Defense has not been the most pressing problem for Vanderbilt in 2014. Of course, that doesn't mean it has been a strength, either. We'll dive further into the numbers on Friday, but the Commodores currently rank 88th in Def. F/+ thanks to some atrocious drive-finishing ability, and on a play-for-play basis, they're average at best: 46th in Rushing S&P+, 69th in Passing S&P+, 52nd in Standard Downs S&P+, 58th in Passing Downs S&P+.
Relatively speaking, VU is better against the run than anything else and will test Mizzou's ability to establish its ground game to any impressive degree. But the bottom line is this: If Mizzou doesn't move the ball well against Vanderbilt, Mizzou won't move the ball well the rest of the season.
Adam Butler (6'5, 305, So.) (15.0 tackles, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 FR)
Barron Dixon (6'4, 290, Sr.) (10.0 tackles, 1 TFL)
Vince Taylor (6'2, 312, Sr.) (18.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU, 2 FR)
Nifae Lealao (6'5, 314, Fr.) (3.5 tackles, 1 FR)
Jay Woods (6'3, 288, RSFr.) (16.0 tackles, 1 TFL)
Torey Agee (6'3, 295, So.) (2.0 tackles)
Look at the first and second string on the defense, and you spot part of the problem. The D isn't as young as Vandy's skill position players, but there's too much youth here to expect any level of consistency. There are seven redshirt freshmen, five sophomores, and three true freshmen on the two-deep, and there are two more freshmen (one true, one redshirt) on the listed portion of the third string. There are two senior starters, and considering the natural issues inherent in moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4, there's no reason to think too hard here. Vandy is just too young to succeed. Head coach Derek Mason has a strong defensive pedigree, and I expect him to figure things out a bit on this side of the ball (the other side of the ball, on the other hand...). But this defense is just too young.
There are some play-makers, though. Adam Butler is a big boy who can line up on the outside of the three-man line and do some damage. He's broken up a couple of passes, and he's proven solid against the run. He's just about the only play-maker, however, and never mind big plays -- the line needs to make more plays, period. A 3-4 line isn't tasked with too much more than occupying blockers for the linebackers, but the leading tackler up front is Vince Taylor ... and he's the ninth leading tackler on the team.
This line has the requisite size, but it still has some growing to do in other ways.
Kyle Woestmann (6'3, 250, Sr.) (13.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 FF, 1 QB hurry -- 6 games)
Jonathan Wynn (6'5, 244, RSFr.) (8.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack)
Landon Stokes (6'4, 235, RSFr.) (1.5 tackles)
Darreon Herring (6'1, 232, Jr.) (23.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 QB hurry)
Zach Cunningham (6'4, 230, RSFr.) (19.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 FF -- 6 games)
Nigel Bowden (6'1, 245, RSFr.) (40.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU, 2 QB hurries)
Ja'karri Thomas (6'1, 230, So.) (6.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 PBU)
Jake Sealand (6'2, 232, Jr.) (8.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 FR)
Caleb Azubike (6'4, 255, Jr.) (22.5 tackles, 6 TFL, 4 sacks, 1 QB hurry -- 6 games)
Stephen Weatherly (6'5, 255, So.) (19.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 FF)
Jimmy Stewart (6'4, 240, Jr.) (1.0 tackles)
Vandy ranks just 101st in overall Havoc Rate (TFLs, forced fumbles, and passes defensed per play), 109th in the front seven. Mason's former team (Stanford), meanwhile, ranks 43rd, 27th in the front seven and fifth at linebacker. A 3-4 doesn't have to have a ferocious front seven to succeed, but Vandy obviously needs a few more pieces. Former star recruit Caleb Azubike is a keeper, but while hee has four sacks, the rest of the listed linebackers have just three.
The Commodores are containing the run reasonably well, but they haven't really proven they can gouge an offensive line like, say, Indiana's 3-4 front did.
Then again ... Indiana hadn't proven that either before it played Missouri ... or since...
