Steven Stone’s return from a broken foot last week provided a welcome dose of experience to Vanderbilt’s defensive line … even if it did not always necessarily look that way.
“I made a couple of freshman mistakes out there, things I haven’t done in a while,” said Stone, a senior who missed the first seven games after being hurt during a preseason practice session.
With Stone back, the Commodores’ defensive line is at full strength for the first time since late last season.
Just in time too. Vanderbilt’s defense needs all the talent and experience and ability it can muster — particularly up front — when it faces Georgia Tech, 6:30 p.m. at Vanderbilt Stadium (Comcast Sports Southeast, Comcast-Ch. 27).
The Yellow Jackets are ranked second in the NCAA in rush offense and first in time of possession with an offense that runs the ball five times for every one time it attempts a pass.
“We’re definitely working hard on the D-line,” defensive tackle Greg Billinger said. “We’re the healthiest group on defense, so that’s definitely a plus.”
Defensive end Broderick Stewart was injured early against Tennessee last November and missed the final game of the regular season as well as the Music City Bowl. While Stone was out Theron Kadri and Johnell Thomas also missed three games and one game, respectively because of injury.
All of them will be available this weekend against Georgia Tech, which has two players — Jonathan Dwyer and Josh Nesbitt — who each have more than 700 yards rushing and another — Anthony Allen — with nearly 500.
“They have big guards and really athletic tackles,” Billinger said. “That’s different. You normally see that the other way around. It’s really interesting. As a defensive lineman, I love playing different offensive lines because it’s a challenge.”
Georgia Tech has rushed for more than 300 yards in six of eight games, including each of the last four and has scored 26 of its 34 touchdowns on runs. It also has converted 52 percent of its third downs and 73 percent of its fourth downs, which has allowed it to hold the ball for an average of nearly 35 minutes per contest.
“They don’t plod along,” VU coach Bobby Johnson said. “They’re very exotic. … And they become a four-down team very early, probably when they cross the 50.”
Vanderbilt has held its opponents to an average of fewer than four yards per rush and 164.1 yards per game, which is only 85th best in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Then again, the Commodores have not had all of their best run-stoppers available at once as they do now. Of course, that’s assuming — among other things — that it’s Stone’s freshman mistakes and not Georgia Tech’s runners that are now behind him.
“For me, I like playing teams that (emphasize) the run,” Stone said. “It’s a different experience, going from South Carolina, a team that’s two-third pass to one of the top running teams in the country.
“But it’s always a good challenge for the D-line to get out there and try to stop them.”