Sunday, September 14, 2008

A farewell of sorts

When I launched The Sports VU on March 9, 2008, I had no idea what to expect. My life had just been turned completely upside down, and creating this site was one of the only things that seemed to make sense.

Six months and nearly 400 posts later, I can't begin to describe how much The Sports VU has meant to me. That's why it's with some sadness, along with much excitement, that I inform you, my loyal readers, that we're moving to

The decision to join SB Nation, a prominent network consisting of more than 100 sports bloggers, was a no-brainer. In addition to the new, fresh-looking website, we'll have the opportunity to attract an even larger audience without giving up anything. It's still going to be the same great guys bringing you the same great coverage.

The only downside? We needed a new name, although to be honest, I think this one might be better. There's nothing quite like putting my arms around my friends and swaying back and forth as we recite the alma mater, making sure to scream "Conquer and Prevail."

So while this isn't exactly a farewell, I figured it was a good opportunity to say thank you. Thank you for believing in me, for supporting me and, most importantly, for reading.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

SEC Power Rankings: Week 2

After two weeks of play, here's a look at how this committee of one thinks thinks the Southeastern Conference teams stack up. Who would have thought that Vanderbilt would be ranked this high? For another power ranking, check out our good friends at

1. Florida (2-0): The only concern is that the Gators still haven't found a running back other to take the load off that Tebow kid. Oh yea, and Warren Sapp called Urban Meyer a "classless dirtbag."

2. Georgia (2-0): This video says all you need to know about Knowshon Moreno.

3. LSU (1-0): Football just hasn't seemed as important after Hurricane Gustav swept through Louisiana. The Tigers return to action for the first time since August 30 when they smashed Appalachian State.

4. Auburn (2-0): Looks like the Tigers are going to stick with quarterback Chris Todd, who impressed in his first start last weekend against Southern Miss. But, as much as talk as there's been about the revamped offense, Auburn's strength is still its "D."

5. Alabama (2-0): The Tide didn't look nearly as impressive against Tulane, but a win is a win.

6. Vanderbilt (2-0, 1-0 SEC): The best part about Vanderbilt's 24-17 victory over South Carolina? Watching the offensive line dominate when the game mattered most. How often have you seen a Commodore squad do that?

7. Kentucky (2-0): Coach Rich Brooks thinks the Wildcats deserve more respect for their 2-0 start. If UK wins in SEC play, the notoriety will come.

8. Tennessee (0-1): Tennessee seems to do best when it's counted out. At least that's what Phillip Fulmer and the rest of Vol Nation is hoping...

9. Ole Miss (1-1): The Rebels were three seconds away from pulling off a huge win in Winston-Salem. Despite the loss, there's a lot to like about this squad, Jevan Snead in particular.

10. South Carolina (1-1):
Forget click-clack. For Steve Spurrier, it's more like tick-tock. That is, time's running out in Columbia, especially if he keeps losing to Vandy.

11. Mississippi State (1-1): The Bulldogs bounced back with a 34-10 victory over Southeastern Louisiana, but I'm still not sold on their offense.

12. Arkansas (2-0):
Don't let their record fool you. The Razorbacks are not very good.

Last week:
1. Florida 2. Georgia 3. LSU 4. Alabama 5. Auburn 6. South Carolina 7. Kentucky 8. Ole Miss 9. Vanderbilt 10. Tennessee 11. Arkansas 12. Mississippi State

Monday, September 8, 2008

A win to remember: Vandy makes home statement

There was no need to ask Bobby Johnson how it felt to beat a Top 25 opponent at home for the first time since 1992. The look on his face following Jared Hawkins’ seven-yard run on third-and-five in the closing minutes, which sealed Vanderbilt’s 24-17 victory over South Carolina last Thursday, said it all.

“I'm sure glad we got (the first down) because I hadn't figured out exactly what I was going to do, whether I was going to punt or take a safety,” Johnson said Monday. “So when (Hawkins) went across that line, I went, ‘Whew!’ That's one decision I don't have to make. That's why I was so happy on the sideline.”

Johnson smiled as he made that final comment and the room full of media members broke into laughter, knowing full well that his display of pure emotion on the sideline was the result of something much bigger than one play. Even the players could sense it.

“He's a native of South Carolina so I know that every South Carolina game means something to him, maybe just a little bit more than the others,” said senior quarterback Chris Nickson. “To please him, that's all you want to do. That's the guy who brought you here, the guy who recruited you, who gave you a great education.

“You want to try to do your best for him, and to see him happy makes you happy. That's all there is to it.”

Senior safety Reshard Langford saw a replay of the game on ESPN and said he felt the same way while watching an elated Johnson tear off his headset and embrace anyone in sight following Hawkins’ game-clinching run.

“I was extremely happy for him and the rest of the coaches because they work so hard and put so much work into preparing the game plan for us and preparing our practices and setting stuff up for us so that we just have to go out there and execute,” Langford said. “My hat goes off to those coaches. It's a great reward for them as much as it is for us.”

That’s quite the statement, one that shows just much how the players respect Johnson and his staff.

And one of the best parts about beating Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks on ESPN? The rest of the country got to see what Langford, Nickson and the rest of the guys already know.

Johnson was on the road recruiting over the weekend and seemed to relish his newfound celebrity status.

“I'll tell you one thing that I realized even more, even though I thought I knew it, a lot of people watch ESPN,” Johnson said. “I was in the Dallas airport and people were stopping us left and right, and in Shreveport and in Nashville. It was kind of cool.”

Asked if anyone mistook him for comedian Steve Martin, Johnson replied, “Not a soul.”
Vanderbilt did not get over any magical hump with the victory, nor is it guaranteed any future successes because of it. Still, it is impossible to downplay its significance.

“For the Vanderbilt community, we finally stepped it up and did something to make them proud,” Nickson said. “They could actually see and feel it for themselves.”

The Commodores have been close to winning these games in the past. This time they finished it.

“We expected to win,” Langford said. “We don't expect to lose going into any game and certainly didn't expect to lose Thursday night. We work hard and put that work in so we know that we're going to get the results out of what we put in.”

Johnson knows that too.

“I think we are now playing good enough to compete with everybody we play against,” Johnson said, “and I think that in itself is a charge to our players to say, ‘Hey, play as good as you can play. If you do, you've got a chance to win.’"

One-on-one with Chris Nickson

Had a chance to chat with Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson this afternoon. The fifth-year senior touched on a number of topics, including what it was like to beat South Carolina, what makes the Dores' offensive linemen so "nasty," and why he has so much respect for coach Bobby Johnson.

What did you see with the offensive linemen up front in that last drive that allowed you guys to close out the game?

Chris Nickson: I remember talking to them before that series and I told them that this is a time where you're in the trenches and you've got to step up and become a man. I told them that on the drive that Hawk scored on. The next drive I told them, "Do you remember what I told you on the last drive?" and they was like, "Yeah." I was like, "Well, forget it. This is the time." (Laughter)

While I was sitting there and talking to them all I saw was eyes and nods and I knew they understood exactly what I was saying. After that, they took it on themselves to finish the game. No one finished it but the o-line and their attitude towards the situation -- they weren't nervous, they weren't scared, they were just ready to kick somebody's butt, and that's what they did. They took it down the field and opened up some holes, large holes, biggest holes of the whole game,, and it showed.

Did you know you guys would run the ball on the last drive?

CN: I knew we were going to run it. Our confidence is in our running game, whether it be me or the running backs.

Surprised to see the young offensive line step up the way it did?

CN: I wasn't surprised, but I was very happy to see them grow up like that. I was very excited about watching them grow up and I think they did a tremendous job and stepped their game up to another level and I hope they can just continue to grow like that.

Is this the nastiest offensive line you've seen here?

I hope so. We've got some nasty guys and they grind it out. With Vierling leading them, I wouldn't be surprised if they were the nastiest bunch we've had.

What is it about Vierling?

CN: Cause he's a nasty boy. He's an aggressor.

How did it make you feel to see coach Johnson so emotional at the end of that game?

CN: He's a native of South Carolina so I know that every South Carolina game means something to him, maybe just a little bit more than the others. To please him, that's all you want to do. That's the guy who brought you here, the guy who recruited you, who gave you a great education, you want to try to do your best for him, and to see him happy makes you happy and that's all there is to it.

What it was like to accomplish exactly what you said you guys were going to do?

CN: For the Vanderbilt community, we finally stepped it up and did something to make them proud. They could actually see and feel it for themselves. We've felt it before when went to Georgia and South Carolina and the people there felt it with us, but we've never been in that situation where we were in the perfect atmosphere so everyone could feel the excitement and joy that we've had.

