Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery before him. Danielle Hunter and Jordan Allen should do more at end, while incoming freshman Tashawn Bower could see immediate playing time. Also, keep an eye on freshman Christian LaCouture, who played his way into the two-deep this spring at tackle.
5. Ole Miss: There are depth issues at defensive tackle, but the Rebels are stacked on the outside. C.J. Johnson should be back from the broken leg he suffered this spring, and has All-SEC talent at end. Fellow end Cameron Whigham only had 1.5 sacks last year, but started 11 games. Channing Ward got a lot of action this spring with Johnson out and has the chance to have a true breakout season. All eyes will be on freshman Robert Nkemdiche, who was the No. 1 recruit in the 2013 recruiting class and is physically ready to play right now. Tackle Issac Gross should be healed from his spring grown injury and will get good help from junior college transfer Lavon Hooks.
6. Alabama: Right now, Alabama is still searching for the elite players it's used to having up front. This unit wasn't as consistent as Nick Saban would have wanted this spring, but there is a lot of potential in the trenches, starting with the versatile Ed Stinson, who can line up inside or out and recorded 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last year. Jeoffrey Pagan could be fun to watch at the other end spot. He was a big-time recruit a few years ago and will get a lot more time to shine this fall. Brandon Ivory has to replace Jesse Williams at nose guard, but showed good flashes this spring. LaMichael Fanning will also help at end. Alabama is young here, but will continuously rotate again in order to keep guys fresh.
7. Vanderbilt: End Walker May is the star of this very talented group. He isn't the biggest at his position, but he's a relentless worker and is exception at getting to the quarterback on passing plays. Junior Kyle Woestmann came on very strong during the second half of the 2012 season, registering six sacks in the final five games. Then there's sophomore Caleb Azibuke, who grabbedd 4.5 sacks last year, had a great spring and is extremely athletic. With two starters departing, depth is an issue inside, but tackle Jared Morese, who started six games last year is back after being kicked off this team this spring for violating team rules. Juniors Barron Dixon and Vince Taylor both played in 13 games last year. The Commodores also had to move offensive lineman Adam Butler to defensive tackle this spring.
8. Kentucky: There is a lot of experience, starting with seniors Donte Rumph, Mister Cobble and Tristian Johnson at defensive tackle. Rumph, who is coming off of a spring shoulder injury, is the best of the bunch and recorded six tackles for loss and four sacks last year. Cobble is finally starting to reach his potential, and should improve on his three tackles for loss and two sacks from last year. Johnson started nine straight games to end last season. Alvin "Bud" Dupree has nine sacks in the last two years and is moving from linebacker to end this year. Helping him will be junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith, who had an exceptional spring. Incoming freshman end Jason Hatcher will also get a chance to play immediately.
9. Georgia: The first order of business is finding a suitable nose guard to replace the massive John Jenkins. Right now, it looks like that will happen by committee. Junior Mike Thornton left spring as the starter there, but has just one career tackle. Redshirt sophomore Chris Mayes is next in line, but hasn't recorded any stats during his career. Freshman John Atkins enrolled early this spring and junior college transfer Toby Johnson, who could be the best of them, is recovering from an ACL injury. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham cross-trained all his linemen and was very pleased with Sterling Bailey's improvement, along with senior Garrison Smith, who started eight games last year. Junior Ray Drew is also getting more comfortable up front.
10. Mississippi State: It's not like Mississippi State doesn't have the talent or potential up front, but his group really struggled to get to the quarterback last year. Senior end Denico Autry struggled through the first part of last season, but played strong down the stretch, which is really encouraging to the staff. End Preston Smith was a backup last year, but still led the Bulldogs with 4.5 sacks. The staff seems pretty excited about tackle P.J. Jones, who made some big plays late for this team last year. Of course, having vet Kaleb Eulls back helps and it looks like he's permanently moving inside. End Ryan Brown didn't blow up the stat chart last year, but had a good spring and should see plenty of playing time this fall.
11. Missouri: This unit was probably the Tigers' strongest last year, but it lost its best player in tackle Sheldon Richardson. Mizzou has to replace him by committee, and Gary Pinkel seemed pleased with his tackles this spring. Matt Hoch had a very good spring and while he isn't the same player as Richardson, he figures out ways to get to the ball and started 12 games last year. Lucas Vincent will line up at nose guard, but injuries limited him to just three tackles last year. Redshirt freshman Harold Brantley has a lot of potential at tackle and should see good time this fall. The Tigers are pretty solid outside, with Kony Ealy and Michael Sam returning. Ealy is just waiting to break out, while Sam led the team with 4.5 sacks last fall. Shane Ray provides good depth at end, while tackle Marvin Foster played in 10 games last year.
