Filled with youth, depleted by injuries and absences, Vanderbilt’s defensive line entered spring practices as a question mark.
On Saturday, the defensive front provided some answers — not to mention tackles and sacks. In the first scrimmage of the spring, the front four threw its collective weight around and challenged an experienced offensive line.
Defensive end Kyle Woestmann says just wait until the fall.
“When we have everybody healthy that is when we are going to be the deadliest,” Woestmann said. “[Defensive line coach Sean Spencer] is going to be throwing guys in there and it is just going to be one wild dog after another chasing after the quarterback.”
Senior defensive end Walker May and junior defensive tackle Barron Dixon are out with injuries. Plus, the most experienced defensive tackle, senior Jared Morse, is not in school currently after violating team rules.
That didn’t slow the defensive front from controlling the line of scrimmage on Saturday. Woestmann, a fourth-year junior, led the unit with three tackles and a sack. Sophomore Darien Bryant added a sack and deflected a pass and redshirt-freshman Stephen Weatherly had a sack.
The defense made a goal-line stand after the offense moved inside the 5-yard line on its second series. Running backs Jerron Seymour and Wesley Tate both were stuffed twice, with defensive tackle Vince Taylor helping safety Kenny Ladler make a fourth-down stop at the 1-yard line.
“We’re getting there,” Woestmann said. “Our biggest thing this spring has been finding our identity and [defensive coordinator Bob] Shoop has really been preaching about that, harping on it. We’re really starting to come together as a unit.”
Defensive tackle remains the biggest unknown defensively with three redshirt-freshmen and a sophomore in the fold.
The absence of Morse and Dixon leaves 6-foot-2, 305-pound Taylor, a fourth-year junior, as the elder statesman. The coaches also moved another big body, 6-4, 298-pound redshirt-freshman Adam Butler, over from the offensive line to address depth concerns.
“I think Adam Butler has a chance to really do some nice things for us,” coach James Franklin said. “He is really excited about being over there. He has really good athleticism. He’s got SEC size. Darien Bryant is starting to grow up. Weatherly is starting to grow up. We’re getting some more playmaking ability there and we don’t have Barron Dixon right now. You don’t have Walker May right now.
“We get them all back and I’m excited about our future. I think we got a chance on the defensive side of the ball to be really good.”
Last year, the defensive line used depth to help bolster one of Vanderbilt’s better defenses in recent memory. The Commodores allowed just 18.7 points a game for the third-lowest average since 1974. Up front, Vanderbilt recorded 97 tackles for loss for the second-most in the Southeastern Conference and 12th most in the country.
Vanderbilt lost three starters on the defensive line — tackles Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter and end Johnell Thomas. But Woestmann, Bryant, Caleb Azibuke and Jimmy Stewart all played significant snaps as Shoop rotated five defensive ends.
Already this spring, similar depth has been evident. The Commodores hope that experience, ableit not game experience, will pay dividends come August.
“The depth has been a huge thing,” Woestmann said. “Guys behind us are starting to develop into big playmakers. That is what helps us turn into a top SEC team. The first guy goes out. Well the second guy comes in and he is just as good if not better. Once you get that type of rotation going in our D-line we’re going to go out and start tearing people up.”