To beat South Carolina in such an atmosphere it makes us very happy, it makes the Vanderbilt community happy and everyone's pleased with the way the program's going so we're excited about it and looking forward to another big game.

What impresses you most about Jared Hawkins?

He's tough. Jared has been through a lot here and hasn't really gotten a lot of reps like he's probably wanted to. He's just been working his tail off and doing everything the right way, going about things the right way, being a great man, a great man of faith. His opportunity has finally presented itself and what he did was he came out and he put the team on his shoulders and carried us down the field. It showed that hard work pays off. I can't say enough about him.

One-on-one with Reshard Langford

Caught up with senior safety Reshard Langford this afternoon. The co-captain talked about a bunch of topics, including his admiration for Bobby Johnson and the rest of the coaching staff, the great play of his roommate Jared Hawkins and why he did not consider the Dores' 24-17 victory over South Carolina an upset.

What have you learned about your defense through two games?

Reshard Langford:
We learned that everybody out there wants to win. If I'm tired, I'm pretty sure my defensive linemen is tired and I know that they're not going to give up. We have that bond between each other as teammates that we're not going to give up regardless of what's going on out there. That willingness to win is what's going on right now with our defense.

Can you describe the feeling you had on Thursday night?

RL: It was fun. It was a great win. I'm not so much speechless, but there's just not much I can say about it. It was a great win and great for our program.

While last week's game should give you guys confidence, do you try to forget about it now?

RL: We can't play last week's game this week. We played South Carolina, that was a good win for us. Now we have to prepare for Rice because we know they're not who South Carolina was. I think you've just got to forget about it and prepare for the next week.

How many text messages do you think you got after the game?

RL: I charted this as a matter of fact. Miami of Ohio game I think I had 17 text messages. I had 19 text messages and one call after this past game so it was fun.

What did it mean to you to see how excited coach Johnson was after the game on Thursday?

RL: I was extremely happy for him and the rest of the coaches because they work so hard and put so much work into preparing the game plan for us and preparing our practices and setting stuff up for us so that we just have to go out there and execute. My hat's off to those coaches. It's a great reward for them as much as it is for us.

I feel like you guys don't see last week's game as an upset. Is that accurate?

We expected it. We don't expect to lose going into any game and certainly didn't expect to lose Thursday night. We work hard and put that work in so we know that we're going to get the results out of what we put in. We weren't expecting anything less.

What about the defense has impressed you most?

RL: The toughness has impressed me the most. Thursday night was a hot night and I know a lot of guys were going out cramping and when they went out, other guys came in and the tempo was still going the same as it was.

How pleased have you been with the younger players thus far?

RL: The way that we practice is the way that we play. Everybody's been practicing hard and it's just showing up on Thursdays.

On the other side of the ball, what it was like watching Jared seal the victory with two big first downs?

RL: Me being his roommate, I know Jared a little more personally than everybody else and I know that his willpower and how he plays is going to show. I know that he works hard and he showed it Thursday and obviously he was one of the better players on the offense and he helped us a lot.

How does it feel to see him enjoying success that you know he deserves?

RL: It makes me feel good because I know his struggles and things that he goes through. Him playing good, him doing well, has been great for us and great for him too, and I'm hoping it's building his confidence as a running back.

What do you like most about the way he plays?

RL: His attitude. He's very humble about what he does and he's a great running back.

One-on-one with Brad Vierling

Had a chance to catch up with co-captain Bradley Vierling this afternoon. The Commodores' starting center touched on a number of subjects, including the improved play of the offensive line and the career day from his good friend Jared Hawkins.

Talk about how much you've seen the offensive line improve in just two weeks.

Bradley Vierling: Every day in practice we get better and better. We're young and we're just starting to flow. With two games under our belt now, we're really starting to get a feel for each other and I'm pretty excited about what we can do.

What was it like to dominate the line of scrimmage when it mattered most in the fourth quarter and keep South Carolina's offense off the field?

BV: We knew we could do it and it was put on our shoulders. Our offensive line coach told us the only way we're going to win is if we do well. In the second half, we started to really get a feel for what they were doing and started being aggressive and had some fun.

What impresses you most about Jared Hawkins?

BV: I wasn't surprised by anything that Jared did or what he can do because I know he's always been a great back for us. I'm just excited whenever he gets that ball. You never know what's going to happen, if he's going to break it for 30 yards for a touchdown or slam it in there for four and just get us a first down. No matter what I know he's going to make great decisions back there and do a great job.

How would you describe Jared as a runner?

BV: Jared's fearless. When he gets the ball all he wants to do is just gain yards. It doesn't matter if he's breaking to the outside and running past people or trying to run them over through the middle, no matter what he's going to get the job done.

How does it feel to see him have success?

BV: It's very exciting for him personally to get the extra carries and extra yards and all that kind of stuff, milestones for him, and I'm just excited to be a part of Jared Hawkins' life and it's just a pleasure blocking for him.

What's your relationship like with Jared?

BV: We came in together, we've been through everything together, we're the same year, we're going to graduate together. It's just great to see him do well and as soon as we get Jeff back, we're going to have a very, very good tandem, and I'm really excited about it.

Do you think he has deserved more carries than he's gotten in the past?

BV: That's coach Kitchings. I have nothing to do with that. I'm not in their meeting rooms, I don't make the decisions. Whoever gets the ball, I'm just blocking for them no matter what.

What area of his game has Jarred improved the most over the past 3-4 years?

BV: I think whenever a running back comes in to college the No. 1 thing they have to work on is pass protection because in high school I don't think you really have to deal with that. You're always stronger and faster than everybody else. It's their hardest job to pick up all pass protections and blitzes and stuff like that.

Has he gotten a lot better in that area?

BV: Absolutely. He's improved on that more so than I'd say anything he's done. Knowing the offense better, knowing where blitzes are coming from, just getting your pads down and blocking better, he's really improving and he's looking good.

What type of person is Jared?

Jared's one of the hardest workers on the team. He's non-stop, go hard, always on the grind. Whatever that guy gets, he deserves.

Catching up with Bobby Johnson

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson spoke with the media this afternoon and touched on a number of topics, including the significance of Thursday night's victory over South Carolina, the loss of defensive back Darlron Spead, the play of his linebackers, offensive line and special teams, the superb performance from Jared Hawkins and how to prepare for Rice's dynamic offense.

With you guys finally playing a game on Saturday, is there something to be said for getting back to a sense of normalcy?

Bobby Johnson: A lot to be said for it, especially academically. We went to class Thursday at least all the way through the morning and then got them over and settled them down in the hotel after that. It was pretty tough. And then the next day, you've got to get up and go to class. And they had to do the same thing the week before after the Miami game so it's been pretty tough. And then the weekend, you're practicing on Saturday and Sunday and then we went Monday night, so yes, I'm very happy to be back on the regular schedule.

The secondary has obviously played well. Can you talk about their play back there and how the injury to Darlron Spead is going to affect things.

BJ: They have played well and we expected them to play well. They were a good group last year, made a lot of big plays for us, and a lot of the things we do on defense are predicated on the fact that they can give you pretty good coverage on almost every play.

Losing Darlron will certainly be a blow to that group. He was sort of a specialist at the nickel back position and did a great job at it and had a knack for rushing the passer when we were blitzing and also had a knack for getting underneath those underneath routes. The other night (he had) a beautiful interception, read it the whole way. I'm pretty sure he was hoping for the quarterback to throw it to his man because he was ready for it.

We'll figure out a plan that we're going to use to try to replace him and it'll probably be several different scenarios, maybe several different players playing that position.

The other night after the game you talked about upping the ante a little bit and having a responsibility now. Did you talk to your guys about that and what does that mean exactly?

BJ: We've worked hard to try to get us a big win at home and now that we've done it, we've got to prove that that's what we've been preparing for. If we have been preparing for it, we'll go out and practice this week and practice hard and learn what Rice does offensively and defensively and be ready to play when gametime comes here Saturday. You just can't hang your hat on one or two games here or there, or one performance or one big win. I thought it was two big wins. I thought Miami was a big win for us on the road and I think it helped us win the South Carolina game. We just have to keep it going.

Do the stakes need to be raised for a program to move forward, where all your guys do play with that urgency every week?

BJ: I think we've always played with a pretty good sense of urgency. I think we are now playing good enough to compete with everybody we play against, and I think that in itself is a charge to our players to say, "Hey, play as good as you can play. If you do, you've got a chance to win."

Talk a little about Chase Clement. Is that one of the best quarterbacks you'll face this year?