12. Tennessee: The Vols have to figure out how to move around all those pieces up front with the defense moving back to a traditional 4-3 look. Big-bodied Daniel McCullers is the top player along the line, but he has to be more disruptive up front. He has to be more than just a space eater. Senior Jacques Smith should move down to end from linebacker, while fellow seniors Marlon Walls and Daniel Hood should push for starting time at end and tackle. Senior Maurice Couch is another player with a ton of talent, but has to be more consistent inside. Junior Jordan Williams should also move down after playing a hybrid end/linebacker position last year.
13. Auburn: The Tigers just weren't good enough up front last year, ranking 11th in the SEC in sacks (22) and 12th in tackles for loss (66). Now the best player -- end Corey Lemonier -- is gone. A handful of vets return, but this group has to be tougher and more consistent. Senior ends Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae lead things up front, but only accounted for 8.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last year. Eguae will have his hands full trying to fend off Kenneth Carter, who moved from tackle to end this spring. Jeffrey Whitaker, Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright lead the inside game, but only Blackson had more than five tackles for lass last year (a team-high seven).
14. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost quality starters like Damontre Moore and Spencer Nealy and the injury bug devastated this unit during the spring. No one will replace Moore's 21 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks, but A&M needs multiple guys to step up. Julien Obioha started 12 games as a true freshman last year, but has to stay healthy this fall, as he's the key to the entire line. He also has to generate a better pass rush. Tackle Kirby Ennis started 11 games last year, but ran into legal trouble before spring practice and was suspended, but is expected to return. Youngsters Alonzo Williams, Tyrone Taylor and Tyrell Taylor will be thrown into the mix this fall, but expect plenty of growing pains. Gavin Stansbury and Alonzo Williams have showed flashes here and there, but will have to much more consistent this fall.
With the start of the 2013 season less than three months away, we all have a pretty good idea who the returning stars are in the SEC. But what about those guys who are stars in their own right, and yet, fly under the radar?
Today's Take Two topic: Who is the SEC's most underrated player -- Vanderbilt senior defensive end Walker May or Vanderbilt senior offensive tackle Wesley Johnson?
Take 1: Edward Aschoff
To me, the most underrated player in the SEC is Vanderbilt defensive end Walker May. In a league that prides itself on being stout and athletic up front, May often gets overlooked. Last season, he started 13 games for the Commodores, recording 41 tackles, including 10.5 for loss and three sacks. May registered at least one tackle for loss in eight games last season, and had nine multi-tackle games. He also broke up two passes and led Vandy with seven quarterback hurries. At 6-5, 250 pounds, May has decent size for the end position and pretty good quickness in his bursts off the line. He’s an aggressive player and he’s very disruptive, which makes him tough to handle in the trenches. He’s been overlooked because of the big-name players who have accompanied him at his position, but there’s no denying that May has the talent to receive star-like attention.
It wouldn’t shock me at all if he were near the top of the SEC in tackles for loss and sacks this fall. He’s that determined, and he’s that good. His coaches have been very pleased with his growth to this point, and he could be even better this fall. May might not have much hype surrounding him as he enters his final season with the Commodores, but he’ll make sure he leaves Nashville with a little more respect from those outside of Vandy’s program.
Take 2: Chris Low
Hey, I like your pick, ATL Kid. May is the kind of person and player you win with -- period. But I think one of his teammates is even more underrated. Wesley Johnson has been a rock for that offensive line and a rock for that team, and he's played wherever they've needed him. Spend about five minutes with Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand, and you'll get an even better feel for how valuable Johnson has been to that team. He's been in the game for 98.5 percent of the Commodores' offensive snaps over the past three seasons and has made 38 career starts -- 26 at left tackle, seven at center, three at right tackle and two at left guard. Not only that, but Johnson has been on the field for every touchdown Vanderbilt has scored over the past three seasons.
When you consider all the great pass-rushers that Johnson has faced in this league, it's even more impressive to think that's he given up only 6.5 sacks during his career ... or one every 157 snaps on 1,021 attempts. And, oh yeah, he's never had a holding penalty. The Commodores have shown dramatic improvement in their offensive line over the past two seasons, and Johnson has been there every step of the way. He'll be there in 2013, too, and deserves to be in the conversation when you start listing the best (and most versatile) offensive linemen in this league.
