Cornerbacks are used to playing on a proverbial island, left by the rest of the defense to fend for themselves.
Lately, it has not been just his teammates. Opposing offenses have left alone Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward as well.
“It has been a while,” the senior cornerback, who leads the team with five interceptions, said. “I feel like they don’t throw on the perimeter much. A lot of balls go inside, in the middle so we really don’t get that many opportunities.”
Hayward and the Commodores don’t expect much to change when they play Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday (2:30 p.m., ABC) in Memphis. Vanderbilt (6-6) arrived in Memphis on Monday and began preparations for the Bearcats, who went 9-3 and won a share of the Big East Conference title.
Like many of Vanderbilt’s opponents this season, Cincinnati likes to move the ball with short throws and tosses across the middle. That could result in slim pickings for the Commodores’ secondary.
After racing out to a nation-leading 14 interceptions in the first four games, Vanderbilt has picked off just three passes in the last eight games. Two of those were by linebacker Archibald Barnes against Tennessee on Nov. 19.
The secondary doesn’t feel slighted. On the contrary, Vanderbilt’s defensive backs see this trend as a sign of respect.
“I take it as a compliment,” said Hayward, who is one of nine Commodores to record an interception this season. “We are doing a good job in the secondary, the safeties as well. I’ll take it as a compliment that we don’t really get that many balls on the perimeter.”
The Commodores have allowed 100-yard receivers just three times this season — in the season opener against Elon (Aaron Mellette), against Arkansas (Jarius Wright) and at Tennessee (Da’Rick Rogers).
While most of Mellette and Wright’s damage was done over the middle, Rogers had the most success exploiting Vanderbilt’s usually stingy cornerbacks Hayward and junior Trey Wilson. Rogers hauled in impressive touchdown catches over both in Tennessee’s 27-21 overtime victory.
Otherwise, the secondary has contributed to a defensive overhaul. After allowing 31.2 points per game in 2010, the Commodores have given up just 20.8 points per contest, including three of 10 points or less.
“It has been an exciting season,” Barnes said. “I think our defensive unit did a great job, improved and we shocked everybody with what we could do.”
The Bearcats are expecting to have senior quarterback Zach Collaros. He broke his ankle against West Virginia more than six weeks ago but began practicing last week. Before the injury, he threw for 1,860 yards, 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions with a 63.4 completion percentage. His replacement, Munchie Legaux, played in the last three games and is averaging just 68.1 passing yards and completing 47.4 percent of his passes.
“They have a lot of speed and a lot of talent and I think their record proves it,” Barnes said. “We are ready to get at them. We are not underestimating them at all. They all have talent so no matter what quarterback plays we have to be prepared.”
Hayward was the last Vanderbilt defensive back to snag an interception — back on Oct. 15 against Georgia.
The senior from Perry, Ga., was recently named a Walter Camp second-team All-American and has 13 career interceptions — tied for second all-time in school history and has set his sights on an NFL career after the bowl — “Of course I think I should be drafted high,” he said — but would like nothing more to grab at least one more pick and tie his total from a year ago.
If recent history is any indication, though, that wish might not come true.
“As long as we shut them down, we get this win,” he said, “I won’t be disappointed without any balls on the outside.”