BJ: He does a lot of good things for them. He's fearless and he can throw the ball extremely well, but he also runs the ball very well and makes a lot of plays with his legs. He's a lot like Chris. They're not all scrambles, they're designed runs and he does a good job of running their offense. I guarantee you he's seen every kind of defensive formation you could probably throw at him during his career there.

What has impressed you the most about Jared Hawkins?

BJ: I expected Jared to have a good year. I said earlier that I thought we would be better at the running back position than we were last year, and Jared was going to be a big part of it. Jared runs bigger than he looks. He's 195 pounds. He's a stout kid, but he doesn't look that way if you just look at him on the field. I think he surprises a few people with his power. He doesn't mind at all running between the tackles and bouncing off tacklers and he did a great job of that the other night.

Did Hawkins respond well to the extra carries?

BJ: Oh yea, he's in a great shape. In the preseason he had a little problem with some shin splints and didn't get to practice as much as he or we would have liked, but the strain on his body didn't bother him. He's in great shape.

Do you think the players responded positively to Chris Reinert's injry?

BJ: I think we responded to his gestures. We were a little bit upset, that was a pretty tough injury, and when you've got your teammate down there, everybody's concerned about it. We were certainly glad to see him in great spirits when they took him off, but that was a tough, tough injury. Chris Reinert is a tough guy. He's just one of those guys who's always running around and always has a lot of enthusiasm, and it's kind of contagious to the other guys. I definitely think it helped us out a little bit, and the next run, I don't have to ask Jared, but the next run he bounced off about three of them and got in the end zone.

How hard is it for defenses to prepare for Chris Nickson?

BJ: It's the same problem we're having with Chase Clement. How do you defend everything that they do? I think Chris presents a lot of problems to defenses because a lot of is designed, some of it is off the cuff, and in the passing attack, if you can get some protection, I think Chris is a very fine passer. He'll continue to get better. What I've been really pleased with is his demeanor and how he's run the offense and his leadership ability I think has stepped up a tremendous amount, and that's just what you want out of a senior quarterback.

Schematically, what does Rice do offensively?

BJ: They have a stable of wide receivers that are used to being in that system where they catch a lot of balls and they see a lot of different coverages and react to coverages and they do a great job of that. But, they run the ball too. They make you stay honest.

You just can't drop eight of them back there and play against the pass, you've got to do both, and I think they have a tremendous amount of confidence right now in what they do. They feel like they can score points in bunches and they can do it anytime they need to do it. In the fourth quarter against Memphis, I think you saw that confidence, just step up and say, "Hey, we're gonna get it done," and they got it done.

Talk about the similarities between Vanderbilt and Rice.

BJ: We're smaller schools, but we have 85 scholarships just like everybody else. I've never bought into that small-school thing. They're a good program, they're up-and-coming. Coach has done a great job of getting his guys refocused. They've played two good games, just swamped SMU and has a great victory at Memphis. I think that says a lot for their team and their confidence.

Rice used to be in the Southwestern Conference and had to compete with Texas and Texas A&M and all those guys. Just like with Vanderbilt, it's tough to compete with those guys way back when everybody had more scholarships. Now, everybody has a little bit more even playing field I think and that's why you see so many upsets every week, and you see so many teams that used to not win are winning now. It's just a whole lot different than '61 or '62, whenever they went to a bowl.

When you're not playing on Saturday, how much do you pay attention to the college football landscape?

BJ: I actually was working this past weekend so I didn't get to see a whole lot, but yeah, I'm a fan. It's fun to watch, especially after you've won a game and you kind of relax that weekend. It's a whole lot more fun, to tell you the truth. You look at it like a fan, but you also look at it as a coach. What would you do if you were playing these guys and oh my gosh, look at that. How would we defend that? What are we going to do? It's still fun.

Thoughts on what happened to Washington?

BJ: It's a tough rule. I think that was a pretty obvious violation of the rule. If you want to say that rule was a bad rule, we can debate that, but it's a rule and they violated it. We came close to violating it and probably should have been called, I don't know. That's the thing -- I think you have to have very consistent enforcement of the rules by all the officials in the all the conferences.

The clear thing to me is, in our situation, we didn't violate the rule. We had a guy celebrating with his teammates and that's all he did right there. When you throw the ball 25 feet up in the air, that's a violation.

Thoughts on how the offensive line has done so far?

BJ: I hope we got better. I think we got better in the second half especially in the South Carolina game. I expect them to get better and better as we go along. I've really been pleased with Thomas Welch. I think Thomas has blocked extremely well. I thought Reilly Lauer and Ryan Custer had very good games this past week so if we can continue to develop some depth and if somebody gets dinged up, be able to put somebody in there and not miss any execution of off that, I would really be happy.

Surprised at the way they've controlled the first two games in the fourth quarter when you've needed to?

BJ: I don't know if I was surprised. I was very hopeful that we would be able to get a couple first downs, but that's pretty tough to do. We started at the five-yard line after the punt and then one first down is pretty good, but then to get the second one, I'm sure glad we got it because I hadn't figured out exactly what I was going to do -- whether I was going to punt or take a safety or what we were going to do.

So when he went across that line, I went, "Whew!" That's one decision I don't have to make. That's why I was so happy on the sideline. (Laughter)

Thoughts on the play of linebacker Patrick Benoist, who was named SEC Player of the Week?

BJ: It's a tough job. Against South Carolina, who does a good job of running the football and passing the football, he had a tough matchup. He was having to hang on to Jared Cook and that's a big target to try to settle in on right there. He kept battling and battling and got in and made some big plays for us. Patrick is really smart, and he knows exactly what we're doing, he knows what checks to make, he knows what the other team is going to do most of the time, and that's why he is as effective as he is. He's a smart player.

Thoughts on how John Stokes and Chris Marve have done, stepping in to a starting role?

BJ: It's a lot easier to say you're going to do that than getting in there and playing under the gun and being a starting linebacker in the SEC and they both played very well and are getting better every game. Chris was kind of hesitant in the first part of the Miami game and you could see him get better in the second half and he played much better against South Carolina than he did against Miami.

Thoughts on the play of the linebackers as whole?

BJ: They're pretty savvy. Patrick's had the advantage of playing a lot more, but all three of them study it just like you want your linebackers to do. You want them to anticipate what's happening and be ready to direct things out there on the field, and they're doing a good job of that even though they are young.

Talk about how pleased you are the special teams' performance through the first two games.

BJ: That was one of our goals over the offseason, to try to make our special teams better -- more sound first, and then hopefully make some big plays. The field goal block, that was just an individual effort by Greg (Billinger) getting in there, but I think that pressure and the pressure we had coming from the outside hopefully put a little bit more pressure on (Ryan) Succop on the next one that he missed.

There's always a benefit from blocking one. I think it scares them a little bit for the rest of them. And to tell you the truth, the play off of the punt was a fluke and it the South Carolina player, but our guys were very alert and jumped on it.

How did you go about improving your special teams?

BJ: We just examined each one of them. We sat down as a staff and we got the tape out and we looked at it and we've got some pretty smart coaches and when we get everybody in there and everybody gives their input on what we could do better or what they've seen before maybe at another school or another program and come up with what we want to do with our players. I think our coaches do a good job of getting our players in the right situations so they can be successful.

It was must have been pretty cool to be on the road this weekend in your Vanderbilt gear after Thursday night's victory.

BJ: It was. I'll tell you one thing that I realized even more, even though I thought I knew it, a lot of people watch ESPN. (Laughter). Going through airports. I was in the Dallas airport and people were stopping us left and right, and in Shrveport and in Nashville.

It was kind of cool, but it just goes to show you what exposure you get when you play Thursday night games, even though they're a little tougher to do. They're something we've got to be willing to do and we're pleased with the opportunity to have that this year.

Did anyone mistake you for Steve Martin?

BJ: Not a soul.

I'll have interviews with Chris Nickson, Reshard Langford and Brad Vierling up this evening so be sure to check back later.

Photo [The Tennessean]

Friday, September 5, 2008

Q&A with Greg Billinger

Defensive tackle Greg Billinger talked to the media yesterday after a career game against South Carolina, where he blocked a field goal and also had two sacks.

On blocking the field goal
It was pretty fun. I just tried to penetrate the gap as hard as I can, and I just got my hands up. The kicks were pretty low all game.

On this being a personal breakout game on a big stage
It felt really good. I never had a sack before. That kind of surprised me. I'm proud of my D-Line, I'm proud of the defense and offense. We just try to play as hard as we can, every play, every series. The whole summer, I don't really read the newspapers that much, but they didn't give us much credit out here. We took what we built over the summer and took it to the game today.

