At times last year, Vanderbilt defensive linemen felt they were a step behind their opponents.
Maybe they were.
“I think the scheme was a little to our disadvantage just in the fact that when you are doing more of a read defensive line you tend to be one step behind,” defensive tackle Rob Lohr said. “You are waiting for the [offensive lineman] to make the move and you are going to play off that. So it does it make it more difficult.”
This season, the Commodores don’t plan on waiting. They’ll be making the first move.
With the arrival of new defensive line coach Sean Spencer comes a new aggressive “get off” scheme, which Vanderbilt intends to unleash on at 6:35 p.m. Saturday in its season opener against Elon.
“Now we are more of an attack defense so we get to deliver the first punch,” Lohr said.
Spencer, who spent the last two years at Bowling Green, called the Commodores’ old read defensive front a sound scheme. But with just two linemen over 290 pounds, he felt the unit wasn’t big enough to succeed in that style. So he installed a “get off” scheme that allows them to penetrate into the backfield quicker – a system he believes mirrors Virginia Tech, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts.
“They play every down like it is third-and-15,” Spencer said. “I want my guys flying off the football. I think if we can do that, we can create some havoc and chaos in the backfield, which will certainly make your chances of sacks go up higher.”
The Commodores struggled to hit the quarterback last year. They recorded just 20 sacks, which was the lowest in the Southeastern Conference. They also allowed a league-worst 193 rushing yards.
“They would just run the ball on us a lot so we didn’t do very well against the run. We weren’t getting enough pressure on the quarterback. I wouldn’t give us that good of a grade,” Lohr said. “We need to improve and I think that we have. I think this season will show how improved we are, how deeper we are.”
Of course, with that mentality, offsides penalties can become an issue if the defensive line is not careful – or patient enough.
Spencer, however, said if his linemen jump offsides more than a couple times in practices they have to “pay the piper.”
Translation: hitting the blocking sled or worse.
“It depends on how many cups of coffee I had that day,” Spencer, who is known by his players as 'Coach Chaos,' said. “If I had five that day they know they are in trouble. ... [Jumping offsides] once in a while, that is going to happen. When it becomes additional [penalties], that is on me because I allowed that to happen in practice.”
The current defensive front could be the Commodores’ deepest and strongest in recent memory.
Lohr returns after starting every game in 2010 and setting a career-high in tackles with 26. He also led the team with four sacks and eight tackles for loss. Joining him on the inside is upstart tackle Colt Nichter. The junior made five straight starts last year and had 17 tackles and three sacks.
An impressive spring and even better fall preseason camp propelled him ahead of former captain and starter T.J. Greenstone on the depth chart. Greenstone was hampered by an injury this summer. Plus, Spencer said it took the senior longer to adjust to a new defensive system.
“All those guys are going to play,” Spencer said. “If you look at the reps at the end of the game and it will probably be pretty much even because I am going to play and rotate a lot of guys. It is nothing that T.J. didn’t do. It is all about Colt taking the opportunity and T.J. wasn’t at a 100 percent. ... I think now when you go out and watch practice I think T.J. and Colt are neck-to-neck.”
At one of the starting defensive end positions will be senior Tim Fugger, who led the team with four forced fumbles. On the other side is redshirt junior Johnell Thomas, who played in every game last year. He’ll compete with redshirt-freshman Kyle Woestmann and sophomore Walker May, who just began practicing this week after he sat out most of camp with an undisclosed injury.
Spencer is also playing, or coaching, hurt. He tore one of his pectorals muscles when competing in a weightlifting contest against graduate assistant Derham Cato. He had surgery last week and has worn a sling around his left arm. since But he said he will be on the sidelines on Saturday.
“I am now officially retired from heavy bench press,” Spencer said laughing. “I am going to stick to the P90X stuff.”
“He is super intense,” Nichter said.
That intensity, though, could spell success for the Commodores if they can continue to adjust to the up-tempo scheme of their aggressive position coach.
“He has brought in a new mentality for us,” Lohr said. “Our main thing is we are the wild dogs, just an aggressive bunch. ... I think you’ll see a definite improvement this season.”