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.

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