Dog bones and deathly chants have become commonplace at Vanderbilt football practices.
From the 'Red Tails' to 'Black Death,' individual position groups and the Commodores' defense as a whole have worked to adopt colorful personalities under second-year coordinator Bob Shoop. Everyone involved knows, though, that they ultimately will be judged by numbers not names.
Two years ago Vanderbilt ranked 93rd in the Football Bowl Subdivision, giving up nearly 420 yards a game. Last year, the Commodores improved to 18th – albeit sixth in the Southeastern Conference – at an average of just 322.7 yards per game.
“We had modest success,” Shoop said. “Everybody is patting us on the back. But we came here to build a championship caliber defense. Our guys feel like we have unfinished business. Our guys are ready to take this thing to the next level.”
They’ve definitely embraced their new names.
Defensive line coach Sean Spencer refers to his linemen as wild dogs and even bought and painted a bone black and gold.
The safeties go by “Red Tails,” a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen.
Shoop, who turned down an offer to become Yale’s head coach last winter, dubbed the entire defense the Black Death when he arrived. And over preseason camp over the last two weeks, yells of “Black Death” echo through the practice field after an exceptional play by the defense.
“They seem to have accepted it as a rallying cry,” Shoop said. “We talk about that being our identity. The identity of our defense, forget the scheme or the Xs and Os, is that we want unrelenting pursuit on the ball and never-ending pressure. To us, that’s what the Black Death is all about. Regardless of our talent relative to our opponent, it’s about us playing defense, not defenses. It is about a mindset more than anything X and O or scheme wise.”
Spencer, whom his players call “Coach Chaos,” teaches his linemen to be as relentless as the African wild dog.
“They keep running forever and they never stop,” defensive end Walker May said. “They outrun their prey. Their prey runs and runs until it’s exhausted, until it literally can’t run anymore. Then they kill it. That’s what we do. We don’t stop.”
The Commodores were definitely more aggressive in 2011.
They ranked fourth in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 130.5 yards a game. They also pursued the quarterback better, with 27 sacks – up from an SEC-low 20 the year before.
“What you don’t want is all this ra-ra but no substance,” coach James Franklin said. “That stuff is great, but in the end, you better be focused and you better be ready to play. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with coming out and having fun and yelling, screaming and chanting together. It brings us together. That’s what we are trying to – we’re trying to create some identities.”