On what the win means for the team
We love it. I mean, we're...I'm kind of speechless right now. We went out there and played really hard like we always do in practice, we just do what we do in practice, it just takes care of itself. Like I said, I'm kind of speechless.

Emotions before the game
We came in and we looked at a lot of film from last year and tried to bring that same intensity as last year in their home stadium. We had to close ranks in the D-Line with as many D-linemen as we lost last year. We tried to the best of our ability to do that.

What's it like to see the Blackout
It felt really good. I don't think I've ever seen the place that packed. To have South Carolina's fans in that one little area and see black everywhere else felt pretty great. We heard them in the locker room actually, going "Who ya with, VU" and "Go Black." That's very motivating. I love the student body, I love our fans, I love all the parents and family members who come out and watch us from all different areas of the U.S. That's very motivating.

On the win being a confidence-booster
It gives me a lot of confidence. I'm going to go out there this week and have the same attitude next week. That's all I can do right now. You don't want to be cocky but you don't want to stay grounded.

Commodore Banter: Christmas Day Edition

No, you're not dreaming.

This morning Vanderbilt (2-0, 1-0 SEC) finds itself on top of the world, or at least the SEC East, after stunning South Carolina 24-17.

For the past few years, the Commodores have been looking for a signature home victory. They finally got one last night, beating Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks for the second straight year.

With Erin Andrews and the rest of the ESPN crew in the house, the Commodores overcame a 10-3 halftime deficit to pull off their first home win against a Top 25 team since defeating No. 25 Ole Miss on Sept. 19, 1992 — a span of 16 years.

“We owed it to (our fans),” said Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson. “We’ve had some great wins away, then we’ve come home and stunk it up. It’s a great win for us. We needed it.”

“We’re trying to defend our house,” said defensive end Steve Stone. “That’s a big point for us this year. We catch a lot of bad breaks here at Vanderbilt, but tonight we made our own breaks.”

Vanderbilt’s defense was as good as advertised, recording two first-half interceptions and four sacks, including two huge ones by Stone on South Carolina’s final drive.

In a game that tested their resilience and resolve, the Commodores played their best when it mattered most, which isn’t something we’re used to seeing, writes The Tennessean’s David Climer. And as he said, maybe, just maybe, “that glass ceiling is sporting a crack.”

It was the Commodores’ first win was its first in eight appearances on the ESPN flagship network, The Tennessean writes in its football notebook.

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson was refreshingly honest in his post-game press conference, and at one point wondered out loud why everyone thought it would be impossible to beat South Carolina after winning 17-6 in Columbia a year ago.

“I was surprised that so many people thought it would be real hard for us to beat them,” he said. “We beat them last year, and I don’t know why everybody thought they got so much better than we were getting. I was glad to get out there and play the game.”

Added tailback Jared Hawkins: “We’re not a blowoff team. We’re going to hit you in the mouth.”

That they most certainly did.

Weekend Picks

Southern Miss (+17.5) @ Auburn: Despite last weeks thrashing of UL Louisiana, I am still not sold on that offense. Southern Miss represents a real challenge, ESPN's Bruce Feldman went as far as to pick them, and though I think Auburn will win, the Golden Eagles will keep it close.

Tulane (+30)
@ Alabama: I think a bit of a letdown is to be expected from week 1 darlings Alabama. Tulane is no threat to win the game, but after last weeks emotional win in Saban's debut another big effort may be a bit much to ask.

Miami (+22.5) @ Florida: Yes, Miami is young. Yes, QB Robert Marve has never stepped on a college football field. Yes, Tim Tebow is a grown ass man. I still think this will be a closer than expected game. Randy Shannon is bringing the swagger back to the U and they certainly have the talent after last years #1 rated (ESPN) recruiting class to keep this one close.

Georgia (-24) vs. Central Michigan: The Chips feature the nations most underrated QB in Dan LeFevour, but they have always struggled when they step up in class as evidenced by losses last year at Kansas and Clemson by a combined 101 points. This years UGA squad is better than either of those teams so expect a blowout.

Mississippi (+7.5) @ Wake Forrest: Mississippi's speed will present some problems for the Deamon Deacons. Jevan Snead will only get more comfortable in his 2nd start for the Rebels as they march on towards a bowl game.

Arkansas (-13) vs. UL Monroe: UL Monroe continues its trip around the SEC West after getting blown out at Auburn last week. Bobby Petrino's team has some real problems after sqeaking by 1-AA Western Illinois last week, but I think he'll get the Razorbacks in order to beat the Warhawks by 2 TD's.

Last week 3-4, Season 3-4

Other picks I feel kinda good about.

Oklahoma (-21.5)
vs. Cincinnati: As former Bearcat QB Ben Mauk tries to regain eligibility in court the still eligible guys try to gain some respect in Norman. Oklahoma's national title aspirations gain some ground here with a blowout of another BCS team.

California (-13.5) @ Washington St: Last week while Cal beat a decent Michigan St. team at home, WSU was busy getting blown out at home by Oklahoma St. Jeff Tedford made the right call in benching Nate Longshore for Kevin Riley last week and it paid big dividends with 38

Last week 2-0, Season 2-0

Q&A with Bobby Johnson

Here's a recap of Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson's press conference following the Dores' 24-17 victory:

Opening statement:
"It was good to win the second one. I was very proud of our football team. I felt they played extremely hard in the second half and overcame some things in the second half. I'm just proud of the gritty effort by them to come out there and win that football game. We had several hurt and we had a bunch on the sideline for a while. I just couldn't be more proud."

On what he told the team after the game:
"I told them I was proud of them just like I'm telling ya'll. We move on from here. This I think ups the ante a little bit. We've got a responsibility now to keep playing this way, play better, get better, work hard, and hopefully we can do that."

On the win's significance:
"I have no idea right now. Hopefully we had recruits watching, we had potential ticket buyers watching, we had potential donors watching. It could mean a whole lot, but we have to follow it up. We just can't say, "Hey, we've done it." That's all it means. We've got to work hard to get ready for Rice this week and they'll present us problems so we've still got our work cut out for us big time."

On executing well when it mattered most:
In the second half we played our best football. When we had to get it done we got it done. We had some pretty tired puppies out there. Jared Hawkins ran hard, the offensive line blocked hard and the defensive line was relentless today. That's how you've got to win these kind of games. You've got to play hard the second half.

On the defensive effort in the first half:
"We sort of gave them their first seven, but after that, they got some good plays on us, but we kept fighting, kept fighting, blocked a field goal. They missed a field goal. That's why you've got to keep fighting. Just give yourself a chance to make a play or have them mess up. I think they played hard every play they were out there."

On beating Spurrier two years in a row:
"I was surprised that so many people thought it would be real hard for us to beat them. We beat them last year and I don't know why everybody thought they got so much better than what we were getting. I was glad to get out there and play the game. It was fun."

On using misdirection plays against South Carolina's quick defense:
"They were very aggressive on defense and we always have those plays in the game plan, but with a team that's going to be going hard at you, they're pretty reliable. You can get some things going."

On Stone's two sacks:
"To tell you the truth, I was watching every receiver they had to see where he was and I couldn't describe them to you if I had to right now. I looked down field. I'm an old secondary coach so I looked down field to see if we've got them covered and then I hear everyone cheering and I look back and we have him on the ground. I can't tell you much about them, but I know Steven Stone is relentless and he works extremely hard, and does exactly what you tell him to do."

On VU's blitzing:
"We had a zone pressure or full-out blitz on almost every down. Sometimes it was designed to just get the ball out. I think they started taking advantage of it in the fourth quarter, hitting some passes in the flat, but if it was third and nine and you can get them over there and tackle them and force them to punt, that's the idea."

On Nickson's play:
"I think he did a good job. He was rushed very hard all night, made some big plays for us, got us some situations where they had some great defenses called for some of the plays that we had called out of the huddle. I think he didn't try to force too many things and didn't try to do something he couldn't do so I was very pleased with the way he ran the game."

On the atmosphere:
"It was a great atmosphere here. You could hear the fans, especially the students, and it was great to have those people in the stands pulling for us. I don't know if we completely blacked it out, but we had a bunch of them there yelling for us."

On having a win like this at home:
"We talked about it before the game, that it was time to validate some of the wins we've had on the road and this is an opportunity we had. We beat Arkansas and then had them on the ropes here a couple of years ago and let them off, we had Georgia on the ropes last year and let them off. We talked about it. I don't know if it did any good, but we won. They were aware of it. Football coaches try, but they don't do a lot of motivating right before the game. It's done out there on the practice field and that's where our guys won the game this week."

