Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Vanderbilt football notebook

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson took the podium Wednesday at the SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., and touched on a number of topics, including the quarterback situation, the talented secondary and underrated offensive line. Here are the highlights.

And the quarterback is...: Johnson didn't come close to tipping his hand, saying good things about all four signal-callers.

"I think we're going to be much better at quarterback this year because Chris Nickson is confident and healthy again," Johnson said. "I think we did a disservice to him last year trying to play him as much as we did after he got hurt."

"Mackenzi Adams is going to be better because he's a year older," Johnson added. "He had some very fine games for us last year. Those two are going to be pushed by Jared Funk and Larry Smith. Whoever the quarterback is, he's going to have to play well in the pre-season to beat the other three out."

Later, Johnson hinted that it will most likely be Nickson or Adams getting the nod in game one, while Funk and Smith will be waiting in the wings.

"I think either one of those can be starters," he said. "I think Larry Smith and Jared Funk are going to push 'em. And they will be ready to step in if they're needed."

We want Moore: Johnson admitted that although cornerback D.J. Moore wants to expand his role on offense, the Dores have to be cautious.

"You have to be careful as a coaching staff when you do that because he's very valuable to our defense," Johnson said. "You don't want to strip him out, not have him available to play defense in the fourth quarter. Everybody wants to use him, I know that. I think that's a good sign."

Johnson said that Moore is a "very special football player" and "one of the best players in this conference."

"He's one of the most natural football players I've ever been around," he added. "He just seems to know how to play the game at cornerback. He anticipates where the quarterback's going to throw the ball. He's a great returner. Seems to be able to find the soft spot every time he returns the football."

Getting defensive: Johnson said the Commodores "can be just as good on defense this year as we were last year," largely because of the secondary, which returns Moore and Myron Lewis at cornerback, Reshard Langford and Ryan Hamilton at safety and Darlron Spead at nickelback.

"The secondary is really extremely important to our defensive scheme because we do try to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback," he said. "Those guys have to be really sharp back there to know what's going on, try to take advantage of that pressure."

Johnson predicted that Lewis should have a "breakout year," while also noting that Alan Strong's presence at cornerback could allow Moore to play some at nickelback and shut down opposing team's slot receivers.

Stoked for Stokes: Johnson expects a big year from sophomore linebacker John Stokes, even comparing him to a former VU great.

"John is going to be a huge player for us on defense this year," he said. "Just an outstanding young man, a great student, a scholar, a gentleman. I like to compare him to Hunter Hillemeyer, who is now playing for the Bears. A big rangy guy who can run, but also just extremely smart. Knows the defense already. Can do anything for you."

Marve in the middle: Johnson said that another Memphis product, redshirt freshman Chris Marve, has a "great chance" to start at middle linebacker.

The coach also predicted a bright future for true freshman linebacker DeAndre Jones, also from the Memphis University School.

"We like the Memphis area," Johnson said. "We try to get back in it. We finally made some inroads. Hopefully that will be the key for us to continue to get good players out of that area."

In it for the long haul:
Johnson recalled his first press conference as Vanderbilt's head coach.

"Some guy said, 'How long do you think you got before they fire you?' Really, he did. I said, 'I don't know.' You know, that never was a thought."

Seven years later, Johnson is still here.

"The thing is, our coaching staff has invested a lot into this program. They've worked extremely hard," he said. "We want to see it be successful. We're hoping we can get it done. I think we made strides towards that. I think we were extremely close last year. A couple games go either way, we're in a Bowl."

Johnson added that he doesn't plan to leave anytime soon.

"I don't think I'm going to coach anywhere else but Vanderbilt in my career," he said.

Changing history:
For the Commodores to be successful, Johnson said every player in his program has got to contribute.

"If you're coming to Vanderbilt just to be a doctor or a lawyer or a huge businessman, you know, we don't want you," he said. "We want you to be a great football player and be a great doctor and a lawyer and a great businessman."

"You know, if you're just going to sit there and just sort of go with the flow, we don't need you," Johnson said. "We need those guys who want to get something done, want to change history, want to make something happen at Vanderbilt."

Ground game improved: As we mentioned in today's running back breakdown, Johnson expects the ground game to be better.

"Jared Hawkins is ready to step up," he said. "We have Gaston Miller coming back, who is more explosive than anybody we've had. Jeff Jennings is back in the best shape of his life to help us with the tough yards, just grinding it out."

Expect Miller to provide the Commodores will the home-run threat they've sorely missed the past few years.

"I think Gaston will make plays when we don't block everybody," Johnson said. "If he could give us that capability, you know, it will certainly make things a lot easier."

"It's hard to grind the ball, you know, to block everybody right every time and grind the ball down the field and move it 80 yards against SEC defenses. You got to have some explosive plays. And hopefully he can give us those."

O-line underrated: The Commodores lost all five starters from last year's offensive line, but Johnson is not concerned, saying the unit has some experience and should be more athletic with the obvious exception of Chris Williams.

"I think Coach Caldwell does a fantastic job with our offensive line," Johnson said. "He prepared Chris Williams to go in the first round. He can coach 'em. We expect our offensive line to step up and be as good as we were last year."

Congrats, Reshard: Reshard Langford never thought he'd be attending SEC Media Days.

"It feels awesome to be here," he said. "It has been a completely new experience, but I think I am doing well. I never thought I would be a captain and starting. My hard work has paid off."

In addition to being a leader on the field, Langford is a great role model off it. This summer he has been working with inner-city children at the Martha O'Bryan Center in East Nashville.

"It is a wonderful feeling to help encourage these kids, give them hope that they can be successful and can go to college," he said.

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