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Previewing Alabama versus Vanderbilt: The Commodore defense is legit

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When Bama and Vandy meet this Saturday, the strength-on-strength battle will feature the Tide’s overwhelming offense versus Derek Mason’s hard-nosed, senior laden defense

Middle Tennessee v Vanderbilt
Oren Burks is all over the field and is likely the best defender on the Vandy roster.
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

When Alabama and Vanderbilt take the field in the Tide’s SEC opener this Saturday, the nation’s top statistical defense be involved in what could easily become an old-school, ground-and-pound cage match. The game will feature the nation’s best pass defense, the top scoring defense, and the leader in total defense…only it’s not at all what you’re probably thinking.

In this game, representing a stark break from the norm, it won’t be the Alabama D that is boasting those lofty credentials. Shockingly, those accolades all belong to the Vanderbilt defense, a rough-and-rugged veteran group that has become the backbone of the ‘Dores team in Derek Mason’s fourth year at the helm.

For years, the Commodores have been SEC cellar dwellers, a team that has been the traditional whipping boys of bigger, more successful programs from Knoxville, Tuscaloosa, and Athens. But this year, the Vandy defense is, quite simply, not to be taken lightly. The starting unit features seven seniors, three juniors, and a lone sophomore. That’s the kind of veteran presence that can accomplish great things in the SEC, especially when coupled with Mason’s (a former defensive coordinator at Stanford who felled the mighty Oregon Ducks on numerous occasions) aggressive schemes and ability to make the most of the players he has on campus.

The Vanderbilt defense has not faced a true test like the one Bama will offer, to be honest. Their initial two wins came over Middle Tennessee State and Alabama A&M in the first two weeks of the season. But last week, they held a top-20 Kansas State team to a mere seven points, thus sounding the herald’s call that maybe the sun had risen on a new day of Vanderbilt football.

But beating an inconsistent K-State team, and felling the Goliath of the Southeastern Conference in Alabama, are two totally different tasks. Alabama has the finest assemblage of offensive talent in the conference, and possibly the nation. That offensive arsenal was fully on display last week against Colorado State, as Jalen Hurts, Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster, Bo Scarbrough, and Damien Harris seemed to be dominant throughout the afternoon.

This defense will be far more difficult for the Tide to conquer, to be sure. They have size and athleticism that the two prior Bama opponents simply didn’t possess. They’ve been tempered in the fire of Mason’s regimen, as he is known for running up-tempo practices that stress the mental and physical boundaries of his defensive personnel to prepare them for what they’ll see on the field on game day. The stock of the Vanderbilt program is on the rise, to be sure.

Then again, the ‘Dores haven’t seen anything like what they’ll see form the Tide this week. The dynamic in Nashville on Saturday evening will be interesting, to say the least.

Will Alabama be able to do what Alabama does: physically overwhelm the Vandy defense and chip away at the dam until it bursts forth to release an offensive deluge? Or will the Commodores do what they did to the Wildcats last week: confound and frustrate, limit explosive plays, and completely extinguish the passing attack? Surely, the Vanderbilt defense will offer the Tide their stiffest challenge since the opening week of the season, and the ‘Dores haven’t tangled with a beast like the Alabama offense to date. That said, let’s take a closer look.

The Roster

The thing that stands out about the Vanderbilt defensive roster at first glance is the sheer number of veterans at key positions, especially in the secondary. A lone underclassman DB has won a starting role for Vandy this season, and the bulk of the defense is manned by seniors (many of them fifth-year redshirt seniors, at that.) That cannot be underestimated, and one need look no further back than Alabama’s second-half defensive performance last week against Colorado State’s solid offense for a demonstration of the pitfalls of playing a lot of younger players. When younger players entered the game and were relied upon, the defensive productivity plummeted. One can have all the talent in the world, but without experience, it remains just that: untested talent. Vanderbilt is in a much better position in that regard, as they have players in each unit who have walked through the fires of SEC play, and may be better prepared (at least in theory) for what they’ll face this week.