On the difference in the two halves:
"Mainly it was sorting out what they were doing to us with their defense. It's a lot harder than most people think to try to change what 11 people do according to what the defense is doing. It just takes a little bit of time and then coach Cain did a great job of getting in the locker room and reformulating the game plan, and it worked."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Live Blog: Vanderbilt vs. South Carolina

SEC football has arrived! Let's just say, Thank God for that. I'm up in the Vanderbilt Stadium press box, and I'll be providing a running blog of the action between the Commodores and the Gamecocks.

7:34: The Class of 2012 just finished the traditional home-opener run onto the field, and I'm glad to say they looked very enthused.

7:36: Vanderbilt won the toss and will receive first.

7:40: Two runs by Jared Hawkins, one on a fake reverse to D.J. Moore, net a Vanderbilt first down.

7:44: Vanderbilt had an impressive running attack going, but the drive stalled at midfield after Nickson and Brandon Barden couldn't hook up on third down. Weak punt by Brett Upson gives the Gamecocks the ball at their own 27.

7:47: How about that D? Gamecocks go 3 and out on their first possession.

7:52: Gaston Miller got absolutely annihilated on an option by Darian Stewart and fumbled at the 20-yard line. I'm surprised his head didn't come off.

7:55: Big play by the Commodores, as DT Greg Billinger comes in for a sack of Chris Smelley on second-and-goal.

8:01 Touchdown South Carolina, after Kenny McKinley hauls in a pass from Smelley for 19 yards on third-and-goal. 7-0 Gamecocks.

8:07: Vanderbilt looked pretty lost on that possession. Nickson is 1-3 for 3 yards passing thus far as the Commodores punt it away.

8:10: Commodores aren't buckling down on third down. On third-and-four, Smelley got all day to throw and found Jared Cook for 22 yards.

8:15: A tipped pass is grabbed by Reshard Langford for an interception! No. 33 returns the ball 33 yards to the Gamecock 47.

8:17: Justin Wheeler makes a nice catch but it's nowhere near a first down after another poor possession. Wheeler's the first Vanderbilt receiver with a catch today.

8:22: At the end of the first quarter, Vanderbilt has gained 30 total yards, South Carolina has gained 55. With 1 turnover apiece, the difference in the game has been that the Gamecocks capitalized on the forced fumble, and the Commodores did not capitalize on the interception.

8:26: A corner blitz didn't work out as Smelley threw a screen for a 14-yard gain. It would have been more if Langford didn't make a shoestring tackle.

8:33: Difference between Miami's defense and South Carolina's: Nickson can't find anywhere to run today. Eric Norwood sacked Nickson to bring on fourth-and-18. That's 22 total yards so far for the Commodores.

8:36: Nickelback Darlron Spead intercepts Smelley and returns it 41 yards! He got hurt at the end of the play, but I'm not sure how he hurt himself. Vanderbilt's secondary has been as good as advertised today.

8:38: Spead jogged off the field to tremendous applause. He deserves it after that play.

8:40: Gaston Miller rumbles for Vanderbilt's first first down in a while. They're at the 15.

8:44: Crucial 3rd and goal coming from the 2-yard line.

8:45: Vanderbilt had first-and-goal at the 4-yard line and couldn't put it in. Bryant Hahnfeldt kicks a 19-yard field goal to put the Commodores on the board, but that's a major lost opportunity. 7-3 Gamecocks.

8:51: "If VU scores 24 points today, present your ticket at a Taco Bell and receive a free taco!" The way things are going, if Vanderbilt scores 24 points today, the Rapture will have occurred.

8:52: Chris Marve and Reshard Langford stop Mike Davis on 3rd-and-2 to force fourth down. But the Ol' Ball Coach had a trick up his sleeve; a fake punt nets a first down.

8:56: Patrick Benoist just laid down the law! South Carolina had to settle for a 41-yard field goal as time expired, giving them a 10-3 lead going into halftime.

HALFTIME, 10-3 South Carolina

Some telling halftime statistics

The Good

Vanderbilt has intercepted Chris Smelley twice, both for big returns, and have also sacked him twice.
South Carolina has gained just 21 yards on the ground, and 133 yards total.

The Bad

Chris Nickson is 2-5 passing for 14 yards, and has rushed 10 times for a total of 12 yards.
Vanderbilt's largest gain today has been 11 yards, a pass to Justin Wheeler on third-and-23.
The Commodore secondary has as many catches as the receivers.
Vanderbilt has gained 50 yards total.

Simply put, this is what we were all expecting. Two excellent defenses going against two offenses that are still finding themselves. Vanderbilt's inability to capitalize fully on good field position from the two interceptions, netting just three points total, is the main reason the team trails. The defense has done an excellent job of containing the Gamecocks running game and making some big plays in the secondary.

9:20: Vanderbilt forces a 3-and-out on South Carolina's first possession of the half. SC wideout Kenny McKinley appears to be out for the game with a hamstring injury.

9:24: Nickson finds Wheeler for a first down, then shows off his elusiveness for a five-yard gain.

9:25: Nickson cannot find anyone, gets dropped for a five-yard loss. The O-line is getting a rude welcome to SEC play tonight.

9:26: Lucky break for the Commodores, as Upson's punt bounces off SC's Addison Williams and Ryan Hamilton recovers at the Gamecock 30-yard line.

9:30: TOUCHDOWN VANDERBILT! Nickson eludes a sack, then finds tight end Brandon Barden over the middle, who tumbles into the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown. It took every ounce of restraint not to yell just now. We're all tied up, 10-10!

9:34: As the crowd roars, South Carolina tries to convert a third-and-3. Mike Davis gets just enough on his run to get a first down and momentarily quiet the stadium.

9:39: Credit South Carolina for not letting the reversal of fortune get to them. They're engineering a very cool drive down the field, down to the Vandy 24. By the way, Greg Billinger has been all over the place today.

9:42: Give Billinger a field goal block today too! He got a hand up to deflect Ryan Succop's attempt, and John Stokes picked it up and took it to the Vanderbilt 42. Vanderbilt Stadium is rocking!

9:46: Reverse to Sean Walker and a pitch to Jared Hawkins gives Vanderbilt 1st-and-goal at the one.

9:48: TOUCHDOWN VANDERBILT! 17-10 Commodores after a one-yard sneak by Nickson. You can see Spurrier sweating from here.

9:54: Running back Mike Davis is on the sidelines. South Carolina's got the ball in Vanderbilt territory.

10:01 Now Davis is back in, as South Carolina has the ball on Vandy's 34-yard line. Good pressure by Broderick Stewart to force an incompletion.

10:04: Another field goal attempt by Ryan Succop, and this one he just misses wide left! Great defensive stand by Vanderbilt in their own territory, and Succop's nightmarish second half continues.

10:07: This is the best home crowd I've ever seen at a Vanderbilt football game.

10:08: Play-action by Nickson absolutely bamboozles the Gamecocks as tight end Austin Monahan was left all by himself on the left side of the field. 18-yard gain to midfield for Vanderbilt.

10:10: This game has had a lot of unusual occurrences; now we have a defensive holding call on South Carolina's Captain Munnerlyn to keep Vanderbilt's drive alive.

10:12: Pass interference on Captain Munnerlyn gives Vanderbilt a first down at the 21-yard line. Munnerlyn's on the sideline now, looking like he wants to kill somebody.

10:16: Vanderbilt receiver Chris Reinert was injured on the play and has been carted off the field. As he goes, he waves his arms in the air to pump up the crowd.

10:18: TOUCHDOWN VANDERBILT! Jared Hawkins broke a couple of tackles and took it to the house on the first play after Reinert pumped up the crowd. It's 24-10 Vanderbilt, with 9:28 to play, capping an 8-play, 69-yard drive.

10:23: Vanderbilt squibbed the kickoff and South Carolina took it back to the 45. It's now first-and-10 Gamecocks at the Vanderbilt 40.

10:24: Vanderbilt's looking a little tight on defense; the Gamecocks have a first-and-goal. Vanderbilt calls a time-out.

10:29: South Carolina touchdown, as Chris Smelley finds a wide-open Freddie Brown in the back of the end zone. 24-17 Commodores after a quick, 55-yard drive by the Gamecocks.

10:35: 3-and-out by Vanderbilt, and South Carolina takes over at the Vandy 48-yard line after a 30-yard punt by Upson.

That's all for me. I'm heading down to the field for the remainder of the game.

1:39 (A.M.) Wow, what a game, what a finish! Hats off to Greg Billinger and Steve Stone for stepping up when the Gamecocks were driving, and then some seriously gutsy running by Jared Hawkins to seal the deal. He said after the game that he loves having the weight on his shoulders at the end, you've got to love that.

