THE MODERATOR: We are ready to begin with Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson.
COACH JOHNSON: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Pleasure to be here.
Obviously, we’re pretty excited about starting the season. We got a lot of guys returning who played pretty well for us last year. A lot of experience in the offensive line for the first time since I’ve been head coach.
We got a little buzz going around Vanderbilt as far as our chances for improvement this year, and we’re anxious to get started.
Had a lot of guys in summer school working hard. They’re ready to go. We’re ready to talk about Vanderbilt football. Be glad to answer any questions you may have.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for Coach Johnson.
Q. Could you talk about D.J. Moore. Was he a big surprise for y’all last year? What do you expect from him?
COACH JOHNSON: D.J. Moore is a cornerback, played a good bit for us last year as a freshman. Was not a real big surprise. We thought he was an outstanding athlete. I think he was athlete of the year in the state of South Carolina his senior year of high school, football player and basketball player.
There’s always a learning curve, especially playing in the SEC. D.J. went through that. Very productive. Seems to be where the ball is all the time, makes a lot of plays for us. I think had four interceptions, maybe three, I can’t quite remember.
D.J. gets better and better every time he goes on the field, especially practice. We had a good spring practice with him. He’s going to probably be a starter at one of our corner positions. I think he’ll be more comfortable this year than last.
It’s pretty tough to ask a freshman to go in there and be great guns against the great receivers we have in this league.
We think he’s a talented athlete. Hope to get more and more out of him.
Q. Talk about Chris Nickson, signing Larry Smith. Is Kikko Logan still with the program? Talk about his impact with the team.
COACH JOHNSON: Sure, we’re excited about those Alabama guys playing for us. Obviously good high school football in the state of Alabama. We like to recruit down here.
Chris Nickson I think got better and better as he played last year. For a first year starter, I know Chris was a redshirt sophomore, but it was his first year starting, and he had a little rough game to open up with. Had to play Michigan up there in the Big House. That was pretty tough duty.
I was very pleased with his progress throughout the year. I think Chris was playing extremely well at the end of last season. We expect him to make that kind of progress.
He actually had a better sophomore year I think statistically and record wise than Jay Cutler. If he continues that progress we think he’s going to be an outstanding quarterback.
Chris has a lot of pride. He works hard in the off season. I think he’s becoming a better leader, doing the things he needs to do to be the quarterback on an SEC football team.
Chris was I think Mr. Football in the state of Alabama when we recruited him. Larry Smith from Prattville, Alabama, had a fantastic career there at Prattville High School. Led them to a state championship last year. He’s just what we order for a quarterback. He’s very athletic. He’s got a great arm. He’s got a great head for it. He’s been in summer school for two sessions now. Has made great progress learning our offense from Chris and Mackenzi Adams, our other quarterback. We expect big things out of him.
For him to get in there this year is probably going to be a stretch. We’d like to redshirt him and give him a chance to maximize his eligibility while he’s at Vanderbilt. Unless injuries come up, we’re probably going to let him learn a little bit.
Kikko Logan, he’s defensive end for us. We moved him to defensive end from linebacker because we’ve had some openings there. Kikko is a good athlete and he can move. It’s good to have those guys coming off the edge playing defensive end.
We’ve had some success in the last two years especially of moving linebackers down to defensive end, getting those guys moving fast. I think Kikko is in that same vein.
Q. How much of a personal relationship do you maintain with the other coaches other than that three days in Destin? How much interaction is there?
COACH JOHNSON: Personal interaction, there’s not a lot just because you’re so busy and everybody has their schedule. You talk to them on the phone every once in a while. We all know what’s going on in each other’s programs and their lives most of the time.
You know, the Destin meetings, and we also have another one in December when the American Football Coaches Association convention is going on, we always have a meeting there. Those meetings, I like them. They’re kind of fun to me. You hear what’s going on. You share problems that you may be having, find out what other people are doing, how they’re doing it.
We don’t call each other up and go play golf or anything like that, or fishing.
Q. Could you talk about what you think about the rule changes for this year, specifically kicking off from the 30 and getting the plays back in with the clock management?
COACH JOHNSON: Well, the clock rules, I’m glad they’re going back. I spent a lot of time talking about them really, to tell you the truth, last year. But I think it was good decisions, like Rogers has said, to try to save time when the clock is stopped, get things going a little more efficient there than messing with the actual seconds of the game. So I’m glad they changed those back.
I was not in favor of moving the ball to the 30. I think you had a good mix of returns and touchbacks, whatever. The rationale was to speed up the game. It’s not going to speed it up because there are going to be a lot more kickoffs. There’s going to be a lot more touchdowns because there’s going to be better field position and more returns now.
Returns are exciting, but I want to give those defensive guys a chance, too, to get out there and play and show they’re good, too.
Q. Can you talk about just your overall talent you have now compared to the last two years. Also talk about your expectations. Are they as high or higher now for the team even two years ago when Cutler was a senior?
COACH JOHNSON: Well, it’s my opinion. But I think we’re much more talented than we have been early in my career at Vanderbilt. I think our coaches have done a good job of identifying good players in high school and going out and convincing them to come to Vanderbilt and play in the SEC, get a top 20 rated university education.