Taurean Ferguson (5'9, 185, RSFr.) (8.0 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
Tre Herndon (6'1, 172, Fr.) (5.0 tackles)
Jahmel McIntosh (6'1, 205, Jr.) (23.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 QB hurry)
Oren Burks (6'3, 212, RSFr.) (13.0 tackles, 4 PBU, 1 FR -- 3 games)
Tre Tarpley (6'0, 195, Fr.) (14.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 FF)
Andrew Williamson (6'1, 208, Jr.) (25.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 QB hurry)
Emmanuel Smith (6'2, 205, Fr.) (1.5 tackles)
Torren McGaster (6'0, 192, So.) (31.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 4 PBU, 1 FF)
Tre Bell (5'11, 174, RSFr.) (14.0 tackles, 2 PBU)
Ryan White (5'9, 188, RSFr.) (26.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 FF, 1 QB hurry)
If Vandy's linebacking corps lives up to full potential, maybe the Commodores can eke out a strong pass defense. It was a relative strength for a number of years, but a lot of the reasons -- last year's four senior starters -- are gone. Kenny Ladler was a hawk in every sense of the word (five forced fumbles, nine passes defensed), and Andre Hal was one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the country for two years. In all, last year's starters combined for 13 tackles for loss, 10 interceptions, 27 break-ups, and Ladler's five forced fumbles. That's outstanding.
Last year's staff was smart enough to give the backups playing time while redshirting five relatively exciting true freshmen; that was certainly a nice parting gift for the new staff. ... [I]f two or three of the incoming freshmen and redshirt freshmen are ready for action, the secondary might not be a lost cause.
Still, it is going to be infinitely younger than last year's unit, and with youth come breakdowns. Expect inconsistency, even if there's upside.
Considering the turnover, and considering the lack of a steady pass rush, I would say Vandy's secondary has done alright. Pass defense is still a relative weakness, but the DBs seem to be holding up to extra strain, and it is producing a couple of certifiable play-makers in sophomore corner Torren McGaster and, when healthy, redshirt freshman Oren Burks. Against last year's Mizzou receiving corps, I would expect VU to get gashed pretty well; against this year's Mizzou receiving corps, however, it could hold its own.
One could say the same about the entire offense-vs-defense matchup. Vanderbilt ranks 88th in Def. F/+, which means that it should get torched by a good offense. But ... Mizzou ranks 98th in Off. F/+. The world we currently inhabit is one in which Missouri's got one of the 30 or so worst offenses in the country. It's been one of the 20 worst over the last three games. The Tigers should be able to move the ball enough to win considering the advantages MIzzou holds on defense and in special teams, but while Vandy's defense has plenty of issues, Mizzou might not be able to exploit nearly all of them.
Tommy Openshaw (6'2, 185, RSFr.) (10-10 PAT, 5-5 FG under 40, 1-3 FG over 40) (8 kickoffs, 5 touchbacks)
Hayden Lekacz (6'1, 175, Fr.) (1-1 PAT, 0-1 FG over 40; 18 kickoffs, 5 touchbacks)
Colby Cooke (6'3, 220, So.) (42 punts, 43.0 average, 8 fair catches, 14 inside 20)
Darrius Sims (5'9, 182, So.) (14 KR, 30.8 average, 2 TD)
Dallas Rivers (6'1, 225, Fr.) (7 KR, 14.0 average)
Trey Ellis (5'9, 165, Fr.) (4 PR, 7.5 average)
Darrius Sims (5'9, 182, So.) (5 PR, 5.2 average)
C.J. Duncan (5'11, 195, RSFr.)
Special teams is really the least of Vandy's worries. After last week's ridiculous performance, Mizzou now has the No. 7 special teams unit in the country, but Vandy comes in at 29th. Colby Cooke is an excellent punter, and the return game is more than solid. Mizzou had Andrew Baggett kicking high and short against Florida's Andre Debose last week, but I'd just as soon they have him boot out of the back of the end zone against Darrius Sims.
Still, until proven otherwise, I'll take Mizzou's special teams over just about anybody's. (And really, special teams is such a small-sample thing that you're "proven otherwise" pretty constantly. But still.)