So as we point toward the 2013 season, we’ve come up with the 10 most underrated players in the SEC.
To be eligible, players must have played at least two seasons of college football and cannot have received first- or second-team All-SEC honors by the Associated Press or coaches during their careers.
In selecting the players for this list, we based it on past performance and the impact they’ve had on their teams to this point. It’s not a projection of what they’re expected to do this coming season.
Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU, Sr.: He was overshadowed by teammate Kevin Minter last season, but Barrow finished fifth in the SEC with eight tackles per game and was one of seven players in the league with more than 100 tackles (104). The 6-2, 233-pound Barrow played weak side linebacker last season, but is versatile enough to move inside to the middle if needed. The Tigers will lean heavily on his experience and productivity in 2013.
Trey DePriest, LB, Alabama, Jr.: The second leading tackler last season for the two-time defending national champion Crimson Tide, the 6-2, 245-pound DePriest racked up 59 total tackles, including 4.5 for loss. DePriest was the Tide’s starter at middle linebacker last season and a major reason nobody ran the ball against them. They allowed just 2.43 yards per rush, which led the country.
Alvin “Bud” Dupree, LB, Kentucky, Jr.: Talk about underrated. The 6-4, 254-pound Dupree is coming off a super productive sophomore season and barely got any mention for postseason accolades. He tied for seventh in the SEC with 12.5 tackles for loss and led the Wildcats with 6.5 sacks. He’s found a home at defensive end in Kentucky’s new defense after bouncing around between outside linebacker and end last season.
Zach Fulton, OG, Tennessee, Sr.: Tennessee’s offensive line in 2013 will be one of the most experienced in college football with a combined 123 career starts. Left tackle Antonio Richardson is a future first-rounder, and right tackle Ja’Wuan James is somebody else the NFL scouts are watching. But don’t sleep on the 6-5, 324-pound Fulton, who’s started 28 of the last 31 games at right guard. He’s a devastating blocker, equally consistent and will play a long time in the NFL.
E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri, Sr.: Even though Gaines garnered All-Big 12 honors in 2011, he didn’t show up on the All-SEC first or second teams a year ago. Look for that to change in 2013. The 5-10, 195-pound Gaines led the Tigers last season with 11 pass breakups and tied for fourth on the team with a career-high 74 total tackles. The SEC is never lacking for premier cornerbacks, but Gaines has the size and cover skills to rank up there with anybody.
Jonotthan Harrison, C, Florida, Sr.: The feeling coming out of spring camp at Florida was the Gators would be much improved on offense in 2013, and Harrison’s steady play was a big reason why. He was Florida’s best offensive linemen a year ago and returns as one of the top centers in the SEC. He’s also played guard during his career and graded out above 80 percent in nine games last season.
Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt, Sr.: He’s been the epitome of versatility for the Commodores and has started everywhere on the offensive line but right guard during a stellar career that has seen him play multiple positions in 23 games. The 6-5, 285-pound Johnson lined up at left tackle last season and more than held his own against some of the top pass-rushers in the country.
Walker May, DE, Vanderbilt, Sr.: Having worked his way into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman, the 6-5, 250-pound May has gotten better every season. One of the team’s hardest workers and best leaders, May finished with 10.5 tackles for loss last season and led the Commodores with seven quarterback hurries. He’s one of those players who's at his best when his team needs it the most.
Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss, Jr.: The fact that a player like Moncrief didn’t make first or second-team All-SEC last season is surprising, but it also speaks to the talent level at receiver in this league. The 6-3, 220-pound Moncrief was third in the SEC last season with 10 touchdown catches and is the kind of playmaking target all quarterbacks look to at key moments in the game.
Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas, Sr.: The SEC has long been known for its pass-rushers, and the 6-3, 266-pound Smith was as productive as anybody in the league last season off the edge. He and Jadeveon Clowney are the only two players returning in the SEC who had nine or more sacks a year ago. Smith finished with 9.5 sacks and tied for the Arkansas team lead with 13.5 tackles for loss.
