Change is in the air at Vanderbilt where former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason is taking over for James Franklin, who left the Commodores for Penn State.
Franklin guided the Commodores to success in the SEC despite a relative lack of talent. As the No. 42 overall selection by Philadelphia in May, wide receiver Jordan Matthews joined offensive tackle Chris Williams (Bears, 2008) and quarterback Jay Cutler (Broncos, 2006) as the only Vanderbilt players to earn a top 45 selection since the turn of the century.
Mason inherits a roster that lacks a sure-fire draft pick among its seniors. Center Joe Townsend and pass rusher Kyle Woestmann, however, are among the Commodores whose steady game and fit in Mason's schemes could push them into the late rounds of the 2015 draft.
Vanderbilt's top NFL Draft-eligible prospects to watch in 2014:
1. OC Joe Townsend, Senior (6-4 | 310 | 5.28 | #57)
Townsend enters his senior campaign with 20 consecutive starts at center already on his resume and poised to compete for all-conference honors. The team captain leads Vanderbilt with 22 career starts and was named to the Rimington Award's Watch List as one of the nation's top centers - the first Commodore to do so since 2009.
Townsend possesses a square frame and exhibits good power to generate a push at the line of scrimmage. He's stout in pass protection, anchoring well due to his thick build, balance and technique. Townsend plays on the balls of his feet and with good knee bend and can shuffle laterally to mirror. He's alert, often extending one arm to shield a defender while keeping his head on a swivel for others coming.
While possessing some of the key components needed to make it as a center in the NFL, Townsend doesn't show ideal quickness or body control -- deficiencies that show up occasionally in pass protection and when asked to adjust in space run-blocking at the second level.
Townsend isn't a fit for every team. His limited agility could make him a liability in a zone-based scheme. His power and durability, however, would appear to fit in well with the principles Mason schemed against each day of practice at Stanford. Mastering a new scheme and maintaining his reputation as one of the grittiest centers in college football, Townsend could earn Day Three consideration.
2. DE/OLB Kyle Woestmann, Redshirt Senior (6-3 | 252 | 4.83 | #92)
Scouts will be interested to see if Vanderbilt's switch to the 3-4 pays off with more big plays for Woestmann, who has emerged the past two years as the Commodores' most reliable pass rusher.
Woestmann became a starter for the first time at defensive end in 2013, recording career highs in tackles (40) and sacks (six). He was a valuable part of the rotation at defensive end a year earlier, registering 22 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.
Woestmann shows just average explosiveness off the ball out of the three-point stance but possesses active hands and good leg drive to bull rush his way into the backfield. He's a bit stiff in his midsection, showing less-than-ideal fluidity when changing directions in pursuit. He does, however, possess a terrific motor, frequently chasing down ball-carriers in pursuit and gets his hands up into passing lanes. Woestmann possesses good upper body strength and is a solid, wrap-up tackler who has forced four fumbles over his career.
The scheme change could result in improved numbers for Woestmann, as well as convince scouts that he possesses the versatility to attack off the edge at the next level. With every team in the league looking for passionate edge rushers to play hybrid roles, Woestmann is one to watch.
Other Vanderbilt prospects worth watching:
DT Vince Taylor, RS Senior (6-1 | 310 | 5.24 | #53)
As the team's primary edge rusher, Woestmann is in the best position to boost his production with the change to the 3-4 scheme. Taylor is a long shot to make the NFL jump but possesses the wide frame and strength to eat up blocks at the all-important nose guard position. Taylor has the Coke-machine like frame that makes him difficult to move off of the line of scrimmage. He can surprise opponents with his initial quickness when he times the snap right but otherwise is reliant on a simple bull rush against the pass, showing limited agility and creativity in this role. Taylor tires easily and makes virtually all of his tackles (career high 18 last year) in the guard box.