– A single mantra has defined Jason Tarver
's stint as Vanderbilt defensive coordinator:
The ball is everything.
"When you understand that, you have a chance to win games," Tarver said. "There's only one on the field. We have to do everything in our power to go get it."
Vanderbilt's defense has largely followed Tarver's ball-hawking mindset during the 2018 season. In doing so, the Commodores have become more adept in forcing turnovers. They have recorded 16 takeaways through nine games this season, recovering nine fumbles and picking off seven interceptions. In 2017, the Dores forced just nine turnovers (two fumbles, seven interceptions) for the entire season.
Vanderbilt's 16 takeaways are fourth-most in the SEC and have helped it rank fifth in turnover margin (+0.44) among conference teams. A penchant for turnovers is a big reason the Commodores (4-5) remain in contention for a bowl bid with three games remaining. Following an open date last week, Vanderbilt is back at it on Saturday at Missouri (11 a.m. CT on SEC Network).
Forcing turnovers remains a point of pride for Vanderbilt's defense.
"We're just focused on ourselves and making sure we hold our end of the bargain," said defensive lineman Louis Vecchio
, who recorded an interception vs. Arkansas. "For us, it's great when we can give the offense more chances to be on the field and turn that into points. When they're happy and we're happy, we're a happy team."
The Dores have done a solid job of capitalizing off turnovers, as well. In Vanderbilt's last three games against Arkansas, Florida and Kentucky, it has scored a combined 38 points off turnovers.
"Our goal is to give the ball back to the offense," cornerback Joejuan Williams
said. "That's the biggest thing we worked on this offseason. As you can see, it's been trickling into the season, getting the ball back to the offense and getting a better chance to score. We've got to help put points on the board."
A renewed focus on the ball was Tarver's first priority upon arriving at Vanderbilt as head coach Derek Mason
's defensive coordinator in January. Vanderbilt's nine total takeaways last season ranked last in the SEC. Tarver's goal was to simplify the Commodores' defensive philosophy this fall.
"Sometimes you get in as a young student-athlete and worry about the play call or something else," Tarver said. "You have to take the complex and turn it into something simple. All that matters is the ball and going to get the player with the ball or getting the ball for us. We show the guys clips from anywhere in football of people attacking the ball. We show us attacking the ball. It's emphasized every single play. We have to finish with the ball in our hands."
Vanderbilt's ball-hawking defense could have its work cut out for it this Saturday in Columbia. Missouri has given up just 10 total turnovers this season, including just four fumbles. Quarterback Drew Lock has thrown 19 touchdown passes against six picks; he completed 24-of-32 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns in Missouri's 38-17 win at then-No. 11 Florida last Saturday.
But Tarver said Vanderbilt is beginning to understand the importance of its rallying cry on defense.
"We're starting to live it," Tarver said. "But in that last game [against Arkansas], there were still situations where the ball is up in the air, and we've got to go get it. We're worried about us and taking things one game at a time. We've gotten better at living that on defense and that's allowed us to improve weekly."
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.