Garnham becomes Vanderbilt football's man in the middle

Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 6:45pm

Over the last four years, middle linebacker was a sure thing for Vanderbilt.

From his spot at the heart of the defense, Chris Marve racked up stop after stop on his way to 397 career tackles and three All-SEC selections. He was a security blanket for the defense.

Chase Garnham, however, never took Marve’s services for granted. He knew his teammate’s career would end eventually.

So he paid attention.

“I picked his brain for two years,” Garnham said after practice on Thursday. “… It is going to take a lot of guys to fill his shoes with his leadership role. But as the [middle] linebacker it is my job to get the defense lined up and lead them and take the reins and control the group. I look forward to taking on the opportunity.”

Midway through spring practices, Garnham is adjusting to his new role and hopes to rival the sense of certainty Marve brought.

The junior spent his first two seasons at outside linebacker. In 2009, he played more on special teams before he broke through as a starter last year. He made eight starts but was sidelined late in the season due to a groin injury. Still, he finished sixth on the team with 51 tackles, collected two sacks and forced a fumble.

With Tristan Strong sitting out spring drills due to a leg injury, only Garnham and Archibald Barnes, among the linebackers, have starting experience. So head coach James Franklin and linebackers coach Brent Pry decided to move Garnham, a 6-foot-3, 234-pounder with 4.6 speed in the 40-yard dash, inside.

“He is a much better athlete than I think people realize,” Franklin said. “I want him to take on that mentality of that position. To me, the safeties and that [middle] linebacker are the quarterback of the defense. I would like him to be — within his own personality — more animated, be more vocal, show more leadership when we are running sprints at the end of practice. He should be out in front.”

So far, Garnham is slowly picking up the new position.

Moving inside, Pry says, provides different views of the line of scrimmage at a different angle. This causes a different approach, especially against the run.

“That has been an adjustment a little bit, slowed him down for a little bit,” Pry said. “I think the first five practices he was feeling his way, trying to figure that part of it out. The last two days he has really gotten back to where he is playing faster and a little cleaner. The second part of it is, at [middle linebacker], you have to make all of the defensive calls. You are the quarterback of the defense.”

All the new responsibility is admittedly a challenge for the soft-spoken Garnham, a native of Fairhope, Ala.

“You have to be a little more vocal, which is something I’m not really used to with Chris making all the calls last year,” Garnham said. “I feel like I’m adjusting well.”

But he’s not taking anything for granted. Nor is he trying to be the next Chris Marve — not yet at least.

“We’re not asking the exact same things of Chase right now but we hope to by next fall,” Pry said. “It is hard to compare anybody to Chris. He was such a unique guy. Chase has his own really, really good linebacker traits and characteristics that he brings to the position. He can be as good or better.”