Mason installed a traditional 3-4 base defense when he arrived in Nashville, and it’s worked well for him as he’s recruited the types of players needed to make the 3-4 run smoothly. Any 3-4 front lives and dies with the nose tackle, as he is the anchor of the front seven who is charged with taking on double-teams, occupying blockers, and using his girth to snare up interior running lanes. Mason has a tailor-made player for that role in gigantic senior Nifae Lealao (6-5, 312 pounds), a prototypical 3-4 nose who has grown into the role he is expected to play in Mason’s defense. He is a leader up front, and performs well at what he is charged with doing. He is a block sponge with good power and pocket-crushing ability in the pass rush. Lealao has four tackles, a tackle for loss, a pass broken up, a pass defended, a quarterback hurry, and a blocked kick. Those stats may not be spectacular, but playing the nose in a 3-4 is never about racking up stats. Lealao is an excellent technician, and he will be in Bama’s Bradley Bozeman’s grill all night long. There is depth at the position as well, as senior Jay Woods (6-3, 285 pounds) backs up the dependable Lealao. Woods has five tackles this year to his credit.

At defensive end, senior Jonathan Wynn (6-5, 265 pounds) won the starting role this season after several years as a reserve. The rangy defender has a tremendous wingspan, and his arm length alone gives him a leverage advantage on the edge against many tackles. Wynn is still growing into the role, but thus far this season, he already has three tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry. Wynn is backed up by a redshirt freshman who Mason has mentioned as a potential future star, Josiah Sa’o (6-2, 295 pounds). While Sa’o may not have Wynn’s length, he plays a power game, with a big body and low center of gravity. Sa’o hasn’t seen much time yet this season, but he does have a tackle to his credit.

At the other end position, junior Dare Odeyingbo (6-2, 272 pounds) is a sheer playmaker who brings a spark to the defensive front. In just three games, he’s proven himself an aggressive, athletic force, whether playing true end or lined up inside of a pass-rushing linebacker. Odeyingbo has accrued 10 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two passes broken up, two passes defended, three quarterback hurries, one forced fumble, and an interception. The big end can do it all, but because of the veteran presence around him, he won’t have to. Behind Odeyingbo is true freshman Cameron Tidd, another player who Mason thinks has potential to become a game-changer in the future. Tidd hasn’t seen the field much yet this year due in part to Odeyingbo’s performance, but he’s a name to watch in future years to be sure.

The linebacking corps is quite deep as well, and the Commodores have a handful of playmakers and steady contributors who make execution against the Vandy defense a nightmare. Outside, junior Charles Wright (6-3, 240 pounds) is the starter, and he’s off to a good start this season, with 14 tackles, seven tackles for loss, six sacks, and five quarterback hurries. He is a force who lives in opposing backfields, disrupting the run game and harrying the opposing passer. He’s slippery and fast off the edge, and when he gets where he’s going, he hits with the momentum of a runaway dump truck. Wright is spelled by true freshman Andrew Mintz (6-3, 235 pounds), though Mintz hasn’t garnered much playing time as of yet.

The other OLB position is manned by junior Josh Smith (6-4, 240 pounds). Smith certainly has the physical characteristics to be a solid outside backer in the SEC, with good size, adequate speed, and sure-tackling technique. Thus far, he hasn’t piled up the stats, as he is credited with three tackles, one sack, and a quarterback hurry. Behind him on the depth chart is sophomore Caleb Peart (6-1, 235 pounds), a youngster who hasn’t seen the field a great deal. Peart has a tackle on his ledger.

Probably the most explosive, dynamic playmaker in the linebacking corps (and possibly the entire defense) is senior inside linebacker Oren Burks (6-3, 230 pounds). Burks has picked up where all-time great Vandy linebacker Zach Cunningham left off after graduating last year. Burks is a fast, ferocious defender who is usually in a position to make a play on the ball carrier no matter where on the field that is required. He has 16 tackles, three tackles for loss, one pass broken up, two passes defended, and an interception thus far in 2017. He’s so athletic that last year, he spent the bulk of his time as the Star when the team went into a nickel look. Burks has been fairly durable in his time at Vandy, so reserve ‘backer and sophomore Jay Hockaday (6-3, 230 pounds) hasn’t seen a great deal of action thus far. He has a tackle and half a tfl.

At the other inside position is another senior, Emmanuel Smith (6-2, 240 pounds), a hyperactive run-stuffer with good instincts and closing speed. He’s a sure tackler, as evidenced by his team-leading 28 tackles (along with 2.5 tackles for loss and half a sack). Smith is backed up by junior Jordan Griffin (6-0, 223 pounds), and Griffin has three tackles and a tfl so far in 2017.

The secondary may be the best single unit on the Vandy defense, as it is loaded with veterans who are seasoned and heady. Mason’s defense returned three of four starters from last year’s secondary, and the lone newcomer is sophomore Joejuan Williams (6-3 208 pounds), an absolutely massive corner who has proven himself quite the asset in the early portion of the season. Despite his youth, Williams has performed admirably, as he’s tied for the team lead in passes broken up (4) and passes defended (4). He also has eight tackles and half a tfl on the year. Williams’ size puts him on par with Alabama’s bigger receivers, thus negating some of the natural advantage the taller speedsters on the Tide roster usually enjoy. Williams is backed up by junior Donovan Sheffield (6-0, 190 pounds), and Sheffield is an active reserve with six tackles, a pass defended, and a pass broken up.

Generally, a defense has one lockdown corner and a decent CB playing opposite him. Vandy is blessed with two great corners, as opposite Williams is senior Tre Herndon (6-1, 188 pounds). While Herndon may not have Williams’ size, he makes up for it with intelligent aggressiveness and technique. He’s fast and agile, and Tide receivers will have a tough time finding space against him. Herndon has eight tackles, four passes defended, and four passes broken up this season, which tied him with Williams for the team lead in the latter two categories. Herndon is backed up by junior Bryce Lewis (6-0, 185 pounds), a frequently used reserve player who has accrued four tackles, a pass defended and an interception this year.

The ‘Dores are in good hands in the middle of the secondary, as they start a pair of senior stalwarts at free safety and strong safety. Senior strong safety Ryan White (5-10, 190 pounds) may be the smallest defensive back in the starting lineup, but one wouldn’t know if by watching him attack the football. He has good closing speed, solid technique, and is a heavy-hitter despite his rather light weight for an SEC safety. He has 13 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, two passes broken up, three passes defended, and an interception thus far. He is a contributor in run defense as well as against the pass. White is spelled by redshirt freshman Zaire Jones (6-0, 200 pounds), a prototypical Power-5 safety who will see his playing time increase in the future. He has three tackles and a tfl on the year.

At free safety, the ‘Dores have a co-starter situation. Senior Tre Tarpley (6-1, 203 pounds) is one half of the equation, with great size and a well-rounded skill set for the position. Tarpley can hit, but he’s also fleet of foot enough to be a steady contributor in coverage. Tarpley has five tackles, a pass broken up, and a pass defended so far this year. Fellow senior Ladarius Wiley (6-1, 210 pounds) is the other half of the two-headed tandem, and he’s another solidly-built defensive back who has been used a lot this year. So far, Wiley has 17 tackles, two passes broken up, three passes defended and an interception.

How Vanderbilt will try to stop the Alabama offense

If one watches a little bit of film on Vanderbilt’s defense, it’s easy to see why Mason has had success in building a formidable unit in Nashville. They play hard and fast, with aggression and calculated risks being hallmarks of their scheme. Mason is known as the man who killed Oregon’s fast-paced spread, as while at Stanford, his Cardinal defense regularly wrecked the Duck offense en route to victory.

