Monday, September 8, 2008

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]

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