NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Just before spring practice, a pair of assistant coaches departed Vanderbilt’s defensive staff.
But a shift in staff has not slowed progress for the Commodores this spring.
“Our coaches as a staff have been outstanding this spring,” defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said. “We just go next man up, that’s what happens.”
Tarver, in his second season at Vanderbilt, said the Dores have not missed a beat despite those staff departures. That’s largely because head coach Derek Mason quickly designated quality control staffers Tate Benton and Jovan Haye to oversee inside linebackers and defensive line, respectively. Those two figures have been around the program for a while and boast keen understandings of the expectations on defense.
On the field, the Commodores have plenty of questions to answer on a defense that returns just five starters from last season. That exodus featured four of their top five leading tacklers from 2018, including linebacker Jordan Griffin (119 total stops). Tarver said that new-look defense has been the priority this spring, and Benton and Haye have helped make for a seamless transition on the sideline.
“We know that movement in the coaching industry happens,” Tarver said. “Tate Benton and Jovan Haye have been doing great. What they do is, they work within the system to help the players get better daily. That’s what coaching’s about. You will see coaches move all the time. But what matters is what you do together and what you do to help the young men make plays.”
Defensive line growth
Asked to assess a surprise of spring practice thus far, Mason singled out his defensive line.
“I’m really impressed by the consistency of the defensive line,” Mason said. “Even though we have some young guys there, we’re more athletic, we’re strong, we’re starting to see some of that show up for us.”
Mason gave shout-outs to returning starters Drew Birchmeier and Dayo Odeyingbo as bright spots of spring practice. That unit must replace departed senior Dare Odeyingbo, who started 13 games a year ago and chipped in 28 tackles.
Spotlight on secondary
A big hole to fill this spring has been Joejuan Williams’ job at cornerback. The former All-SEC honoree declared for the NFL Draft after last season and is a potential first-round pick in next month’s draft in Nashville.
As the Dores look to shore up the secondary, Mason said he has been impressed with new arrival Dontye Carriere-Williams at corner. The 2019 signee from Independence (Kansas) Community College played the 2016 season at Wisconsin, where he played in 14 games and started five games for the Badgers. That experience adds an extra element to the back-end of Vanderbilt’s defense.
Carriere-Williams said he hopes to one day follow in Williams’ path.
“Seeing Joejuan Williams come here for three years and go on to train for the [draft], that’s definitely motivation,” he said.
Get off the field
Tarver said an emphasis of spring has been getting off the field on third down, which was an area of concern in 2018. But Tarver said it’s a good sign that the Commodores have continued to improve in one particular area.
“At the end of the first week, we weren’t shedding blocks where we wanted to be,” Tarver said. “This next week here, we’ve improved. There’s only one guy with the ball on the field. We need to get off the ball to get there. It’s our job to get to the ball. The running to the ball and shedding of blocks is what’s been improved this week.”