Mason is building the same kind of unit at Vanderbilt that he built out west, with the same types of players (both physically and mentally, given Vandy’s challenging academic requirements) that made the Stanford system work.

As previously mentioned, Vanderbilt’s defense is built off a 3-4 base, which requires two-gapping up front and dynamic linebacker play paired with a strong secondary that can get the job done without a lot of extra-DB packages. The Commodores do use a Star defensive back from time to time (last year it was Burks, a linebacker), but Mason prefers to line up in simple basic personnel packages and run multiple defenses and coverages from those sets. Unlike many defenses in the era of HUNH spread offenses, Mason will put base personnel on the field with simplified schemes, and allow them to play fast and steal back some of the advantage generated by those types of offenses.

When asked how he can deal so effectively with high-tempo spread offenses, Mason has said he prepares his players to go 100 plays in practice routinely, he simplifies his schemes to prevent hesitation, and he creates hesitation in the offense by keeping personnel packages static rather than panicking and trying to prevent mismatches with offensive skill players. More on the latter: one of the advantages created by a spread no-huddle team is that it seeks to create mismatches in space for elite skill players. Defenses, to attempt to prevent to lose battles in which they are destined to fail, often scramble to match personnel between plays, thus creating total chaos and further introducing psychological pressure into an already stressful situation.

Mason instead finds his 11 best defenders, puts them on the field, and leaves them there to do their jobs. The other team can sub players in and out, but Mason’s defense uses that extra time typically spent subbing to prepare for the next play. Because they are well-conditioned, that further minimizes the impact of tempo on a defense. It also creates an advantage for the defense: in most hurry-up schemes, because of tempo, defenses must stay in the same defense from the previous play because there is not enough time to signal in another set before the next play. Therefore, defenses just play the same defense they executed the play before. Offenses then know what they’re up against, because they haven’t given the defense time to alter the scheme, thus creating prescience that helps them exploit defenses further.

However, for Mason, keeping the same personnel on the field allows him to conceal his defenses. He can run a Cover-1, Cover-2, Cover-3, or blitz with the exact same personnel on the field, working from the same sets. All they must do is signal in the play…the same players remain on the field in the same positions. There are no personnel shuffles, no chaotic sprints to the sidelines to prevent 12-in-the-huddle calls. It’s simple and streamlined, and it allows players to reduce stress and remain calm against tempo offenses.

While Mason’s defenses in the past have been built to stop spread offenses, Alabama is not strictly a horse of that shade. The Tide’s offensive game plan is still emerging in the Brian Daboll era, but the early returns project a shift back to a pro-style offense with some spread concepts, in some ways like the one run by the New England Patriots. Last week, there were more passes to backs, more throws to the middle of the field, and a little more interior running by Hurts and the backs. There are some designed runs when the Tide has purposely spread defenses this year, as was the case under the previous offensive regime. But one wouldn’t describe Alabama as a spread tempo offense this year, by any stretch.

How will Vandy combat the lean of big boy tactics this Saturday? By using their system and senior players to do the heavy lifting. The 3-4 defense, properly run, is an excellent scheme for stopping the run from a pro-style offense. And with Vandy’s cadre of big, physical defensive backs, the ‘Dores will likely stack the box, just as every other Bama opponent has done this year. They did it against a physical K-State running game last week, and one would expect them to try to clog those middle lanes against Alabama’s elite running game as well. Their linebackers were good enough to clog up the running lanes against the Wildcats’ bread and butter, and the secondary was good enough to win most of the battles in the passing game when that became Kansas State’s last gasp.

