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Missouri’s run game will be as important as ever against the Vanderbilt defense

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Vanderbilt v Auburn Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

In terms of overall numbers, Vanderbilt’s defense has disappointed a bit in 2016. Derek Mason’s Commodores ranked 20th in Def. S&P+ last fall and have trickled down to 49th in 2016.

Really, though, that’s because of only a couple of games. Georgia Tech’s option destroyed the Dores in Week 3, posting 511 yards (8.1 per play) and 38 points. Then, in an easy win against Tennessee State two weeks ago, Vandy gave up 7.7 yards per play — that was skewed by a 93-yard touchdown pass on TSU’s second play, but the Tigers still averaged 6.2 per play thereafter.

Those were bad games, but Tech obviously doesn’t apply unless Mizzou breaks out a spreadbone package. And outside of these two strange outliers, VU’s defense has at least been good, even if it hasn’t been as good as last year’s unit.

Defensive line

DL

  • Jonathan Wynn (6’4, 258, Jr.) — 15.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 PBU
  • Dare Odeyingbo (6’2, 262, So.) — 12.0 tackles, 4 TFL (1 sack), 1 PBU

DL

  • Adam Butler (6’4, 295, Sr.) — 13.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL (2 sacks), 1 PBU
  • Torey Agee (6’4, 285, Sr.) — 5.0 tackles

DL

  • Nifae Lealao (6’5, 312, Jr.) — 11.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL (1.5 sacks), 2 PBU
  • Jay Woods (6’3, 285, Jr.)
  • Nehemiah Mitchell (6’4, 260, Sr.)

Run defense has been a weakness, and that goes beyond what Georgia Tech did. The Commodores are 81st in rushing success rate allowed and 103rd in opportunity rate allowed. They slice into the backfield, though: They’re 23rd in stuff rate. A lot of that is the doing of VU’s incredible linebacker Zach Cunningham, but there’s at least a little bit of activity up front with guys like Adam Butler and Dare Odeyingbo.

As you see here, VU’s played about four guys up front for most of the year. In theory, that could be a plus for Missouri if the Tigers are able to generate some efficiency. Mizzou’s obscene tempo only helps when they’re actually moving the ball, but if they do, the benefits could be heavy. VU’s only played one team with any semblance of tempo (MTSU).

Florida v Vanderbilt
Adam Butler & Zach Cunningham
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Linebackers

OLB

  • Landon Stokes (6’4, 240, Jr.) — 8.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL (0.5 sacks), 1 PBU
  • Charles Wright (6’3, 237, So.) — 7.0 tackles, 3 TFL

ILB

  • Zach Cunningham (6’4, 230, Jr.) — 70.5 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FF
  • Jordan Griffin (6’1, 224, So.) — 8.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL

ILB

  • Ja’karri Thomas (6’1, 225, Sr.) — 38.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL
  • Emmanuel Smith (6’2, 219, Jr.) — 5.0 tackles, 1 PBU

OLB

  • Oren Burks (6’3, 222, Jr.) — 25.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL (3 sacks), 1 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF
  • Josh Smith (6’3, 236, So.)
  • Caleb Peart (6’1, 234, RSFr.) — 4.0 tackles

Cunningham is absurd. Truly absurd. He made a wonderful, game-winning stop of Georgia’s Sony Michel on fourth-and-short back on October 15, and last week he leaped over the line to block an Auburn field goal and give the Dores one last chance at an upset. He might be the best linebacker in the country.

He’s got help. Oren Burks is versatile, and Ja’karri Thomas is a nice complement on the interior.

(One other note: Nigel Bowden is listed as questionable, as he’s been for a while. He was a key player early on but hasn’t played since the Georgia Tech game. Knowing how secretive Derek Mason otherwise is, there’s a chance that Bowden’s just permanently listed as questionable. Whatever.)

Florida v Vanderbilt
Nifae Lealao & Ja’karri Thomas
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Secondary

CB

  • Tre Herndon (6’1, 188, Jr.) — 23.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FR
  • Taurean Ferguson (5’9, 198, So.) — 28.0 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 6 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR

SS

  • Ryan White (5’10, 188, Jr.) — 48.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 5 PBU, 2 FF
  • Andrew Rector (6’0, 198, So.)

FS

  • LaDarius Wiley (6’1, 205, So.) — 45.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL (1 sack), 2 PBU, 2 FF, 1 FR
  • Arnold Tarpley (6’1, 200, Jr.) — 15.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FF

CB

  • Torren McGaster (6’0, 198, Sr.) — 38.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 6 PBU
  • Bryce Lewis (6’0, 185, So.) — 6.5 tackles
  • Joejuan Williams (6’3, 202, Fr.) — 6.5 tackles, 1 PBU

The pass rush doesn’t exist. The Dores are 122nd in Adj. Sack Rate. Burks has three sacks, and Adam Butler has two ... and they’re the leaders. But when the lack of a pass rush doesn’t backfire too badly, the secondary does its job. Opponents have just a 109.4 passer rating on third downs despite few sacks.

So ... are we sure Torren McGaster should still be in Nashville? Kinda seems like he’s been there since about 2004. He’s the anchor of a great trio of corners — he, Tre Herndon, and Taurean Ferguson have combined for 5.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, and 17 breakups. Mizzou will have to run the ball well to score; if the third-and-8s are heavy, Mizzou receivers won’t beat Vandy DBs enough.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Georgia Tech
Torren McGaster
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

K

  • Tommy Openshaw (6’2, 195, Jr.) — 21-21 PAT, 8-8 FG under 40, 3-6 FG over 40; 32 kickoffs, 9 touchbacks

P

  • Sam Loy (6’1, 195, Fr.) — 47 punts, 43.4 average, 12 fair caught, 17 inside 20, 1.8 yards per PR allowed

KR

  • Darrius Sims (5’9, 191, Sr.) — 15 KR, 32.1 average (long: 95)
  • C.J. Duncan (5’11, 203, Jr.) — 3 KR, 7.7 average (long: 10)

PR

  • Kalija Lipscomb (6’1, 190, Fr.) — 8 PR, 7.8 average (long: 17)
  • Ryan White (5’10, 188, Jr.) — 5 PR, -2.0 average (long: 4)

Vandy’s mostly solid in special teams. A Darrius Sims kick return set up an early score against Georgia (without which the late Cunningham stop wouldn’t have mattered); touchbacks from Tucker McCann will be important. Meanwhile, Tommy Openshaw is a very good place-kicker, and Kalija Lipscomb’s punt returns are solid.

Kickoffs, however, are a bit of a weakness. Openshaw’s kicks don’t usually reach the end zone, and opponents average a decent-not-great 20.8 yards per KR.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Georgia
Darrius Sims
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports