Middle linebacker Chris Marve is arguably one of Vanderbilt’s most valuable weapons on defense.
His three years of experience and 306 tackles, along with his 6-foot, 242-pound build and athleticism undoubtedly anchors the linebacker corps.
The question is does Marve’s presence alone make the linebackers a strength?
“It is still yet to be determined,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said after Monday night’s practice. “I’m very pleased with how Chris is practicing right now. ... That is still a position of concern.”
Outside linebackers Archibald Barnes, Chase Garnham and Tristan Strong hope to turn that concern into an advantage for the Commodores. Besides Marve, the trio returns the most – albeit limited – experience as each played in all 12 games last year. But after just three fall practices, even Barnes and Garnham are hesitant to say they have earned a start for the season opener against Elon on Sept. 3.
“I definitely don’t think we have done enough yet,” Barnes said. “We are definitely working hard. Everybody says we are a young linebacker corps. We have Chris Marve to lead us. We have [linebackers coach Brent] Pry – great guy. I love him as a coach. Everybody is out there, we are working our butt off for him. We are competing every day. We hold each other accountable.”
Barnes, a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder from Tampa, made just one start last year but improved in the spring. After three fall practices, the redshirt-junior also continues to impress – especially with his strength.
“I think Archie has improved physically as much as anybody on our team,” Franklin said. “I think [strength] coach [Dwight] Galt has done a really good job. You can see his body has changed. He is stronger. He is more explosive. He is moving much better. So I think he is going to help us and have a bigger role.”
Garnham, a native of Fairhope, Ala., could add strength on the other side of Marve. He was thrown into the fire as the only true freshman linebacker in 2010. His experience benefitted him in the spring, when the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder impressed the new coaching staff. He also led all players with eight tackles in the spring game.
Strong could give Garnham and Barnes a battle. He made just three tackles as a reserve in 12 games last year. But the redshirt-junior is fully healthy for the first time in a year. He was still finishing rehabilitation last August after he underwent knee surgery for injury that occurred midway through the 2009 season.
Redshirt junior DeAndre Jones will be in the mix as well. He played in seven games last year but had more tackles (13) than Garnham, Barnes and Strong. In addition, redshirt junior Al Owens switched from safety to linebacker in the spring.
“Obviously people aren’t very experienced at the position but I think everybody is working hard and has a lot of potential,” Garnham said. “I don’t think it will be a weak spot at all.”
It might have been a weakness at times last year – even when Marve and then-seniors John Stokes and Nate Campbell were all healthy at the same time.
Franklin said the new staff put an emphasis – at all positions – on trimming down players and getting them leaner. As a result, he hopes they’ll become quicker.
“Speed is definitely a thing,” Barnes said. “We want to keep up with those running backs. If they run a route, we can keep up with them.”
The Commodores allowed 193 rushing yards a game, which ranked last in the Southeastern Conference. They also gave up 25 rushing touchdowns. Not all the blame can go to the linebackers but “a lack of discipline” – as Garnham put it – put them in tough positions to make tackles.
“I would put a little bit of it on us,” Barnes said. “You can’t blame everything on the coaches. We just have to work hard. We have to get a good rotation. We got to get in better shape. I think that was a big factor last year – being in good shape. We’re definitely conditioning every day now; just working hard just to be stronger, bigger and defeating the tight ends.”
• Running back Warren Norman is one of 50 candidates to the watch list for the Paul Hornung Award. The award is given annually to the country’s most versatile college football player.
Norman, a junior from Stone Mountain, Ga., has led the Commodores in rushing the last two seasons. He also returns kickoffs and set the SEC freshman record for all-purpose yards (1,941) in 2009.
• Josh Jelesky didn’t look rusty. Actually, he didn’t appear to be just three days into a new position.
But that is exactly what the 6-foot-5, 265 pounder is doing. The redshirt junior spent the last two seasons on the defensive line. But Franklin decided this summer he needed to add more depth to the offensive line.
So Jelesky switched to the other side. He is penciled in as a guard on a line that returns all five starters. But on Monday he was also snapping the ball during blocking drills as Logan Stewart sat out due to an injury.
“He hasn’t played offense much but I think that is going to give him an opportunity to maybe lengthen his career and have a chance to make a bigger impact,” Franklin said. “He is really what you are looking for in an offensive lineman. He has good height and length. ... We have a lot more depth on the defensive line than we do at the offensive line. I can take a guy that is maybe third or second and will be rotated in [on defense] and now he has a chance to compete for a starting job.”