You may recall that on Saturday we commented on Dexter Daniels moving from linebacker to end and Al Owens moving from safety to outside linebacker, and then we analyzed all the moves we’ve been making in an effort to compensate for our lack of true linebackers.
It took awhile, but eventually Jeff Lockridge, whose full-time job is covering Vanderbilt sports, wrote a story for Monday’s Tennessean that quoted James Franklin saying this: “It doesn’t make sense (to stay in a 4-3) if your fifth and sixth DBs are better than your second, third or fourth linebacker. Let’s get our best guys on the field and put them in a position to be successful, and I think that will also allow us to be faster.”
That naturally leads people to say we should start running a 3-4 defense because that’s what Nick Saban does, and he’s pretty successful. But Saban also has access to a noseguard who’s a dozen cheeseburgers shy of 400 pounds, a stable of ends faster than our linebackers and larger than our defensive tackles, and a bunch of NFL linebackers.
So Franklin’s not talking about running an Alabama-style 3-4. He’s talking about getting our fastest, most athletic and best football players on the field even though they may not be card-carrying linebackers or NFL prospects at whatever position they happen to be playing. He’s talking about going to nickel and even dime packages, or maybe just moving some of our safeties to linebacker. I’ll tell you this: Sean Richardson would be a helacious outside linebacker.
Which brings us to this question: Who are the best guys in our back seven? I think Franklin is being generous to our linebackers when he says our fifth and sixth DBs may be better than our second, third or fourth linebackers. We may have at least 10 DBs better than our third or fourth linebackers.
In fact, I’ve got nine Commodore DBs – six corners and three safeties – ranked ahead of Vandy’s No. 2 linebacker; 11 DBs – six corners and five safeties – ranked ahead of our third and fourth backers; and 13 DBs – six corners and seven safeties – ranked ahead of our fifth backer.
Man, we’re stockpiling talent at safety! We’re not going to leave them all there, I tell you that.
Anyway, here’s how I rank the athletes in our back seven (you know I expect you to disagree and to tell me why):
1. Chris Marve, R-Sr, LB (6-0, 235): Our best defensive player and NFL prospect. All-American candidate. Enough said.
2. Casey Hayward, Sr, CB (6-0, 185): Our best defensive back and cover man; has started 24 straight games since his sophomore opener. Also an All-American candidate.
3. Sean Richardson, Sr, S (6-2, 215): A wicked hitter who sometimes struggles in coverage. Has 22 career starts at strong safety. An All-SEC candidate.
4. Eddie Foster, Jr, CB (5-10, 175): Arguably our fastest player; started every game last season plus four as a true freshman. Had a game-turning pick-six in the upset of Ole Miss.
5. Kenny Ladler, So, S (6-1, 205): The first early enrollee in modern VU history, he started nine games last season at free safety. Not a burner but always seems to get there in time.
6. Andre Hal, So, CB (6-0, 185): A talented cover man who started two games last season as a true freshman. He could easily be Hayward’s heir apparent as the Commodores’ shut-down corner.
7. Trey Wilson, Jr, CB (6-0, 190): Has played in every game since arriving on campus, with one start. Having a great spring and could leap-frog Foster and Hal on the depth chart.
8. Eric Samuels, Jr, S/CB (6-0, 200): One of the team’s best athletes, he’s practicing at safety and could crack the starting lineup at nickel back. Hasn’t come close to reaching his potential.
9. Steven Clarke, So, CB (5-10, 190): Overshadowed by his big-name teammates in the secondary of his Miami high school, Clarke surprised VU fans by getting big minutes against SEC opponents.
10. Derek King, Fr, CB/ATH (5-11, 195): A big-time recruit coveted by Auburn and Tennessee, King’s expected to make a splash as soon as he arrives on campus.
11. Chase Garnham, So, OLB (6-3, 225): A raw talent who was moved from safety his senior year in high school. Has great feet and speed to burn. Played special teams last season while slower, veteran linebackers got the defensive minutes.
12. Andre Simmons, So, S (6-0, 205): A great athlete and ferocious hitter who played mostly special teams last season and is raring to see more action.
13. Karl Butler, So, S (6-1, 205): Like Simmons, was impressive enough to play right away as a freshman but spent most of his time learning the ropes behind Richardson, Ladler and Fullam.
14. Archibald Barnes, R-Jr, OLB (6-4, 228): Came to campus as an athlete and considered at receiver and safety before sticking at LB. Listed as a preseason starter last year, but was replaced early on by slower senior Nate Campbell. A nice athlete, but may not be an SEC linebacker.
15. Tristan Strong, R-Jr, OLB (6-1, 235): Was a solid prospect with an offer from Auburn, but has battled injuries and like Barnes has the look of a versatile athlete instead of an everyday starter.
16. Larry Franklin, Fr, S (6-1, 212): A rock-solid prospect who could be a force at safety or, as the team’s biggest safety, move to linebacker. This guy could either redshirt or rocket up the depth chart in the preseason.
17. Javon Marshall, R-So, S (5-10, 195): The rare secondary prospect to redshirt, he battled injuries early as a redshirt frosh but eventually became a stalwart on special teams. A solid hitter with good speed.
18. DeAndre Jones, R-Jr, MLB (6-1, 235): A good-looking athlete who was a better prospect coming out of Memphis than Chris Marve. But he’s struggled with injuries and has been unable to crack a lackluster lineup. He could leap up the charts or disappear.
19. Jahmel McIntosh, Fr, S/CB (6-1, 200): Like Karl Butler last year, he’s athletic enough to play corner but big and strong enough to likely land at safety or warrant a future move to linebacker. If the receiving corps goes belly up, he could get a look there too this season.
20. Jimmy Stewart, Fr, OLB (6-3, 210): Franklin loves this kid, whom he stole from Maryland; he’s awfully light to play end right now and will get a shot in the preseason at outside backer.
21. Jacquese Kirk, Fr, CB/WR (6-0, 160): With his slight stature and with our gaping holes at receiver, he’ll probably wind up on offense. But there’s no doubt he could play corner if needed – don’t forget that Eddie Foster weighed 160 as a freshman starter.
22. Andrew Williamson, Fr, S (6-1, 195): Not as vaunted as the other recruits, but a big tough kid who may redshirt but could also surprise some people and eventually wind up at linebacker.
23. Blake Gowder, R-Fr (6-2, 225): An all-purpose athlete with fine ball skills, Gowder’s moving from H-back to backer. This may not be his last position change.
24. Al Owens, R-Jr, OLB (6-2, 215): Played in one game last season, while a host of true freshmen saw the field. The move to linebacker is his last chance to play, and his odds are long.
25. Andrew East, R-Fr, MLB (6-1, 225): Recruited as a longsnapper, East has never been expected to carry the team as a defensive player.
These are just our preseason rankings. It’ll be interesting as the season progresses to see who rises and who drops.