This post continues the march towards the season opener. Here, let's take a look at some of the themes to watch for when Vandy's defense takes the field.
--Vanderbilt ranked a very respectable 18th in the country in total defense last year, and the 'Dores were pretty good against both the run and the pass, although they were a bit better against the pass. The problem is that this year, Vandy has lost its four best defensive players, Tim Fugger, Chris Marve, Casey Hayward, and Sean Richardson. As you'll notice, too, those departures leave big holes at each level of the defense: Fugger was the team's top pass rusher, Marve was the leading overall tackler and was a bear against the run, and Hayward and Richardson were part of a tough, opportunistic Vandy secondary. Marve was also the proverbial QB of the defense, the guy who read the offense and made sure everyone knew their assignments. The 'Dores still have some defensive talent on the team, such as DT Rob Lohr, but they have a lot to replace, too.
--Although Lohr gives Vandy a nice cog and there's a general surfeit of talent at tackle, I expect the Vandy defense to be somewhat soft in the middle. This has been the case for Vandy for years. The program has had some pretty decent defensive backs over the years, but it's always had trouble finding the quality linebackers and tackles that oftentimes make the difference for an SEC defense. Vandy is in the process of upgrading at these positions, but it's not there yet. Linebacker, in particular, is a question mark. Depth figured to be an issue before Tristan Strong left the team, and it's even more of an issue now. This game will provide a nice opportunity for Connor Shaw and Marcus Lattimore to develop some chemistry in the zone-read, and in particular for Lattimore to get his feet back under him. It will be a nice challenge, but not a Georgia-sized challenge.
--I'm curious to see how good Vandy's pass defense is, particularly without Hayward, who really was a fine player for the 'Dores. Vandy had fantastic stats in pass defense last year, but how good were they really? The 'Dores didn't play many good passing teams, and the ones they did play tended to be able to move the ball through the air with some degree of effectiveness. Even Carolina had over 200 yards passing against Vandy with Stephen Garcia at the helm, although that included a long freak reception by Ace Sanders. This year's Gamecocks, though, should have a somewhat decent passing game as long as receiver play is decent. I'm thinking that we're going to be able to pass the ball on these guys.