Your final: Vanderbilt 24, South Carolina 17. Vanderbilt's 2-0 for the first time in three years, with a home win over a ranked team for the first time since September 19, 1992. This will undoubtedly spark a great deal of discussion and excitement over the next few days so check back tomorrow for some Q&As with Greg Billinger, Jared Hawkins, Chris Nickson and coach Bobby Johnson.

Commodore Banter: Gameday edition

The day has finally arrived. Vanderbilt vs. South Carolina on ESPN. I don't think I've ever been more excited for a football game. Maybe it's because Erin Andrews is here. Maybe it's because it's my final SEC home opener as an undergraduate. Or maybe it's because there's some part of me that just knows Vanderbilt is going to win.

There's no question that South Carolina is out for revenge, writes Rick Scoppe for The USA Today.

"Vanderbilt probably thinks we're some slack players," said wide receiver Kenny McKinley. "They kind of ran through us last year. They probably think we're soft. We've got to let them and everybody else know that South Carolina's for real."

At the same time, don't expect the Gamecocks to take the Dores lightly, writes Brett Hait of The Nashville City Paper.

“Give Vandy credit,” Spurrier said. “They played outstanding defense, which they can do. They thoroughly beat us.”

Hait also has a number of good tidbits in his gameday notebook:

*Vanderbilt is going to know where McKinley is on the field at all times.

*South Carolina is going to try to make Chris Nickson a passer.

*USC linebackers Jasper Brinkley and Eric Norwood weigh more than 270 pounds. That's more than some Vanderbilt offensive linemen.

While we're only in week two, there's no question that this a huge game for both teams, writes The Tennessean's Mo Patton.

Patton also takes a look at how the Commodores stack up, position-by-position, with the rest of the SEC.

In addition, Patton looks at which team has the edge and predicts a 24-20 victory for South Carolina.

South Carolina is going to need to a better performance from its offensive line, writes The Tennessean's Joe Biddle.

The Post & Courier takes a look at three key matchups, including Moore vs. McKinley
and Chris Nickson vs. the USC defensive front, and predicts a 27-13 Gamecock victory.'s Chris Low predicts a 21-13 victory for the Gamecocks, but writes that it won't be easy.

"The Commodores are a different team when Chris Nickson's healthy, so this isn't a good time to be getting them. Chris Smelley will get his chance at quarterback for the Gamecocks, who will survive thanks to their improved defense."

Finally, here's my take on tonight's game: South Carolina's defense is very good, even for SEC standards. They're quick to the ball, they hit hard and they play with an attitude. With that said, the Gamecock offense is mediocre at best. They're starting a different quarterback, Spurrier's already complaining about his offensive line and their running game is nothing special.

You can say pretty much the same thing about Vanderbilt. The Dores defense is very talented, while the verdict is still out on their offense. So, what's gonna give?

Tonight's game is going to come down to special teams and field position. Seems obvious enough, but I think it's even more important than usual for Vanderbilt. If the Commodores can force a few USC turnovers (and capitalize on them) and then take care of the ball on offense, I truly do like their chances. Furthermore, they'll probably need a big play on special teams to put the offense in position to score.

In addition, it's worth mentioning that Vanderbilt did not show any of its trick plays or creative offensive sets against Miami (OH) so do not be surprised to see D.J. Moore, Sean Walker and even Jamie Graham used in double reverses, end arounds, etc.

Just putting together this post has gotten me fired up. Chris Nickson said earlier this week that games like this are why players come to Vanderbilt. Well, games like this are also why I chose to attend Vanderbilt. It doesn't get much better than this.

Prediction: Vanderbilt 24, South Carolina 20

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Price feature on E 60

SEC Power Rankings: Week 1

After one week of play, here's a look at how this committee of one thinks the Southeastern Conference teams stack up. For other SEC power rankings, check out Chris Low at and our good friends at

1. Florida (1-0): The Gators smashed Hawaii 56-10 and while some questions remain about their defense, good luck finding a team that outscores them.

2. Georgia (1-0): The nation fell in love with Knowshon Moreno, Matthew Stafford and the rest of the Bulldogs this offseason, and for good reason. However, they've already been decimated by injuries and face a brutal schedule, making a national title that much tougher.

3. LSU (1-0): Take that, Michigan. The Tigers trounced Appalachian State in week one and despite their inexperience at quarterback, could very well challenge for another SEC championship.

4. Alabama (1-0): Nick Saban is trying to downplay the Tide's 34-10 thrashing of Clemson, but not us.

5. Auburn (1-0): The Tony Franklin era got off to a somewhat shaky start, but with their defense, the Tigers have time to get their offense in sync.

6. South Carolina (1-0): Kenny McKinley and the rest of the South Carolina wide receivers are still upset that D.J. Moore called them "average" after the Commodores beat them 17-6 a year ago. Unless the Gamecocks find a quarterback, they won't even have a chance to prove Moore wrong tomorrow night.

7. Kentucky (1-0): Quarterback Mike Hartline looked iffy in his first career start, but the Wildcat defense proved that it's legit.

8. Ole Miss (1-0): The Rebels could turn out to be the surprise team in the SEC, but it's just not the same without Coach O.

9. Vanderbilt (1-0): Erin Andrews and the rest of the ESPN crew is coming to Nashville tomorrow night to see if the Dores can finally win a big SEC game at home.

10. Tennessee (0-1): While I almost always root for SEC schools in non-league games, I have to admit that I wasn't too heartbroken on Monday night.

11. Arkansas (1-0):
The Razorbacks barely got by Western Illinois, a good sign that it's going to be a long year in Fayetteville.

12. Mississippi State (0-1): The Bulldogs were terrible on offense in their 22-14 loss at Louisiana Tech, and it's hard to find a reason why they're going to get much better.

McKinley excited for matchup with Moore

South Carolina wide receiver Kenny McKinley has not forgotten about the comments Vanderbilt cornerback D.J. Moore made following the Commodores' 17-6 victory a year ago.

Moore, who's generally as modest and respectful as they come, called the Gamecocks receivers an "average" group. Not exactly fightin' words, but since athletes love to feel disrespected, it should come as no surprise to learn that McKinley is still upset.

Here's the exchange McKinley had with South Carolina media members on Monday when asked about Moore (via Stalking Darrin Horn):
McKinley: “He’s pretty good. He’s all right. I think he’s a good player.”

Reporter No. 1 (laughing): “You don’t seem to be giving him too much credit.”

McKinley: “He’s a pretty good player.”

Reporter No. 2: “That’s it? A lot of people think he’s one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, if not THE best.”

McKinley: “I haven’t played against every cornerback in the SEC. I think he’s a good player though.”

Reporter No. 1: “You lined up against him last year, right?”

McKinley: “Yeah, he’s a pretty good player.”

At this point almost everyone was laughing, including McKinley.

McKinley: “Y’all want me to say something about him. I think he’s a good player. That’s all I can say.”

Then it got to the nub.

McKinley: “After they beat us, he was like, we’re just an average group of receivers, we weren’t all that good, this and that. He’s a pretty good player. Hopefully we’ve got (something) for him this week.”

Reporter No. 3: “Did you go out and cut out that quote for this week?”

McKinley: “Nah, I just go out and play. I feel like if I play my game then –"

He thought a second.

"He’s a good player.”

I'd love to hear what McKinley has to say if Moore picks off two more passes tomorrow night...

Also, make sure to check out The State's Seth Emerson's terrific feature on Moore, a South Carolina native.

Moore always wanted to be a Gamecock, but South Carolina did not offer him until late in the recruiting process, well after he had committed to Vanderbilt. Moore was torn, but ultimately decided to stick with the Commodores. The rest, as they say, is history.

A few nuggets from the story:

*Football might have been Moore’s third-best sport at Broome High School. He was a three-time all-state selection in basketball (I've played against him at the rec and I'm telling you the dude can flat-out ball) and also a state-champion high jumper.

“By far, yes,” said Broome's Quay Farr, when asked if Moore was the best athlete he has coached.

*Somehow, Moore went virtually unnoticed in the recruiting process. He received offers from Wofford and Furman before Vanderbilt, after a long evaluation, offered him for football.

The Vanderbilt coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for identifying players like Moore, along with others, who fly under the radar of other SEC school.

*Moore is acquaintances with many USC players, including wide receivers Freddie Brown and Moe Brown.

“You could tell he’s one special player, and he gets after it real well," said Moe Brown. "He works hard, and he’s just a phenomenal athlete. His whole demeanor just speaks to success.”

Commodore Banter (9/3)

Just thinking about tomorrow night gives me the chills. Here are a few links to help pass the time until then...

