Saturday, August 8, 2009

Moral Victory! defensive preview: Vandy D talented and deep, and just needs young DBs to step up fast

Now it's time to preview the Commodore defense, which you already know will be way better than the offense.

Here's a review of our high-speed, carefully conceived rating system:
1. BCS Bowl
2. Cotton Bowl
3. Music City Bowl
4. Independence Bowl
5. Living Room

Now here's the preview of the defense:

Current rating: Music City Bowl
Potential: Cotton Bowl
What must happen: Bobby Johnson says this could be the strength of the team, and maybe he's right. There's no reason that starters Greg Billinger and Adam Smotherman and super-sub T.J. Greenstone won't continue to improve after holding down a three-man rotation for every snap of last season. That is, if redshirt frosh Rob Lohr, Colt Nichter and the bulked-up and vastly improved Taylor Loftley can step up and provide a breather for the Big Three. And if one of them — Loftley's our bet — can establish himself as a force against SEC competition, then look out.

Current rating: Music City Bowl
Potential: Cotton Bowl
What must happen: If lightning-quick sackmaster Broderick Stewart stays healthy after rehabbing a broken leg and if steady Steven Stone stays true to form, then the Dores will be at least as good as last year. There's plenty of depth in Theron Kadri, Terriall Brannon, Tim Fugger and redshirt freshman Johnell Thomas, who ran wild in the spring. If one or more of those guys — say, Thomas, has a breakout year, then an already solid defense could be a dominating one.

Current rating: Cotton Bowl
Potential: BCS Bowl
What must happen: Like the rest of the front seven, the key is for everybody to pick up where he left off last season. Benoist continues to baffle critics by making tackle after tackle and Marve is widely regarded as one of the best young backers in the SEC. Meanwhile, John Stokes and Brent Trice are battling it out at weakside linebacker. Stokes is probably the every-down guy and Trice is the sack specialist. And if one or all of a trio of redshirt freshmen — DeAndre Jones, Tristan Strong and Dexter Daniels — can step up like Marve did last year, then everybody will be hungrier and sharper.

Current rating: Independence Bowl
Potential: Cotton Bowl
What must happen: Obviously, Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson must step up and fill the void left by cornerback D.J. Moore and free safety Reshard Langford. Both played well in the Music City Bowl and benefited from concentrating early on special teams and being brought along slowly. Also, Jamie Graham must make a smooth transition to defense. Graham, who was recruited as a cornerback and practiced there during his redshirt year. He doesn't have game experience on defense, but he's got plenty on offense, where he seemed to step up against the big boys — his three touchdown receptions were jump balls in the corner of the end zone against Georgia (times two) and Florida, and the former Vandy hoopster now gets the chance to grab some jump balls on defense. Graham will battle Hayward for Moore's cornerback spot but the other guy will be at nickel (don't forget the Dores lost Darlron Spead too), so both will be on the field. It's a talented secondary. But after fifth-year senior Joel Caldwell, nobody else has game experience. Sure, nobody talks about the subs, but don't forget that we were 10-deep with experienced veterans last season, and when a starter went down we'd just throw in a fifth-year senior, Jared Fagan or Josh Allen, or a talented redshirt sophomore, Alan Strong, who's transferring to TSU. This season when we need a sub in the secondary, we'll be drawing from two redshirt freshmen (Al Owens and Micah Powell), or five true freshmen (Eric Samuels, Trey Wilson, Javon Marshall, Eddie Foster and Jay Fullam) or even a sophomore walk-on with special teams experience (Rich Tompkins). Two or three of those guys need to step up and deliver.

Current rating: Music City Bowl
Potential: Cotton Bowl (+)
What must happen: We know the linebackers are stout. The D-Line is solid too, but if all the starters improve and a couple of guys like Taylor Loftley and Johnell Thomas emerge as star backups, then the defense could kick it up a notch. We've got one of the most creative, swarming schemes in the league and the front seven has the potential to get even more takeaways and deliver more big plays than last season. Super-sub Brent Trice is a vastly underrated weapon, and a big season from him means a big season for the entire defense. But obviously, the secondary has got to gel and some youngsters have to emerge quickly and assume reserve roles. If that includes the most physically gifted and battle-ready true freshmen, Samuels and Wilson, then it'll be all the better. Lewis and Hamilton will again be stars, and Hayward, Richardson and Graham appear to be solid starters. They'll be tested early, especially against Ole Miss. If they can hold together early and improve with each game, and the new offense can be at least serviceable, then Vandy should be at least 4-2 at the halfway point and poised to get the November monkey off their backs. But again, developing secondary depth will be critical, especially with a slate featuring 12 straight games and no bye weeks.

Current rating: Independence Bowl
Potential: Cotton Bowl
What must happen: We all know Brett Upson can punt. He doesn't have the strongest leg, but is there anybody better in pooch-punting situations? (No.) We do need to improve in punt protection after experiencing huge problems toward the end of the season. But the biggest question mark is at placekicker. Bryant Hahnfeldt was our kicker the last four years, and we all know what a rollercoaster ride that was. Now there's a brand new guy, redshirt frosh Ryan Fowler, who possesses a strong leg and hopefully an iron-clad psyche. We'll soon find out. In the spring, Johnson was considering having Fowler kick off and boot the long ones and Upson handle PATs and chip-shot field goals. Really, Fowler needs to become our kicker and be ready to deliver in any situation. Also, Alex Washington and John Cole look like solid return guys, but hopefully we can get some more firepower returning kickoffs. Would love to see one of the true freshmen running backs get that duty.

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