2012 record: 9-4
2012 conference record: 5-3 (fourth, Eastern Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 7; Defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1
WR Chris Boyd, WR Jordan Matthews, RB Wesley Tate, OT Wesley Johnson, DE Walker May, LB Chase Garnham, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler
QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, OT Ryan Seymour, DT Rob Lohr, LB Archibald Barnes, CB Trey Wilson
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Zac Stacy (1,141 yards)
Passing: Jordan Rodgers (2,539 yards)
Receiving: Jordan Matthews* (1,323 yards)
Tackles: Kenny Ladler* (90)
Sacks: Chase Garnham* (7)
Interceptions: Trey Wilson (3)
1. Stronger offensive line: There is far more depth and talent up front for line coach Herb Hand to work with. Three-year starter Wesley Johnson is back at tackle, along with junior Joe Townsend at center and sophomore Jake Bernstein at guard. The unit is deeper and more talented than in past years. It’s now deep enough that talented redshirt freshman Adam Butler was able to move to defensive tackle.
2. Depth at linebacker: The Commodores might have lost just one starter at linebacker this past year, but the staff was looking for dependable depth coming out of spring and really found it with the improvements made by sophomores Jake Sealand and Darreon Herring. They didn’t just add quality depth but they could be potential starters this fall.
3. Edge power: Vandy will have solid options at defensive end this fall. Redshirt junior Kyle Woestmann and sophomore Caleb Azubike really stepped up this spring, but they’ll get some help from redshirt freshman Stephen Weatherly, who might have been the team's most improved player this spring. Weatherly gained 30 pounds and has the speed to be a potential edge rusher this fall. The Commodores should excel more in the pass rush this fall.
1. Quarterback battle: While Austyn Carta-Samuels ended the spring ahead of Patton Robinette on the depth chart, coach James Franklin says the two still have a ways to go when it comes to being the guy. Both are athletic and can make extra plays with their feet, but now they have to take over as leaders and learn to consistently move the offense. Carta-Samuels has the edge going into summer and fall, but he can’t afford to slip because Robinette will take advantage of every rep he gets this fall.
2. Tight end troubles: There are just three tight ends currently on Vandy’s roster, and Franklin is still looking for someone to step up and take control at the position. Kris Kentera led tight ends with 10 catches last year, but it sounds like redshirt sophomore Steven Scheu, who caught eight passes last year, has what it takes to be the guy there. Vandy will also get help from junior college transfer Brandon Vandenburg when he arrives this summer.
3. Lack of depth at WR/CB: The Dores might have a solid foundation in Jordan Matthews, Chris Boyd and Jonathan Krause at receiver, and Andre Hal and Steven Clarke at corner, but there is limited depth behind them at both spots. Redshirt freshmen Paris Head and Torren McGaster have a chance to play this fall, but have no experience. Vandy is hoping to get some help from its five receivers it signed in its 2013 class. Still, there isn’t much proven talent behind the main guys.
The Commodores own the SEC’s longest active winning streak at seven straight games. They won nine games a year ago for the first time in nearly 100 years.
“The biggest difference is the defensive line, and hopefully, the offensive line,” Franklin said. “We have a chance to be close to 300 pounds across the offensive line and four deep at defensive tackle. We haven’t had that before.”
The Commodores redshirted all of their true freshmen offensive linemen last season, and Franklin said it’s just a better looking group all the way around.
“Two years ago at offensive tackle, we were about 260 or 257 and got up around 285,” Franklin said. “By the end of last year, Wesley Johnson was back down to 265. Think about playing in the SEC at offensive tackle at 265. That’s high school.
“We have a chance to be 300 pounds or close to it along the offensive line, 300 at defensive tackle, 250 at defensive end, and the other area is tight end. Kris Kentera was 217 last year and 235 now.”
On defense, senior end Walker May is up to 250 pounds. He came to Vanderbilt as a freshman at 208 pounds and played at 235 last season. Junior end Kyle Woestmann is up to 255, and sophomore end Caleb Azubike is now 269. Azubike played at 247 last season.
Franklin said the Commodores still have to do their share of projecting during the recruiting process in terms of which players can put on weight and transition to a different position. But they’re also bringing in more guys, similar to highly rated defensive tackle signee Jay Woods, who are closer to being SEC-ready when they arrive.
“We’re doing a little bit of both instead of all projections now,” Franklin said. “For us to think we can go out and sign 25 players who are all going to walk in here looking like SEC players, that’s not going to happen. We’ll have more misses and more mistakes that way. Everybody wants those guys.
“We’ll take half of those guys and others who may take a year and a half to get there. Where we’ve really improved is our training table, our supplements and our strength coach.”