Chris Nickson has seen the Commodores silence Rocky Top in 2005, win between the hedges in 2006 and pull off the upset in Columbia in 2007. But after four years, Nickson is still waiting to watch West End go wild after a home victory, which is why the senior quarterback could not hold back his excitement when discussing Thursday night's home opener against South Carolina.

"Every player on our team came to Vanderbilt to have experiences like this," Nickson said. "We have an opportunity to fill out our stadium, something we've been looking forward to for a long time. This is what you play for. This is the life of SEC football."

Click here to read the rest of my feature story for (I also posted it on this site yesterday).

The Nashville City Paper's Brett Hait has a bunch of nuggets in today's football notebook:

*RB Jeff Jennings will likely be out with a shoulder injury, leaving Jared Hawkins and Gaston Miller to share most of the carries. Redshirt freshman Ryan van Rensburg could also see time with Kennard Reeves out with an injury.

*Myron Lewis is underrated.

*The play of Vanderbilt's defensive line is going to be critical.

Don't underestimate just how much Vanderbilt's victory in Columbia bothered the Gamecocks.

"It was a tough game to lose, a tough game to swallow," said wide receiver Moe Brown. "But I think it'll make us better because of it."

At the time, South Carolina was 6-1 and ranked No. 6 in the country. They went on to lose five straight.

“It still bothers me. It messed up our perfect season,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We were No. 6 in the nation and went out there like they were going to lay down for us or something. They were a good team, but we felt we were better than them.”

“This year we’re not going to go out there and think they’re going to lay down,” Munnerlyn said. “It’s not like we’ve got to pay them back. But it still kind of bothers me a little bit. We’ve got to go out there and play hard.”

For those of you driving to the game tomorrow night, make sure to check out the new traffic plans to help cut down on gridlock.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Commodore Banter (9/2)

Can't believe we're just two days away from Vanderbilt's home opener and Erin Andrews' arrival in Nashville...

First, congrats to Chris Nickson, who was just named SEC Offensive Player of the Week.

Two lessons we learned about the Dores after week one: A winning record is not an impossible dream. And too bad, they're not in the ACC. Mike Lopresti of The USA Today writes that Vanderbilt does SEC proud on, off field.

As we discussed here in yesterday's football notebook, VU coach Bobby Johnson has no problem with quarterback Chris Nickson carrying the ball as often as he did against Miami (OH), writes Brett Hait of The Nashville City Paper.

“Whatever wins,” Nickson said. “I’m a very effective runner and feel like I can make big plays with my running ability. If in any way the game plan sees fit that I run 30 times, I’m down for it as long as we’re winning.”

"I'm very comfortable with running the ball if I have to — whatever the game presents," Nickson told The Tennessean's Mo Patton. "All in all, I just want to win. If I have to take 40 hits, I'm OK with that."

In another piece, Hait notes that Johnson is concerned about his team's lack of depth at wide receiver. As he points out, "redshirt freshmen Jamie Graham and Udom Umoh will be asked to grow up quickly."

As for South Carolina, Steve Spurrier announced that quarterback Chris Smelley will start on Thursday after Tommy Beecher got the nod in the opener.

“He played well, and he deserves to start probably if Tommy wasn’t injured. But Tommy is injured, so we don’t have to worry about this, that or the other,” Spurrier said. “So it appears Chris is going to be our starter right now unless something happens between now and Thursday night.”

Vanderbilt fans would love the hard-hitting but soft-spoken safety Emanuel Cook from South Carolina.

Finally, make sure to check out ESPN tonight at 6 p.m. as former VU pitcher David Price will appear on the program "E:60."

Dores plan to make history at home

Chris Nickson has seen the Commodores silence Rocky Top in 2005, win in the hedges in 2006 and pull off the upset in Columbia in 2007.

But, after four years, Nickson is still waiting to watch West End go wild after a home victory, which is why the senior quarterback could not hold back his excitement when discussing Thursday night’s home opener against South Carolina.

“That’s why every player on our team came to Vanderbilt – to have this experience,” Nickson said. “We finally have an opportunity to fill out our stadium, something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time. We finally have the support system. We finally have the fan base.

“This is what you play for. This is the life of SEC football, and we’ve been waiting for Vanderbilt to get there a long time.”

While Nickson said he will treat the game like any other, he knows that in many ways, it is not.

“I think it will be tremendous for the community just to start the season off right,” he said. “We already have one win under our belt and it wouldn’t hurt anything for us to get another one, especially in the SEC. For me personally, I haven’t beat South Carolina as a starting quarterback and it’s something that I look forward to, and I hope to take advantage of my last opportunity.”

Nickson isn’t the only one who’s counting down the minutes until the Commodores run onto Dudley Field for the first time this year.

“I probably won’t sleep much (Wednesday night),” said senior wide receiver Sean Walker, “but I know I need my sleep for the game. I’m just ready.”

They all are, and how could they not? The lights will be on, the ESPN cameras will be rolling, the entire nation will be watching – it’s a football player’s dream.

At the same time, Walker knows that the Gamecocks will be ready too.

“It’s definitely on their mind,” Walker said of Vanderbilt’s 17-6 victory of the then-No. 6 South Carolina. “They’re coming in here with a vengeance just trying to take over our stadium like we did their stadium last year, but we’re not going to let that happen.”

Nickson agreed.

“I feel like we’re a team on their list to beat, and they probably want to beat us pretty bad if they can because of last year and kind of prove themselves to their community as a great team in the SEC this year,” he said. “The way we handle that and the way we look at is we just want to bring our best game and let whatever happens from there take care of itself.”

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson sees it the same way. It’s the second game of the season against a quality SEC opponent, and he refuses to treat it as anything more than that.

“I've said it probably a thousand times: there is no hump,” Johnson said. “We won't get over a hump if we beat South Carolina. We're still going to have to play good the next week to win.

“Yeah, it'd be a nice win, a real nice win, but I don't think it's going to put us on an extra-special place where everybody says, 'Vanderbilt has arrived.' You have to always go at it every week."

Johnson’s players feel the same way. Still, it’s impossible not to think about what the campus would look like after a victory on Thursday.

“I think it’d be good because we’ve had some huge wins on the road, but our fans really haven’t had a chance to see many of those firsthand,” said safety Ryan Hamilton, a redshirt junior.”I think it’ll be really exciting, being our first home game, to start the season off right at home with a big win like that.”

And as much as it would mean to the fans, it’d matter most to the players, who have been running sprints, lifting weights, watching film and studying the playbook for months – all for moments like this one.

“Man, if we win this game right here, everybody on this campus would just be so happy,” Walker said, “but more importantly, it would be the team. It’s been us since the beginning.”

Monday, September 1, 2008

Vanderbilt Football Notebook: Press Conference Highlights

Just got back from Bobby Johnson's weekly press conference at McGugin as the Commodores prepare for their home opener Thursday night against South Carolina (7:30 p.m. CT, ESPN). Here are 16 things we we learned:

1. Johnson had no problem with Chris Nickson running as much as he did against Miami (Ohio).

"I think everybody has a little bit of a misconception that he just pulled the ball down and ran it all the time," Johnson said. "Most of those runs were designed plays and the offensive line did a great job of executing on those plays and did some great blocks and he took advantage of it. He did scramble some, but nearly as much as everyone thinks."

Asked if he was pleased with his offensive performance, Johnson did not hesitate.

"Sure," he said. "I think if we had to throw it more, we would've had a good chance of doing it, but we were running the ball and had the lead, had some big plays to get the lead, and I don't care who you're playing against, you play to win the game, not to get more yards. We were trying to run out the clock, to tell you the truth."

Furthermore, Johnson is not overly concerned about Nickson getting injured.

"I think he got hurt last year in the pocket so I don't it's that big of a concern," he said. "We know we have to run the quarterback some, we've got to do it to stay competitive and it gives us a chance for some big plays.

"And then we've got three other guys that we feel like can go in there if he gets dinged up or has to come out for a few plays or has to come out for the rest of the game. Chris is stout. If you look at him on the field, you don't realize how stout of an athlete he is. He's a big guy and he can hold his own, but obviously we don't want to get him hit."

2. Johnson dismissed the notion that a home victory over South Carolina would mean much for the program.

"I don't know if this is signature or not. It's the second game, that's the way we're treating it," he said. "We're playing South Carolina, a quality opponent. I've said it probably a thousand times: there is no hump. We won't get over a hump if we beat South Carolina.

"We're going to have to play good the next week to win. I don't care who it is, we have to play well. Yeah, it'd be a nice win, a real nice win, but I don't think it's going to put us on an extra-special place where everybody says, 'Vanderbilt has arrived.' You have to always go at it every week."

