How veteran leadership will be key to Vanderbilt’s young defense

Vanderbilt takes on Middle Tennessee State at home on Saturday, September 1st. Photo by Brandon Jacome-Mendez.

A 35-7 rout of Middle Tennessee State. Five wins from a bowl game. The Commodores are off to a great start.

But what did the veteran leaders think about the first game?

“For me, it was exciting,” senior linebacker Josh Smith said in a Tuesday afternoon press conference.  “I love seeing guys step up and fill the role that we need to fill on defense. So seeing those guys on the field and making big plays in the time that we need them to make plays was great to see as an older veteran on the team to see young guys support you.”

In a defense that returns just five starters and features nine faces that saw little to no action last year, Saturday’s win was a statement that the youth can hold its own. The defense notched six quarterback sacks, with two of them coming from redshirt sophomore Kenny Hebert.  Dayo Odeyingbo threw his hat in the ring with a three-yard fumble return for a touchdown. For the veterans, there was nothing but praise for these youngsters’ success, and senior Charles Wright couldn’t help but take a little credit for the early accomplishments.

“I mean watching somebody grow up, it’s weird. I don’t want to say it’s like a father figure, because I’m not a father figure, but it’s weird,” said the veteran outside linebacker. “You teach them what you know, and you teach them how to go, and they watch you do what you do, and you watch them come in as freshmen. They don’t know what to do. Their head is spinning all the time and watch them go crazy. It’s a satisfying feeling.”

But the Commodores are still not satisfied. While the Middle Tennessee office put up just seven points, they also tallied 294 yards of total offense, and there is always room to grow.  

“Personally, I always think there is room for improvement,” said Smith. “Although we did get a great number of sacks, we left some out there. We’ll go back and watch some film and figure out how to get to those whether it be techniques, different blitzes, etc.”

MTSU often countered the pass rush with a screen pass, and there’s no question that this defense will have to mend this hole to limit chunk plays in the future. Under new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, their obsession with hunting down the ball will help close this gap.

“We always run to the ball,” said Wright. “Like Coach Tarver always says, all gas no breaks, run to ball no matter what it is, a screen play, downfield, he is just always on the guys upfront to get after the ball, that is our mentality.”

Vanderbilt’s next opponent features the high-powered offense of Nevada, who put up a whopping 72 points in Week One. Offensive numbers like that are sure to garner attention from onlookers, but to the Commodores, it is just another game.

“They are a high scoring offense, but we are a high power defense,” said Smith. “We will have to come to the game ready to play, at the end of the day, like every week.”

With the likes of Smith and Wright at the helm, this youthful defense can look to its veterans to improve on their impressive start to the season.

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