Walker May, RJr., DE: One thing that NC State's offense can do is throw the ball around. Thanks to the arm of senior quarterback Mike Glennon, the Wolfpack are averaging 304 passing yards per game, which ranks second in the ACC. The Commodores have been excellent against the pass, ranking ninth nationally in pass defense. But if Glennon gets time, he can make sure his receivers make plays here and there. He's expected to be one of the first QBs taken in April's NFL draft, after leading the ACC with 3,648 passing yards and finishing second with 30 touchdowns. But when the pressure comes, Glennon has a tendency to get happy feet in the pocket and hurry passes. That's where May comes in. He's a quality pass-rusher, and if he can put some pressure on Glennon, he could create some good opportunities for Vandy's talented secondary. The Commodores haven't intercepted a ton of passes this season, but allowed only four teams to pass for 200-plus yards on them this season. The more disruptive May is, the more chances Glennon has of making mistakes. May has 10.5 tackles for loss, including three sacks, and has defended two passes. Getting Glennon out of rhythm will help the Commodores continue their success against the pass.
SEC OFFENSIVE PLAYER AND FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
- Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: Manziel generated 345 total yards to lead Texas A&M to a 29-24 win over then-No. 1 Alabama. He completed 24 of 31 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns, while adding 92 rushing yards on 18 carries. With the game, Manziel became the second freshman in NCAA FBS history to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 2,000 yards in a single season (Brad Smith, Missouri, 2002). Manziel did not have a turnover against an Alabama team that was fourth in the nation in turnover margin.
- D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina: Swearinger totaled a career-best 13 tackles (10 solos), including one for a loss, and added an interception and quarterback pressure in South Carolina’s 38-20 win over Arkansas. He returned the interception 69 yards for a touchdown to put Carolina ahead 31-10.
- Craig Loston, S, LSU: Loston had six total tackles and returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown in LSU’s 37-17 win over Mississippi State. Loston’s interception return, which tied an LSU, SEC and NCAA record for longest, gave Tigers the final margin.
- Andrew Baggett, K, Missouri: Baggett’s 35-yard field goal in the fourth overtime gave Missouri a 51-48 win over Tennessee. It was Baggett’s first-ever attempt at a game-winning field goal in his career. He also hit 6-of-6 PAT tries against the Vols.
- Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida: Purifoy blocked a punt with two seconds left against Louisiana-Lafayette that led to a touchdown and a 27-20 Florida victory. Purifoy’s block was returned by Jelani Jenkins 36 yards for the game-winning score. He had five tackles and a pass deflection against ULL. The blocked punt was the second of the year for Purifoy.
- David Andrews, C, Georgia: Andrews graded out at 88 percent after registering six “dominator” blocks and three knockdowns during Georgia’s 38-0 win at Auburn. He anchored an offensive line that allowed quarterback Aaron Murray to be sacked only once as the Bulldogs racked up 497 total yards on offense, including a pair of 100-yard rushers.
- Walker May, DE, Vanderbilt: May set career highs with six solo tackles, with three for losses, in Vanderbilt’s 27-26 comeback win at Ole Miss. May also had a 14-yard quarterback sack and a quarterback pressure against the Rebels.
For more top performances from Week 11, click here.
As the Commodores’ second-year defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, is quick to point out, that was good enough for sixth in the SEC ... or middle of the pack.
“That’s the reality in this league,” Shoop said.
The other reality in this league is that there’s no resting on your defensive laurels.
As good as the Commodores were last season on defense, as sound as they were and as proficient as they were at taking the ball away from opponents, it all starts anew Thursday night when South Carolina visits Vanderbilt Stadium.
“Each team has its own identity, and you can’t ever take it for granted that because you did it last year, you’re going to do it again this year,” Shoop said. “Each level of defense has its own piece.”
The Commodores are missing some key pieces from a year ago, notably middle linebacker Chris Marve, defensive end Tim Fugger and cornerback Casey Hayward.
“One of the biggest things we’ll miss is Casey’s playmaking ability because he had such a unique ability to intercept passes,” Shoop said.
Hayward had seven of the Commodores’ 19 interceptions last season, and that's a tribute to his ball skills and nose for the ball. But it’s also a tribute to the way Shoop likes to play defense.
The Commodores never quit attacking and are masterful at bringing pressure from all different angles. Although some of the pieces might be different, the approach won't change this season.
In fact, Shoop said he thinks there’s enough speed and versatility on this defense that the Commodores might take their creativity to another level.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are interchangeable, and this group might be even more suited to pressuring, believe it or not,” Shoop said. “Our linebackers and safeties are all basically the same guys. They all run around and are aggressive and fast.
“We may do it a little differently than we did a year ago, but our defense is built on running to the ball and never-ending pressure. Coach [George] Barlow, our defensive backs coach, always says that pressure makes the pipes burst.”