Alabama aired the ball out more last week against an overwhelmed Ram pass defense, but this week, that task will be much more difficult. Vandy only allows 95.3 yards per game so far in 2017…a number which is shockingly low, and good enough for first nationally. This is largely due to the presence of the ‘Dores secondary, which can legitimately field five senior defensive backs in the secondary in a nickel look if need be. They are also a large, physical corps that is not afraid to challenge receivers and fight for the ball. With eight men in the box to stop the run, Mason will likely depend on his secondary to play some man and physically do battle with the Tide’s elite receivers….at least until Bama executes a few passing plays that forces a different tack. Throwing against Vandy will be difficult, but the Tide has so many weapons that it’s hard to imagine that Daboll and company won’t find a way to fit the gap and diagnose a weak spot to exploit with the Commodores playing four men in coverage.

One data point definitively favors Bama: while Vandy’s defense is at the top of the leader boards in total defense, passing defense, and scoring defense, they have a harder time stopping the run. Vanderbilt is ranked 28th in run defense, allowing a tad over 103 yards per game on the ground. Alabama, conversely, has the 24th ranked rushing attack in the nation, averaging 239 yards per game. This will be a pressure point for the Vandy defense, and it’s one the Tide will be more than happy to lean on. Stacking the box will help narrow the lanes for the Bama running game, but ultimately, with the versatility and athleticism of Hurts and the Bama backs, it’s hard to imagine that Vandy will be able to hem the running game up completely.

That said, don’t expect that the Vandy defense will be beaten handily, because they have the defensive firepower to remain rigid (at least for a time) regardless of what Alabama elects to do against them. The Tide still has a substantial talent edge, but the first string of the Vanderbilt defense is the best assemblage in black and gold since James Franklin left for Penn State. They have a true nose up front in Lealao, they have a secondary that some consider elite, and they have a rangy linebacking corps with good speed and solid fundamentals that features a firecracker player like Burks.

The Result

Truth be told, despite the stats, Florida State had a more talented defense than Vanderbilt, and Alabama executed a game plan that took advantage of the Nole weaknesses in an efficient and productive manner. Expect much the same this week. Vanderbilt, despite its substantial improvement and Mason’s defensive prowess, probably doesn’t have the players to hold back the Tide for four quarters.

They do, however, have the talent to create problems if Alabama reverts to sloppy play, or if the Tide stalls in establishing the run. So far, the Bama hasn’t turned the ball over through three games. That will need to continue, as the ‘Dores are opportunistic, and have the physicality to take advantage of some contested balls. To complicate things, the Vandy pass rush is legitimate, and it comes from many angles. They are averaging 3.33 sacks per game (13th nationally) and they are second in tfls (9.3 per game). They get penetration, which is key for a defense that operates with only three true hand-in-the-dirt linemen up front. Alabama’s offensive line will need to show further progress in pass blocking to keep Hurts in the pocket and let him make decisions about ball placement and open receivers.

More than likely, Alabama will start slow after feeling out the Vandy defense. Expect to see Daboll put Hurts in a position to be successful early with designed runs, passes to the backs to stem the Vandy pressure, and some safe shots to the sidelines. The Vandy linebackers are not elite level in coverage, so there is some hay to be made there as well, if Daboll inserts a few calls for the tight ends and backs when they are matched up against the large-framed ‘backers in coverage.

If all else fails, Alabama likely has enough running game swagger to wear down and eventually run through the Vandy run defense. The linebackers have size, and there is decent depth in the front seven, but Alabama’s running game is turning into a force, with Bozeman and right tackle Matt Womack being singled out in the last two weeks for improvement. If Alabama can turn the right side of its line into a running game lever, they can exploit the weakest part of the Vandy defense. To stop Alabama, one must first stop the running game. With a healthy Josh Jacobs adding a spark to the backfield alongside Scarbrough, Damien Harris, and Najee Harris this week, it’s hard to imagine that Vandy has the defensive might to stop that attack. Like water crashing on rocks, Alabama will likely pound away relentlessly, the Commodore run defense will eventually succumb, and the Tide will then wash over in victory.