NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt’s senior class has been through more than most of their peers in the college football landscape: the COVID-19 pandemic, a winless season, a coaching change.
These and other factors were enough for many former Commodores in recent years to decide to choose a different path. There are a handful, however, who arrived in the summer of 2018 or 2019 who decided to stay and give their all for Vanderbilt football.
That group will be recognized Saturday when Vanderbilt plays its regular season finale at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against rival and 10th-ranked Tennessee. Anfernee Orji is proudly part of this small faction of the program.
“It’s unique, but I wouldn’t change it at all,” Orji said of his time in Nashville. “I feel like my career here has been amazing.”
Currently the top tackler in the Southeastern Conference with 9.4 saves per game, Orji came to Vandy in 2019 somewhat in the shadow of older brother Alston Orji. Alston had arrived at Vanderbilt the previous summer and played 11 games as a true freshman during the 2018 season.
Both brothers had become stars in Rockwall, Texas, although they were more focused on academics than athletics for most of their youth. Their prowess on the football field quickly became undeniable as each developed into four-star recruiting prospects as stars at Rockwell High School.
Alston and Anfernee played together during the 2019 and 2020 seasons at Vandy before Alston decided to leave Vanderbilt. Alston ended his career earlier this season after playing a few games for Campbell and then deciding to retire from the sport.
Anfernee, meanwhile, has become a leader and defensive mainstay for the Commodores. He has led Vanderbilt in tackles for the past three seasons and has increased his tally with each consecutive campaign.
Orji’s 102 saves in 2022 is a career high and the 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker enters the weekend with 266 career saves to his name. He put himself in a position to continue his playing career as a professional.
“I feel like an NFL player, but that’s never enough,” Orji said. “There is always more to give. I feel like I’ve improved throughout my career and I feel like I can still improve in the years to come.
“Everyone in college football wants to play in the NFL, but I have to focus on the moment to be able to make it happen.”
The youngest son of a surgeon and a computer engineer from Nigeria, Orji is set to graduate in December with a degree in science and technology communication and hopes to combine his interest in business with engineering in his future projects. Orji’s involvement with the Omega Psi Phi fraternity and with Vanderbilt’s Black Student Athlete Group has allowed him to develop relationships he never imagined possible, he said.
Orji has also shown a willingness to go above and beyond for those in need.
On January 31, in Nashville, Laura Fisher was reportedly struck by a light commercial vehicle and suffered numerous serious injuries. Fisher’s boyfriend, Greer Martini (now at LSU), was at the time a defensive quality control coach for Vanderbilt football.
Orji and current Florida State offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons moved quickly to help raise money for Fisher’s medical bills through a GoFundMe website which to date has raised nearly 73 $000.
“I couldn’t imagine losing a loved one. So in any way I could help ease the pain, I knew the cost was going to be insane,” Orji said. “I feel like that’s why (name, image, likeness) became a thing because of things like this, so we can help other people and help people who really need it. the opportunity to do so is simply amazing.
This week of preparation for Orji was much like any other as he and the Commodores (5-6, 2-5 SEC) prepared to face the Volunteers (9-2, 5-2 SEC). Orji has spent the last few days training, training, rehabilitating and preparing for what could be his last black and gold outing if he decides to devote himself entirely to professional football after the season.
Orji also spent time chatting with Alston and his younger brother Alex Orji, a freshman quarterback at Michigan, about football, school, music, movies and life. The Vandy linebacker is trying to stay focused on the present while acknowledging that Saturday will likely be the last round for a group that has done everything it can for the Commodores.
“I feel like the most important thing is that we’re still here,” Orji said of his senior teammates. “We had to go through the COVID and the 0-9 season, we had the change of coach, we had to go through all that but we are still here. It shows you just how tight-knit this senior class really is.
“Vanderbilt football is a part of me. I chose to come here. I chose to stay here. I tried to give my all for this program and this team. I love Vanderbilt football until my death.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
follow him @MrChadBishop.