Shoop’s transformation of Vanderbilt's defense shouldn’t come as a surprise. He did it at William & Mary and put together some of the top defenses in the FCS ranks, which no doubt attracted the interest of James Franklin.
The Commodores allowed 9.6 fewer points and 96.4 fewer yards per game last season than they did the year before and intercepted 10 more passes.
Shoop, who earned an economics degree from Yale and was the head coach at Columbia University from 2003 to 2005, also isn’t afraid to think outside the box.
During the offseason, Shoop visited with a former SEC defensive coordinator also known for his innovative schemes -- current Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
So who knows what Shoop might dial up Thursday against the Gamecocks, who will have a new look of their own. Running back Marcus Lattimore returns after missing the last half of last season with a knee injury, and he’ll be in the lineup with junior quarterback Connor Shaw. They played only 1½ games together last season before Lattimore was injured.
“It’s really more difficult preparing for them now because you look at the film and see Connor playing so well at the end of last season and doing so many good things, and then you add Marcus to the equation,” Shoop said. “It’s a challenge. But like any opening game, it’s more about us than it is them.
“It’s on us doing things well, and it’s on me and the staff to adjust during the course of the game.”
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.
3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.
5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.
6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.
7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.
8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.
10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.
11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.
12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.
13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.
14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.
2011 conference record: 2-6
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 3
WR Chris Boyd, WR Jordan Matthews, QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, OG Ryan Seymour, C Wesley Johnson, LB Archibald Barnes, Chase Garnham, DT Rob Lohr, CB Trey Wilson
TE Brandon Barden, OT Kyle Fischer, DE Tim Fugger, LB Chris Marve, CB Casey Hayward, S Sean Richardson
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Zac Stacy* (1,193 yards)
Passing: Jordan Rodgers* (1,524 yards)
Receiving: Jordan Matthews* (778 yards)
Tackles: Chris Marve (91)
Sacks: Tim Fugger (8)
Interceptions: Casey Hayward (7)
1. Finding more leaders: Vanderbilt coach James Franklin wanted to leave spring with more leaders than started with. By his accounts, a few veterans stepped up with guys like Marve, Fugger, Hayward and Fischer gone. Franklin said that if the Commodores were going to build off of last season's success, some veterans had to step up and take hold of the team. Guys like Jordan Rodgers, Chase Garnham, Walker May, Trey Wilson and Zac Stacy really expanded their roles as leaders and will be leaned on even more this fall.
2. Marve's replacement: Finding someone to take over for Marve in the locker room was one thing, but filling his position on the field is another. Exiting the spring, Franklin thinks he found the perfect player for the job in Garnham. He moved from the outside to the middle and really excelled at Marve's old position. Garnham was one of the Vanderbilt's most consistent defensive players this spring and the coaches expect to perform this fall.
3. More playmakers: The Commodores return much of their offense this season, but it sounds like the coaches found a few more players. People know about Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but a few other players caught the coaches' eyes like redshirt freshmen Josh Grady and Kris Kentera, who were former quarterbacks. Grady showed his versatility by playing all over the field at receiver, running back and as a wildcat quarterback. It looks like Kentera earned some playing time at H-back this fall, helping to take pressure off Matthews and Boyd.
1. Offensive line: Spring practices have not addressed any of the issues the Commodores have on the offensive line. Ryan Seymour and Chase White began spring by rehabbing injuries, leaving Vandy with just nine healthy bodies up front. As spring went on, Franklin said there were times when his team sometimes had just seven linemen to work with. It was bad enough that Vandy rarely went through practices with a full offensive line taking reps. Six true freshmen linemen will enroll at Vandy this fall, but there's no question this unit is the biggest worry for the Commodores.
2. Quarterback consistency: While Rogers made improvements to his game, he still showed the inconsistency that frustrated Franklin last season. There's no question he has the athletic ability to be a solid starter in this league, but he sometimes fails to stand tall in the pocket and deliver solid throws when things collapse around him. That kind of play really hurt Vandy's offense last season. He was pushed by 2009 Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year Austyn Carta-Samuels during the spring and the battle is expected to continue through fall camp.
3. Warren Norman's health: After missing all of the 2011 season with a knee injury, Norman returned to the practice field this spring. Though he was non-contact, he showed some improvement in his mobility. It's still unclear how healthy Norman will be and if really complement Stacy in the running game. Rising sophomore Jerron Seymour is the one other returning running back that registered carries last season.