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Big shoes to fill for Hayward, Richardson

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Vanderbilt returns nine starters from a defense that collected 30 sacks and 20 interceptions last season.

The only other SEC defense in the 30-20 club a year ago was Florida, and all the Gators did was win the BCS national championship.

"Nothing's going to change for us on defense this year" Vanderbilt sophomore cornerback Casey Hayward said. "That's the way we play, blitzing off the corner, getting sacks, always pressuring. You can't ask for any more as a cornerback."

The Commodores, though, will be asking plenty from Hayward next season.

Ditto for sophomore safety Sean Richardson.

They're the two guys expected to step in for D.J. Moore and Reshard Langford, the kind of tandem that doesn't come along every day in the secondary.

Moore was an All-America cornerback who had 12 interceptions the last two seasons, while Langford was the quintessential leader at safety and a four-year starter.

"Reshard set a high standard. He's like a legend to Vanderbilt football," said Richardson, who recovered the punt in the end zone for the Commodores' only touchdown in the Music City Bowl win over Boston College. "To try to fill his shoes would be a hard task because he did so much for the team.

"I'm just going to try and improve and do what the coaches tell me to do. By doing that and working hard, hopefully I can become the kind of player Reshard Langford was."

Hayward and Richardson both played some last season as true freshmen. They've seen the speed of the SEC up close and personal, which will come in handy next season.

There won't be any such thing as easing into their new roles. The SEC opener is against LSU in Tiger Stadium.

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson just wants Hayward and Richardson to keep coming as players. Converted receiver Jamie Graham is also getting a lot of work at cornerback, especially with starter Myron Lewis out this spring after undergoing shoulder surgery.

"In the leadership role, I expect (safety) Ryan Hamilton to not miss a beat in that regard," Johnson said. "He'll be a great leader for us in the secondary. Same thing for Patrick Benoist in the linebacker corps and Steven Stone in the defensive line. We're probably more loaded with leader types coming into this senior class than we've ever been.

"I think the leadership part of it will be fine. Eventually, Sean will be an excellent strong safety. Still, that guy who's been there for four years and started 49 games (Langford) ... it's hard to do without him initially. But we have guys who will fill in."