Junior Stephen Weatherly currently patrols Vanderbilt’s defense as one of its most feared defenders.
But before he came to Nashville, Weatherly did not plan on college football. He wanted to build robots for NASA.
In his ninth grade year, when he started at defensive end at North Atlanta High School, his coaches asked all the players if they wanted to play college football after graduating.
Weatherly did not raise his hand.
The next year, Weatherly raised his hand hesitantly when asked the same question but still couldn’t decide if he wanted to play at the next level. Finally, during his junior year, he knew this would be his path.
“My high school coach was just like, ‘You have a gift; I don’t know if you realize it,’” Weatherly said. “You make it look so easy. If you stick with me, I can have you picking from any school you want.’”
Weatherly has always been interested in math and science and other club activities. He started playing chess in second grade and still plays to this day, whether it’s teaching friends or playing online.
With his elementary school across the street from Georgia Tech, he spent a lot of time on campus, with school field trips to the student life center, chess tournaments and his elementary school graduation, helping to feed his early interest in engineering.
“Growing up, I was always that kid taking apart things to see how they worked,” Weatherly said. “I joined robot team in high school, and knew that this is something I really wanted to do.”
As an only child, his mother, Carla Johnson-Weatherly, made an effort to stay self-employed so that she could take him to every extracurricular activity possible.
Sometimes that meant picking him up after a Pop Warner football game and driving him 30 minutes to play Little League baseball, and sometimes that meant taking him to music lessons for one of the seven instruments he can play.
By the time he reached his freshman year of high school, he was a lanky 6-foot-2, but his speed and natural athleticism allowed him to earn a starting job right off the bat, playing all over the field at defensive end, wide receiver, and even some linebacker and safety.
“Every year Stephen always got better,” said his high school football coach Brian Montgomery. “Every year he continued to grow, he grew taller, got 5-10 pounds heavier, and I knew going into his junior year that he definitely was going to be a Division-I college football player. As far as SEC-ACC guys, when you get one, you know you have one because the impact on the field is pretty amazing.”
It wasn’t just his athleticism that made him a special player. It was his intellect, too. Coaches praised Weatherly for his ability to take advice without arguing back and the time he spent looking over game film.
“He could anticipate plays, and he listened to everything we talked about during film,” Montgomery said. “If a guy’s hand is light, he’s probably going to pass, if a guy’s hand is heavy, you know he’s going to run. From what he saw on film, he could anticipate what was going to happen.”
“I remember one time he intercepted a ball going to a back out of the backfield. He was supposed to keep containment because their quarterback was a running quarterback from film, but he could tell by formation and where the ball was aligned that there was a high percentage chance that he was going to throw that little bubble screen, and he intercepted it and went to the end zone with it.”
Transitioning to Vanderbilt
By his junior season, when it was clear he could play at the next level and Weatherly wanted to pursue that option, Vanderbilt was one of the first schools he looked at.
At the recommendation of Montgomery, Weatherly and his mom went to a camp at Vanderbilt because the Commodores’ area recruiter Desmond Kitchings had shown interest in him. When they visited campus, Weatherly fell in love, and the following summer he got his first offer from then-coach Bobby Johnson.
“It’s an amazing education, it’s a free education, and I get to play in the SEC,” Weatherly said of his choice to pick Vanderbilt. “My main thing is I wanted to help build something, not be a part of something that’s already established, so Vandy it was.”
Carla knew Weatherly would grow big ever since he was born 23 inches and 8 lbs. 9 oz. However, since he had decided to play college football so late, he was undersized entering college at 6-foot-4, 195 lbs.
But Weatherly had time to adjust with head coach James Franklin redshirting him along with 17 of the other 21 freshmen in his class. This allowed him to adjust to his college schedule, which required him to pursue a degree in sociology rather than engineering because he had to focus on football. He also added weight through rigorous weight regimens and consuming around 9,000 calories per day to build up to his current 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame.
Weatherly was solid in his first season as a reserve, coming in fourth on the team with 3.5 sacks, but he did not truly start to blossom until Derek Mason came in with his 3-4 defense last year.
Transitioning to a different position – defensive end to outside linebacker – may be difficult for some players, but Weatherly transitioned seamlessly after playing in a 3-4 defense in high school and being a true student of the game.
“He’s definitely a smart player, if anybody, he can handle it,” said linebacker Darreon Herring. “I think he’s doing a real good job outside as far as he wasn’t a coverage player two years ago, but now he’s dropping into coverage more. I think he’s doing a real outstanding job, he’s a real physical guy.”
But beyond the sacks, the athleticism, and the intellect, Weatherly is perhaps appreciated most for his outgoing personality and somewhat quirky nature. A “jack of all trades,” he can also cook, solve a Rubik’s cube and skateboard.
“He’s real open, he’s real cool,” Herring said. “He’s humorous, he just likes to play around and joke a lot, but he knows when to be serious and turn it on and turn it off.”
Beneath that 6-foot-5, 260 hulking frame is still that ninth grader who wanted to build robots for NASA, even if he’s tackling SEC quarterbacks in the process.
“I always walk through Featheringill to see what’s going on there in the engineering building,” Weatherly said. “Really anything else that interests me, I try to pick up. I think I might pick up crotchet or knitting just because. I’ve seen a lot of videos of it; I want to make something cool for my family. I try to get involved with any little thing I can just try to experience as much as I can while I’m here.”
Photos by Design Director Bosley Jarrett