The Green Bay Packers already have two members of their secondary from Vanderbilt University in cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Sean Richardson and will have the opportunity to add a few more in the NFL Draft.
Among the NFL-caliber defensive backs from Vandy eligible for this year’s Draft are cornerback Andre Hal and safety Kenny Ladler, who has looked to his former teammates in Green Bay for guidance.
“I talked to Casey recently about the process and how I need to prepare for this moment at the Combine, the Pro Day, and just getting myself prepared,” said Ladler. “I talked to Sean during the season about the NFL and the things I need to transition to the NFL—it is the same game, just a little bit faster.”
Ladler is among the top-ranked safeties in this year’s draft class because of an ability to force turnovers like few others. His senior season alone, Ladler forced 10 of them, five interceptions and forced fumbles each.
Those turnovers are how Ladler got the nickname “Swiper” from his teammates, but he feels he has a well-rounded game as well.
Asked what makes him one of this year’s better safeties, Ladler said, “I feel like my play-making ability throughout the defense. I am able to make good tackles; I am a great open-field tackler. I am consistent in the pass and run, and I am a turnover machine.”
While he has ideal size at safety, standing 6’ 0” and 207 lbs., Ladler will have to overcome an alarmingly slow time in the 40-yard dash, clocking in at 4.70 seconds, the second-slowest among players at his position at the Combine.
To his credit, Ladler improved his 40 time to 4.62 seconds at Vanderbilt’s on-campus pro day workout, but that’s still behind times in the 4.4 range that the fastest safeties put up.
Like any NFL prospect, Ladler’s 40 time doesn’t paint the full picture, and he should be very proud of his other workout numbers. His 24 bench press repetitions, 36.5-inch vertical and 127-inch broad jump were among the leaders at safety.
Ladler is joined by Hal among those that must overcome pedestrian Combine numbers. Neither Hal’s size (5’ 10” and 188 lbs.) nor his various measurements in drills stand out.
But what Hal can boast is a career that saw him become increasingly productive by the year at Vanderbilt. Among his most impressive statistics are his 16 passes broken up as a junior and 15 as a senior that respectively ranked second and first in the SEC, the nation’s top football conference.
For years, Vanderbilt was considered the doormat of the SEC, but that perception is starting to change with the school producing so many talented players.
Part of the credit, and perhaps part of the reason for the pipeline to Green Bay is former Packers assistant coach James Franklin, who helped to direct the turnaround at Vanderbilt before recently taking the head coaching job at Penn State.
And it goes beyond just the defensive backs. Franklin has helped to develop several players on the cusp of careers in the NFL.
"It was Franklin, but at the same time, it was my senior class, too,” said Hal of the culture change at Vanderbilt. “When Franklin came in, we bought in and we did everything he said and believed in him. My class had a lot of talent, like you see now: me, Kenny Ladler, Jordan Matthews, Chris Boyd, Wesley Johnson all came to the Combine this year and that proves something like we’re becoming good at what we’re doing now.”
Prior to Franklin taking the program over in 2011, Vanderbilt had only been to four bowl games in history and only one since 1982. In three seasons under Franklin, players like Ladler and Hal had the experience of qualifying for three consecutive bowl games and won the last two back-to-back.
According to Ladler, the foundation dates back to before Franklin, seeing as the preceding coaching staff recruited the players currently in the NFL and those coming out for the Draft this year. But above all, Ladler ascribes commendation to the players themselves.
“I would say the players that come out (deserve credit),” said Ladler. “You can credit the recruiting (former Vanderbilt coach) Bobby Johnson did, all his guys he recruited pretty much went on to play in the NFL. He did a good job finding those guys and we all worked hard to put ourselves in a position to play the next level.”
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Vanderbilt safety Kenny Ladler by Brian Carriveau.
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