Last fall, Andre Hal was tossed into the Southeastern Conference fire and, at times, he was burned.
Fortunately, he wasn’t alone and Vanderbilt hopes that learn-on-the-job experience proves to be beneficial when the 2011 football season rolls around.
Hal was one of five true freshmen who played in the Commodores’ secondary in 2010. In fact, youth was apparent across the board for a team that played a total of 13 true freshmen and had 30 players see their first collegiate action.
“Coming from high school going to college, especially in the SEC, you know you have to be able to focus and play fast,” Hal said after intercepting a pass in Saturday’s spring scrimmage. “I wasn’t playing fast for the first time in my life, my first couple games.”
With injuries to safety Jay Fullam and defensive back Jamie Graham — who are both transferring — Hal and fellow rookies Kenny Ladler, Steven Clarke, Karl Butler and Andre Simmons played earlier than expected.
All five are back this spring, adjusting to a new coaching staff and continuing to learn as practices conclude this week, culminating with the Black & Gold Spring Game at 6 p.m. on Sunday at Vanderbilt Stadium.
While Clarke, Butler and Simmons were used in reserve roles during the season, Hal and Ladler earned their first career starts. Hal, a 5-foot-11, 178-pound defensive back from Port Allen, La., started in two November games for the Commodores while Ladler moved into a continuous role at safety when Fullam went out with a shoulder injury.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Ladler started nine games and finished fifth on the team in both total tackles (57) and solo stops (41). He also had 5.5 tackles for a loss, recorded his first career interception and forced a fumble.
“That was a real good experience for me,” Ladler, a native of Stone Mountain, Ga., said. “Last year, every game I felt like I got a better concept of how the game goes and how to move around out there.”
With the influx of youth, Vanderbilt ranked seventh in passing defense in the SEC, allowing 226.2 passing yards per game. To put things in perspective, SEC and national champion Auburn gave up a league-worst 259.3 passing yards. However, the Commodores did allow three 300-yard passing games, including a 417-yard performance Arkansas and quarterback Ryan Mallett in a 49-14 Razorbacks win.
The secondary was also part of a defense that couldn’t stop the run (193 yards per game) and didn’t force enough turnovers (15) — both categories in which Vanderbilt ranked last in the league, along with total defense (419.2 yards per game).
“It is nothing we can’t improve on this year,” Ladler said. “Everybody has more experience. Everybody in the secondary played last year. We expect big, big things out of our group.”
As does first-year head coach James Franklin. With 12 returning lettermen and six who earned starts, Franklin looks at the secondary as a strength. Along with all the rising sophomores — Vanderbilt will have seven in the fall, including two redshirts — there is experience, too.
Cornerback Casey Hayward returns after a junior season in which he led the SEC and was third in the country in passes defended with 17. His six interceptions were a career most and were second in the league last year. He also had 70 tackles and 59 solo stops, which was behind only cornerback Sean Richardson. The 6-foot-2, 218-pound Richardson led the team with 67 solo tackle and 98 total stops.
Also back is junior cornerback Eddie Foster, who had 53 total tackles (six for loss) and a forced fumble in 11 starts. And Eric Samuels returns to the secondary after a sophomore campaign in which he played mainly at cornerback but also filled in for an injury-depleted backfield with 10 carries for 43 yards.
“I have been pleased with our DBs in general,” Franklin said on Saturday. “That is one of the groups when I got here ... you look at the body types, you look at the movement, you look at the athleticism, you look at the guys who have played and had some success. That is one of our better groups in terms of depth. We have to still improve in every area but I feel really good about that group as a whole.”