How the Vanderbilt football defense says it has improved since dreadful spring game performance

Aria Gerson
Nashville Tennessean

The Vanderbilt football defense got torched in the spring game in April. Nine touchdowns, two field goals, no turnovers.

It's still early, but in preseason practice, the Commodores' coaches see a much improved defense. At practice on Friday, the defense stood out in a drill where the offense had to work from its own end zone. The defense forced multiple turnovers and prevented first downs.

"(The offense has) to learn to take that pressure and to perform through it and credit to the defense because they didn't let the pressure up, so you saw a couple picks, a couple big plays in the end zone," coach Clark Lea said. "I think ... the next time we're in that situation we'll be a little bit better able to function offensively. It's learning, but it was a good day for the defense."

In April, Lea blamed "circumstances and context" for the defense's poor performance. Perhaps Friday's was a bit of circumstances and context as well, but those around the program still believe it's a changed unit.

Defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said linebacker Anfernee Orji was somewhat out of shape in the spring. Vanderbilt's top returning defender now looks better than ever. Mentally, too, something feels different.

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"I feel like we just came together, we decided to turn it up a notch," Orji said. "So the entire team, our energy's up, we're all just attacking the ball, pushing to the ball."

Cornerback Gabe Jeudy-Lally added: "Every day we come out here and we know what we need to get done. We can scheme meetings and we when we come out we know we need to be competitive and have to get the offense off the field every single time. And I feel like we've been stacking good days on top of good days. ... I'm super excited to see us do it on September 4 as well."

Though the Commodores' defense struggled last fall and spring, it returns a lot of experience. Senior linebacker Elijah McAllister is finally healthy after missing 2020 with an injury. Feleti Afemui, who started at linebacker with McAllister in 2019, is also back after opting out of 2020. Along with Orji, the three provide experience to anchor the linebacking core.

Among other starters back are defensive lineman Raashaan Wilkins and cornerbacks Allan George and Jaylen Mahoney. And while he didn't start last year, defensive lineman Daevion Davis has proven to be a leader on the field and was one of the first to earn his number.

It won't be easy going up against SEC defenses, especially with a brand new scheme. But Vanderbilt's defense is dedicated to putting its spring struggles behind it and turning the page for the fall.

"I feel like we're an entirely different defense since the spring game," Minter said. "But it is what it is. It was a great learning experience for our guys to sort of face adversity and not handle it very well so that's been a major teaching moment. Now I think we've come a long way. The guys have worked really hard and I definitely feel like our mindset's a little different than it was back in April."

Aria Gerson covers Vanderbilt athletics for The Tennessean. Contact her at agerson@gannett.com or on Twitter @aria_gerson.