Vanderbilt sees start as sign of yearlong stingy defense

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              In this Sept. 1, 2018, photo, Vanderbilt safety LaDarius Wiley (5) walks away after bringing down Middle Tennessee running back Tavares Thomas (21) and knocking his helmet off in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Nashville, Tenn. Wiley was ejected for targeting Thomas on the play, but should return against Nevada Saturday. Vanderbilt smothered a mobile quarterback in their season opener against Middle Tennessee and will face another potent offense in Nevada. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Vanderbilt Commodores are coming off a smothering defensive performance without their two top safeties, and linebacker Charles Wright believes this could be the start of something very good on defense.

Wright credits new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver with changing the Commodores’ mentality on defense.

“It’s all gas, no brakes. We think about the ball no matter what it is,” Wright said Tuesday. “Whenever I see somebody with the ball, my first instinct is to go punch it out whether that be like walking in the hallway, in practice when I’m on the sideline. He’s just got me ready to go. Like I’ll play right now. I would’ve played Sunday after the game. That’s how much he’s into us. I love it.”

Tarver is in his first season as defensive coordinator, a job that had been handled by Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason since the end of Mason’s first season. Mason was co-defensive coordinator with Tarver in 2011 at Stanford, and Mason was willing to wait to bring Tarver to Nashville. He finally hired him this offseason after Tarver spent the last three seasons in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers.

The Commodores put on an impressive performance in their opening 35-7 win over Middle Tennessee.

They matched their season-high of a year ago with a Southeastern Conference-best six sacks in the opener, five of those by halftime. Dayo Odeyingbo returned a fumble for a touchdown, and safety Frank Coppet had an interception. Brent Stockstill, who could finish his career at Middle Tennessee with 10,000 yards passing and 100 touchdowns, had a great start against Vandy, but couldn’t sustain it.

Stockstill threw for 100 yards in the first quarter but was held to just 78 yards the rest of the game.

Vanderbilt shut down the MTSU QB despite safety Zaire Jones being suspended indefinitely following his arrest Aug. 23 for bumping an off-duty police officer with his car before a Beyonce concert on campus. Then the Commodores lost starting safety LaDarius Wiley for targeting in the first quarter, which Mason said Tuesday was “100 percent” the right call by officials.

“That’s a costly penalty,” Mason said. “You don’t want to make that mistake and find yourself out of the ballgame before you’ve even got a chance to warm up.”

Wiley will be back Saturday when the Commodores host Nevada (1-0) from the Mountain West Conference, and just in time with the Wolf Pack coming in off a 72-19 win over Portland State . Only two teams scored more than Nevada in the opening week, and quarterback Ty Gangi threw for 342 of the Wolf Pack’s 420 yards.

“This quarterback can run to run,” Mason said. “And when he wants to throw he can put it up. We’re facing a little different challenge this week.”

Five different Commodores had at least one sack in the opener, including two from linebacker Kenny Hebert. Now in his fifth season, Mason has some seniors on the depth chart on his front seven, giving Vanderbilt depth with some talented underclassmen.

“It’s just nice to see,” Mason said. “I think Vanderbilt is now starting to enjoy is probably going to grow into that opportunity to enjoy seeing numerous guys play but not seeing the drop-off when you go to your twos. I think athletic guys who can step on the field and play football. Now what we got to do is continue to get them battle tested.”