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October 25, 2013

Like A&M, Vanderbilt having defensive struggles

Vanderbilt's defense has had significant issues this season outside of wins over FBS teams Massachusetts and Austin Peay. That's actually something of a surprise because the Commodores ranked in the top 25 nationally in total defense last season and seemed to be poised to take the next step as unit in 2013. However, injuries and subpar play have impacted the unit to the extent that they haven't lived up to their billing until last week's win over Georgia. In that game, Vanderbilt held Georgia to a second half field goal, just 107 yards rushing, and Heisman Trophy candidate Aaron Murray to a long pass of just 17 yards.

The Commodores play a 4-3 defense and they will go to 4-2 look against spread teams like A&M. They will mix their coverages but they were more aggressive last week in rolling their cornerbacks up in coverage along with a safety into the box with a safety, something that they did a lot of in previous years but not so much this season. They play a lot of cover two and because they are experienced they don't give up a lot of plays down the field (just 14 passes over 20 yards all season). However, they have dropped a lot of interceptions this season.

Their defensive line is somewhat like Auburn's as Vanderbilt will rotate nine or ten people up front in an effort to keep them fresh. They offer size up front as they can rotate four tackles in excess of 300 pounds. Vince Taylor is a 310 pound nosetackle who's used primarily to take double teams and free up linebackers and other linemen even though he has the quickness to play the three technique. Backups Adam Butler (6 foot 4, 305 pounds) and Barron Dixon (6 foot 4, 308 pounds) actually have more tackles than the starters. Butler is physical and knows how to use his hands since he is a former offensive lineman.

Defensive end is a different story. Backup defensive end Caleb Azubuke ( 6 foot 4, 268 pounds) has 7.5 tackles for loss because he has great get off and pad level. He usually winds up with multiple blockers trying to handle him due to his initial surge. Walker May (3.5 tackles for loss) is a veteran starter who has not been as productive as he has been in the past. Kyle Woestmann (3.5 tackles for loss) is a junior who's come on as a pass rusher and uses his hands well. Stephen Weatherly (6 foot 5, 252 pounds) is a wideout turned pass rusher but he's raw and needs work. Vanderbilt likes to put all four of their ends on the field (with May and Woestman on the inside) at the same time is passing situations and turn them loose.

Linebacker has been the weak spot in the defense due to the loss of senior Mike linebacker Chase Garnham. Karl Butler, a senior outside linebacker who was converted from safety, has also been injured but returned in time for the Georgia game. Since you're likely to see a 4-2-5 on Saturday, the probable starters are sophomores Jake Sealand at Mike and Darreon Herring at Will. Herring has 48 tackles, an interception, and eight passes broken up. He's got good height at 6 feet 2 inches, has a great first step as a blitzer, moves really well laterally in coverage, can jump routes, and is a sure tackler. Sealand has struggled all season in replacing Garnham in terms of not knowing where he needs to be but missed fewer assignments versus Georgia and was in on more plays.

The secondary is the strength of the Commodores as they start four seniors. Cornerback Andre Hal (nine pass breakups) is Vanderbilt's best cover guy and can play just about any style you want. He's physical enough to play press man and yet has great recovery and timing. Because of his size and skill set, don't be surprised if Vanderbilt plays him straight up against Mike Evans. Normally that would not be something that you would want to do but they have great confidence in his skills.

Freshman Paris Head is the nickel back and they will play him outside while the other starting corner, Steven Clarke, plays against slots. Safeties Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall are almost interchangeable. Both have good size and depending on the coverage you will either one of them in the box versus the run. Clarke can move inside and blitz off the edge and Marshall is more to man up receivers when they do blitz.

Overall, Vanderbilt has been vulnerable to the run because of their cover two alignment and the below average play of their linebackers and certain defensive linemen. However, Vanderbilt is getting healthy at linebacker and this is the best secondary that A&M will face since Alabama and they do have a group of defensive ends that can get pressure on the quarterback. The Aggies should be able to run the ball and the big question from a schematic standpoint will be can A&M get the ball down the field in the passing game, especially if the Commodores man up Mike Evans most of the game like Auburn did. Also, the Aggies' offensive line kept facing fresh Auburn pass rushers in the fourth quarter and will likely face the same challenges this week. However, for the most part the line held up well until the last drive and may have to do the same thing this week.

Of course, the big question from a personnel standpoint is whether or A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel will play. Manziel wants to play and if he can throw in practice today, then he will probably get the start. If not, things become more problematic in terms of the passing game and the Aggies will need to run the ball and set up play action to help their backups succeed. That was Missouri's road to success and Missouri is a spread team like A&M. Regardless of whether Manziel plays or not, the burden will have to be shifted to other players and it will be interesting to see how the Aggies deal with this dilemma.

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