I agree with Johnson to an extent. But, at the same time, you can't deny that beating a Steve Spurrier-coached team on national television in front of your home crowd would be huge, especially when every big win over the past three years has come on the road and when the next two games are very winnable (Rice and Ole Miss).

3. Vanderbilt hopes to build off of last season's 17-6 victory in Columbia.

"We did play well (last year)," Johnson said. "We were really executing well on defense and putting some pressure on South Carolina's offense. Then when we got the ball away from them, our offense capitalized several times and got just enough points.

"We were upset. We thought we should have beat Georgia the week before and we had something to prove and our guys went down there and just played hard. I was proud of their effort that day."

4. That D.J. Moore kid is pretty good.

"He just knows how to play football," Johnson said. "It's just a knack he has to know where the ball's going to be. He had an interception, he had a sack, a long punt return right after the sack, he tackled well. He can do it all. He's different than most of them I've ever seen. He's a lot of fun to have on your football team I know that."

5. And Myron Lewis isn't bad, either.

"Myron has gotten better and better every game, and he did a fantastic job in man coverage versus Miami and allowed us to run some defenses where we could get some people in the box and stop the run," Johnson said. "Probably people don't notice Myron as much because of D.J., but he's a good player and he's a physical specimen, probably 6'2" 200 and something pounds, and can run.

"He not only did it on defense, he did it on the punt return. He's manning that gunner up on the outside and kept him from making the tackle so he's becoming a complete player."

6. Vanderbilt's secondary is going to be tested on Thursday.

"I hope they're pumped up. They're going to need to be pumped up because they're going to be tested, there's no doubt about it," Johnson said. "South Carolina has excellent schemes, excellent receivers. Kenny McKinley and (Dion) LeCorn and all those guys can light you up so we've got to be ready to play, but that's usually the case every week."

7. The Commodores could care less who starts at quarterback for South Carolina.

"We've got our defensive scheme and we stick to it," Johnson said. "We're playing faster now, we're playing more aggressive, we're bringing more pressure and I think it's paid off for us.

"We're going to continue to do the same things no matter who the quarterback is, and I think especially with coach Spurrier, you're playing against his offense, not necessarily the quarterback."

8. Vanderbilt hopes to take advantage of South Carolina's offensive line, which has been criticized heavily by Spurrier.

"Our first line has been playing pretty well," Johnson said. "We don't have a lot of guys after who have played in games and been productive, so it just depends on how long we can last in there and if they get any better or we get any better. That certainly will be a key spot because if they're going to pass the ball, we've got to get pressure on them."

9. South Carolina's defense is legit.

Johnson said he was very impressed with the Gamecocks in their season-opening victory over North Carolina State.

"You can see they play with a lot of confidence," he said. "They get up and they play a lot of man, and they crowd the line of scrimmage, and their defensive line is going to be very aggressive. They get up field.

"We had a little bit of problem with that last week with people getting penetration so it's certainly be a challenge for our offense to meet that intensity that they have on defense."

10. In addition to middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, Johnson said the Gamecocks feature several "star-quality people on defense," including:

*Strong safety Emanuel Cook

"Emanuel Cook might be one of the best tacklers I've ever seen in football," he said. "He does a form tackle every time, and people break through the line sometimes and when they run down there about five yards and boom, he's got them on the ground. He's tough."

*Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn

"He is a great cover corner and a dangerous kick returner," he said.

*Linebacker Eric Norwood

"Norwood is sort of like D.J. Moore," Johnson said. "If the ball's somewhere, you can find Norwood there."

11. Johnson is pleased with the performance of Vanderbilt's two specialists, Bryant Hahnfeldt and Brett Upson.

"I was glad to see Bryant knock those two field goals through there with ease. And Brett, we weren't really concerned about his sickness anymore."

Then, Johnson couldn't help but throw a jab at Upson.

"He was over it and to tell the truth, it doesn't take three or four weeks to get a punter ready to play," he said. "Once he got well, he was OK."

12. Vanderbilt is hurting at wide receiver.

"Oh yeah, we've lost Earl Bennett for one. Ya'll remember him," Johnson said. "And then Alex Washington gets hurt the first day of spring practice and then George Smith as a stress fracture before the year starts and then John Cole hurts his meniscus last week and he's going to be out probably for the rest of the year.

"So those are four guys that we could possibly have available on our football team that I think would make a huge difference. So yes, a big yes."

Smith is probably at least one week away from returning.

"George is getting better every day and if you asked Dr. George Smith, he'll tell you that he's ready to go but he's not," Johnson said. "The worst thing that could happen to George is us trying to bring him back early and then he gets re-injured and he can't play for the rest of the year, and that's a possibility if you try to rush that stress fracture injury."

13. Johnson likes the idea of playing on Thursday night...and knows that Vanderbilt students enjoy tailgating.

"Hopefully all the students will be out there. It'll be a night game. They'll go to class and start their partying early enough to get out for the kickoff," he said. "It's 7:30, right? So that ought to be late enough for them to get out there and hopefully it'll be a great atmosphere and I think that's great for our program.

"I think the stadium looks fantastic right now so hopefully we'll get a little exposure there. It's fun," Johnson added. "But, to tell you the truth, I'll be glad to get on the Saturday schedule next week because with our academic schedule here, Thursday night games are tough. It's not that bad to have one every once in a while, but when you have two in a row, it's pretty tough."

14. Playing on Thursday allows the coaching staff to go on the road and evaluate recruits over the weekend.

"We can go out Friday and they'll be a lot of games we can go see," Johnson said. "The two hurricanes might affect us a little bit. It normally would be a day that we can get on some planes and go long distances, maybe to Louisiana or Florida and get some evaluations that we couldn't get during the year so we'll just have to watch the weather and see how we do, but we'll try to take advantage of it."

15. Johnson couldn't help but make fun of fellow SEC coach Nick Saban.

When asked if Johnson was on the road last weekend, he said, "No, because the evaluation period didn't start until this week. You couldn't go out. That would be against the rules."

Then, Johnson got the room laughing when he asked the reporter, "Did you see anybody else out?"

The Tennessean's Joe Biddle replied with "Nick Saban," to which a smiling Johnson said, "Yea, I think he was."

Great stuff.

16. It's not easy to prepare for a Steve Spurrier offense.

"He tries to get the matchup he wants and you try to prevent that matchup from happening," Johnson said. "It's a little bit of give and take there, cat and mouse, whatever you want to call it."

"Is it best for us to execute what we know best or is it best for us to change?" Johnson said. "And that's why coaches spend all night watching film and get up early the next morning and watch some more."

That's all I've got for now, but make sure to check back later for Q&A's with Chris Nickson, Sean Walker and Ryan Hamilton.

Commodore Banter (9/1)

Hope all of you had a great weekend and are enjoying your Monday off from work. Unfortunately for us, Vanderbilt still holds class on Labor Day. Anyways, onto the links and the Commodores prepare to "Black Out" South Carolina on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. CT.

The Sports VU's own David Rutz has a bunch of good tidbits in today's football notebook for The Tennessean.

*The Commodores suffered another setback at wide receiver after freshman John Cole suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee during Thursday's 34-13 victory at Miami (Ohio) and will be sidelined for at least eight weeks. There is a chance Cole can receive a medical redshirt and retain four years of eligibility.

With George Smith (foot) and Alex Washington (knee) already out of action, Vanderbilt is now even more thin at wide receiver.

*Jeff Jennings (bruised shoulder) remains day-to-day and coach Bobby Johnson said "he could be ready to go" on Thursday night at home against South Carolina.

*Perhaps the most exciting part about Thursday's home contest with the Gamecocks? ESPN's announcing team, which includes play-by-play announcer Chris Fowler, color analysts Craig James and Jesse Palmer and the blogosphere's favorite sideline reporter Erin Andrews.

As for the Gamecocks, coach Steve Spurrier remains noncommittal about his starting quarterback.

Tommy Beecher started the season opener, but threw four interceptions and was injured late in the third quarter. As a result, back-up Chris Smelley could get the nod.

"I think they'll have the same game plan for either one," Johnson said. "We're not concerned about a quarterback controversy. Whoever they put in there, we'll line up and play against them."

David Rutz of The Hustler issued his report card for the Commodores' season-opening victory.

I would say that he was too generous with the offensive line (B-) and running backs (C+). Also, I'm a bit confused by his claim that "Miami's receivers on crossing routes exposed the linebacking corps' lack of speed." I didn't think Chris Marve, Patrick Benoist and John Stokes were that slow...

I'm off to the weekly press conference in a couple of hours so make sure to check back this afternoon for all the latest on your Vanderbilt Commodores.