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Defense Carries Commodores

By Jim Johnson
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Not often does a given team lose its best player from the year prior and get better, not only as a whole, but on said player’s side of the ball, and perhaps even within his position group.

Not often does a given team lose its best player from the year prior and get better, not only as a whole, but on said player’s side of the ball, and perhaps even within his position group.

Last year, linebacker Zach Cunningham became the first ever Vanderbilt Commodore to be named a unanimous All-American. Along the road to the myriad honors Cunningham earned, he tallied 125 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles, all of which led the team, his senior year.

Now starting, and starring, for the Houston Texans, in the NFL, his old team has had to find ways to succeed without him.

No one linebacker on the 2017 iteration of Derek Mason’s defense is better than Zach Cunningham, nor any player on the entire team, for that matter. However, the group, as a unit, seems to, remarkably, be improved.

Tonight, Mason’s squad hosted 18th ranked Kansas State, a game in which they entered as slight underdogs, despite being the home team.

In the lead up to this contest, Southern Pigskin’s B.J. Bennett wrote:

“Early on in the college football season, the nation's best defense, by the numbers, resides in the SEC; it's not Alabama, Georgia or LSU, however, it's Vanderbilt. The Commodores have given up 318 yards and six points in two games, total. After boasting a top five scoring defense in the league a year ago, Vanderbilt, with former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason now in his fourth season, is dominating the competition.

Remarkably, the Commodores rank in the national top eleven in every major statistical category: third-down defense (1st), fourth-down defense (1st-tied), red zone defense (1st-tied), scoring defense (2nd-tied), total defense (3rd), tackles for loss (8th-tied), rush defense (9th), sacks (9th-tied), interceptions (10th-tied) and pass defense (11th). For good measure, Vanderbilt has the second-most blocks of any team in the country and, if you slot pass defense off of opposing passer rating, would rank in the top ten there as well.   

For point of reference, the Commodores have surrendered fewest total points than defending national champion Clemson -- and the Tigers haven't yet allowed a touchdown. The lone score that Vanderbilt has given up came in the fourth quarter of a game that was, at the time, 28-0; the Commodores blocked the ensuing extra point try.”

Wins over Middle Tennessee and Alabama A&M, in weeks one and two, laid the groundwork for what transpired this evening, although skeptics could have dismissed the performances as coming against lesser competition. Holding nationally ranked Kansas State to 277 yards of offense, forcing two turnovers, and, most importantly, limiting the Wildcats to seven points, proved that, at least on defense, Vanderbilt can compete at the highest level.

At the linebacker position specifically, in Cunningham’s stead, while no one man can replace his production, the group has accomplished that task, to date, by committee.

Emmanuel Smith entered the contest with a team-high 16 tackles, and added another nine, in week three. Charles Wright had four sacks ahead of the matchup, and posted another 1.5, tonight. And Oren Burks has continued to be one of the most consistent, reliable contributors for the Commodores.

Vanderbilt has some offensive holes to address, going forward, but as long as the defense performs like it did against Kansas State, few, if any, games will ever be out of reach.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP