NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There are several reasons why Vanderbilt football could well be enjoying the best of times.
Third-year coach James Franklin, who guided the school to its best record in nearly a century with nine wins (last year) and unprecedented consecutive bowl berths (2011-12), is a proper place to start.
Quality depth of SEC-caliber along both lines of scrimmage has been an unknown commodity over the years for the Commodores. And big-time playmakers on offense, such as All-SEC receiver Jordan Matthews, now cause opposing defenses to do more than just take notice.
But if there is an unheralded group at Vanderbilt, it has to be a previously underrated secondary — led by senior cornerback Andre Hal — which some pundits now consider one of the premier units in the SEC, and the country, as well.
“Back in the day, we had some good players, but we weren’t winning,” said Hal, a second-team All-SEC preseason pick and Jim Thorpe Award candidate. “Now that we are winning games and being on TV more, people are talking about us more. But we are getting on a few lists, like being ranked No. 2 in the SEC right now by different people, so we are getting more respect right now.”
The yearning for attention isn’t what completely drives Hal or fellow secondary mates that include a pair of returning starters at safety — seniors Kenny Ladler at free and Javon Marshall at strong, the SEC’s active leading tacklers from the safety position (47 combined starts).
Rounding out the group, opposite Hal, is three-year letter winner Steve Clarke, also a senior who played extensively last season in the nickel slot.
“We all have different skill sets and different positives we can contribute to the defense,” said Marshall, who finished third on the team last season with 80 tackles. “Steve is a very physical corner and good at blitzing. Andre is a great cover. Kenny is a great cover safety. And I can fill holes in the box.
“We all bring different attributes to the defense, but we also work hard on our weaknesses so we can be good all the way around.”
The fact that four seniors are projected to start in the secondary won’t deter the Commodores from using as many as eight players in a game. Redshirt freshmen cornerbacks Paris Head and Torren McGlaster are more than waiting in the wings, while redshirt sophomores Jahmel McIntosh and Andrew Williamson will also see action at safety.
“We play quite a few kids,” Vanderbilt defensive backs coach George Barlow said. “That not only helps us currently, but it also helps us the following year. A lot of those guys who are playing backup roles and spell roles, now when it’s their turns, their eyes aren’t as big when the lights come on.”
Still, it is the 6-foot, 185-pound Hal who is the bell cow of the bunch, especially when it comes to being considered one of the top cover corners in the country. He led the team with 14 passes defended last season.
“(Hal) is just very mature,” said Franklin, whose team opens at home Aug. 29 against SEC rival Ole Miss. “He has the length that you want. He has the experience that you want. And the athleticism is there, too. None of this is new to him. He has been through it all.
“He has all the things that everybody is looking for when recruiting and what the people are looking for at the next level as well.”
Having that experience at safety also aids Hal in being even more aggressive when attempting to cover the top receivers in the SEC. Marshall is the quarterback of the secondary, while Ladler led the team last season with 90 tackles, including sharing the lead with 60 solo stops (with Marshall).
“The experience is even more important at the safety position because they are the quarterbacks of the secondary, kind of like the mike (middle) linebacker on defense and the quarterback on offense,” Franklin said. “Not only have we made plays, but more importantly, we are very rarely out of position. That is a big part of having that experience in the safety positions.”
Making the Vanderbilt secondary even better is the fact it goes against one of the league’s top receiving corps every day in practice. Matthews is a first-team All-SEC pick, while junior running mate Chris Boyd — who stands a nearly identical 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds to Matthews — provides a 1-2 punch to test the Commodores.
“It makes you way better because Jordan and Chris are probably the two best receivers in our conference right now,” Hal said of practice sessions against the offense. “We are going against the two best receivers every day in practice, so in a game it makes it easier. We go back and forth every day.”
If the Vanderbilt secondary does feel it’s underrated and under-appreciated on a national basis, then all it has to do is keep making plays and helping the Commodores win, according to their position coach.
“Attention is earned,” Barlow said. “And if they feel like they are underrated, then they just need to make more plays than they are making. That’s the kind of thing our guys in the secondary do feel like they have a chip on their shoulder, and they probably feel like they are a little underrated.
“But at the same time, they know they have to make people notice them.”