Vanderbilt’s “Wild Dogs” Ready to Bite
By Matt Smith
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Inspired by a unique dog bone which is placed on the sideline prior to every game, Vanderbilt's defensive line has made marked improvement over the past year.
Its scenic campus nestled near the heart of a city steeped in country music tradition, Vanderbilt University is filled with some of the nation’s finest young scholars. This combination may give off an impression of a place that is relaxed rather than rowdy, tranquil rather than turbulent.
While that is often the case at Vanderbilt, the Commodores' defensive line projects an entirely different aura, exemplified no more so than by the “Wild Dogs” bone that is placed on the sideline prior to the start of each game.
The bone is an oversized rawhide dog bone painted black and gold with “Wild Dogs” written across the front. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer does not take credit for the bone itself, but does take credit for the mentality that his unit will play with energy and fire on every play. In Spencer’s first year, the Commodores improved from last in the SEC to fourth against the run, and registered seven more sacks than the 2010 defense.
The 2012 unit should continue to improve. Seventh-round NFL Draft pick Tim Fugger has taken his talents up Interstate 65 to Indianapolis, but three other starters return. Part-time starter Johnell Thomas steps in to replace Fugger, opposite junior Walker May. Head coach James Franklin has been pleased with his defensive line bookends thus far in fall camp.
“Walker and Johnell have been playing really well,” said Franklin. “We have a chance to really make a big rush on the perimeter.”
May and Thomas are the only upperclassmen among the defensive ends (Kyle Woestmann is a redshirt sophomore). Franklin also praised the play of Woestmann and the other young defensive ends, including redshirt freshmen Darien Bryant and Jimmy Stewart and true freshman Caleb Azubike.
Woestmann, despite only having one year of on-field experience, has taken on a leadership role with the group due to the high number of freshmen and redshirt freshmen. He's been impressed by what he has seen so far.
“The young guys are coming along real well,” Woestmann said. “I’ve been impressed with their physical, raw talent. Once Coach Spencer refines them a little bit, they’ll be great pass rushers.”
The Marietta, Ga. native likes the versatility of the group in that each player has a different plan of attack for generating pressure in the backfield.
“Every defensive end brings a different aspect to the defensive line. Johnell is a stocky, physical pass rusher, an element that nobody else has. He really has the ability to manhandle people with his brute strength. Walker is the speedster on our team.”
Last week’s announcement that junior Thad McHaney was giving up football for medical reasons created a sense of urgency for Woestmann, who feels he’s still developing his strengths as a pass rusher.
“I don’t know if I’ve found my role yet. I’m not where I want to be. I think once I really start to get some solid moves down I’ll be a solid pass rusher. I can’t put it all together yet.”
On the inside, fifth-year seniors Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter lead a rising group of defensive tackles. Lohr missed most of the spring with a foot injury, but is back at full speed. Lohr’s four-and-a-half sacks a year ago trailed only Fugger’s seven. Two sophomores, Barron Dixon and Vince Taylor, have shown steady improvement and will be valuable parts of a rotation that is more SEC-ready than it was a year ago.
“We’re bigger and more athletic inside,” said Franklin. “We probably have three guys way over 300 pounds at defensive tackle. We haven’t had that.”
The Commodores will get their first chance to show the nation how far they’ve come on Aug. 30 with a nationally televised showdown against No. 9 South Carolina. If you’re looking for the relaxed, tranquil campus environment, don’t go anywhere near the newly-renovated Vanderbilt Stadium on that Thursday evening. The Wild Dogs will be out, and they’ll be hungry.