Brent Pry wasn’t dealt a bad hand, but back in the spring he wasn’t sure what he had in front of him.
Six weeks into the season, Vanderbilt’s linebackers coach and the Commodores’ opponents have discovered there is more to the linebacker unit than senior Chris Marve.
Marve remains the defense’s undisputed leader as the middle linebacker and team leader in tackles. But he has help around him as three of the team’s top four tacklers are linebackers.
Heading into this season, Chase Garnham, Tristan Strong, Archibald Barnes and DeAndre Jones — combined — had started just one game.
“There was nobody proven outside of Chris. There wasn’t another proven player at the position,” said Pry, who doubles as co-defensive coordinator and spent last year at Georgia Southern. “I don’t know if it was a concern as much as we knew there was a lot of work to be done. ... We needed some guys to develop at the position. I think they’ve answered some of those questions.”
Marve is still the team’s workhorse. Entering Saturday’s game against visiting Georgia, he has 40 tackles this season, which ups his career total to 346. He is the Southeastern Conference’s active career leader in that regard.
What Marve does between the games might be just as important.
“He understands the way the offenses run things and he has a lot of experience,” Garnham said. “He helps us watch film, not just to watch film but to know what you’re looking for. He has been really helpful. ... He is great to learn from just by watching. He leads by example and works hard on and off the field and that is just somebody we can really look up to.”
Garnham hasn’t been far behind, second to Marve in both solo stops (19) and total tackles (33). The sophomore is coming off back-to-back games of 10 tackles, a career-high, has forced a fumble, picked up a sack and made 3.5 tackles for loss.
Before junior starter Tristan Strong went out with an apparent season-ending leg injury against South Carolina two weeks ago, he made 16 tackles. After practice on Wednesday, head coach James Franklin was hopeful that Strong might be back on the field by the end of the season.
His replacement, Barnes, hasn’t missed a beat. Barnes has played in all five games but made his second career start in a 34-0 loss at Alabama on Saturday. The junior made a career-high eight tackles, including six solo stops.
“I’ve been waiting for my big shot,” Barnes said. “The guys were counting on me to step up, and I couldn’t let the team down. I just did whatever I could and hopefully I will play better in the future.”
Though Marve doesn’t go off the field often, when he does, Jones is there to spell him. The junior has 10 tackles this year and provides significant depth, according to Franklin.
“I think a lot of times as coaches, your No. 1 is your No. 1 for a reason. So you don’t want to play the No. 2 in critical situations,” Franklin said. “My philosophy and what I want to do as a team, is that we are going to play those guys. I think that has helped us as well. I think it has helped the starters stay fresh. It has helped us stay healthy as much as we possibly can as well. I think it has also created some depth. I have been very, very pleased with them.”
The group, however, knows it can’t get complacent. Those players are part of a unit that is fourth in the conference in rushing defense (108.2 yards per game). But over the last two weeks, two of the league’s better running backs — South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Alabama’s Trent Richardson — have had the last laugh.
Lattimore scored two touchdowns, including a 52-yarder on a screen pass, to finish with 150 all-purpose yards. Richardson was bottled up in the first half, but busted free for 75 of his 107 yards in the second.
“I was disappointed Saturday against Alabama. I didn’t think we tackled well enough as a group,” Pry said. “You’re not always going to make the big hit but make the sure tackle. Everybody wants to lay the wood on somebody and be a big hitter. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes what is required is to sink those hips and bend the knees and cage them up and get him on the ground. We’re still working to get better that way.
“... I don’t think we have played our best game yet as linebackers. We’re still looking for that. That is the challenge to the guys.”