Yeah, I think we’re more talented. We got some ways you want to look at it. Some guys played some games and started some games. We have 17, 18 starters returning. We’ve won some pretty big games in the last couple years. I think that in itself is probably more important than talent level or whatever, is our confidence level. I think our guys feel like they can compete in this league. Their work habits reflect that. They want to be good.
When you get that working for you you’re going to have a chance. Our guys right now feel pretty good about what we’re doing as a team and how we’re doing it.
As a coach, you really appreciate when guys work hard and feel like they can compete and get out there and try to do something about it.
Q. You have been close the last couple years. The perception is it’s still Vanderbilt that can’t get over the hump. What is keeping you from getting to that next level? Are you starting to feel more the pressure from the fans the closer you get?
COACH JOHNSON: No, I wasn’t aware of that perception (smiling).
When you play in this league, I mean, you got to scratch and claw to get the victories. I mean, the people at the top of the SEC East and the SEC West are there for a reason. They’ve had consistent programs year after year after year. They have great talent, great coaches.
For somebody to come in and try to work theirselves up the ladder, I think Kentucky did a fantastic job last year. You know, but you look and see how tough it is to pass those teams that are ahead of us.
But we’ve had some quality wins the last couple years. We won some games on the road. We have been close, but we’ve also won some close games. It’s just not Vanderbilt like it used to be where you got close, the end of the game, didn’t win. We won some.
We feel like we’re making progress. May not be fast to all of y’all, but, you know, we’re working as hard as we can. Our guys are having fun doing it. Our coaches work extremely hard. We’re looking forward to the season.
Our confidence is pretty high right now, but we also have to look at our schedule every once in a while and be realistic. You know, we played eight teams that were in a Bowl last year. So high hopes, but we got a tough job ahead of us. We’re looking forward to getting it started.
Q. Could you address the quality of coaching in the SEC, in your estimation where it ranks nationally.
COACH JOHNSON: That’s a loaded question, I tell you that right now (laughter).
Obviously I think it’s the best. You look at how many championships have been won by the coaches, and not only the head coaches, but you look at the staffs at each one of these schools. You see people that have had great experience, great victories, great seasons. They know how to recruit. They know how to coach in games. They know the game of football. You know, you look down every school in this league, and it’s pretty impressive.
Obviously, I have not coached against the PAC 10 and the Big 12. I have coached against the ACC before. You know, I think the SEC is going to rank up there with everybody.
Everybody knows you got to have good players, but coaching counts a bunch, too.
Q. Would you be in favor or not in favor of an early signing period for recruiting?
COACH JOHNSON: I’m in favor of it. I think guys make up their mind earlier now. If they’ve made up their mind, let ‘em sign. It’s their decision. I don’t see why there’s a certain magic date that comes in there and says, Okay, by this date you have already exhausted all your possibilities. You’ve looked over them. There is no magic date.
If a guy’s ready to sign, let him sign. I think he’s in good shape. The school who signs him is in good shape. All the other schools know he’s not available anymore. You don’t waste money recruiting him. The school that’s got him committed doesn’t waste money trying to baby sit him until signing day.
I think early signing date has a lot of merit.
Q. How are you and your staff changing your recruiting strategy with the ban on text messaging scheduled August 1st?
COACH JOHNSON: Excuse me, I’ve got to text somebody right here. Be with you in a minute (smiling).
We’re not going to change a whole lot. Obviously, you know, you get in the season you got one phone call a week. You got to make that count. You don’t just call him up and say hello for 10 seconds. You’ve got to have his position coach available, make it as important as you can.
You write them letters like we used to. We still did, even though you text them. You still do it. You can email them. They’re pretty savvy with the computer. They’ll be checking emails, too.
I don’t think it’s going to be a big change. I think it’s going to be a big change in a positive way. I think young men will be able to go to school and not worry about getting text messages during class.
I talked to a lot of high school coaches last spring when I was out on the road. They were pretty fired up about doing away with the text messaging. They’re asking their players to do well in school. They’re text messaging under the table, under their desk. You know, I think it had become a problem.
Q. Can you talk about your eight game home schedule, the importance of that overall this year.
COACH JOHNSON: Well, we’re thrilled that we have eight games. I think it worked out that all of our non conference games were at home this year. That’s how we had the eight games out of the 12.
To tell you the truth, we’d had bigger wins on the road the last two years than we have at home. We need to play better at home. Hopefully that’s going to spur us on to do that.
We actually made a little emphasis during spring practice to practice in the stadium more, to make sure that we did feel like that was where we were going to win football games.
It always makes it just a whole lot easier on the whole process when you’re at home. You don’t have to get on the bus, get on a plane, have your equipment trucked halfway across the country, things like that. It just makes life a whole lot simpler. Makes it easier for our guys in school. There’s no travel.
I say “no travel.” No travel on eight games. They can stay in their routine, get their schoolwork done. We’re thrilled about it. I think right now our season ticket sales have been up a good bit. So hopefully we’re going to have a full stadium on all eight of those home games, have a great atmosphere. That will help our football team, too.
Q. Did you have any idea Earl Bennett would be on the doorstep of becoming the all time leading receiver in SEC history as a junior? What does it say about the science of recruiting that a guy like this is about to break this record and wasn’t a highly recruited guy?
COACH JOHNSON: Well, obviously you couldn’t foresee him being that close to a record his junior year. We knew Earl was a good player when we recruited and signed him, but he’s been pretty special.
I just hope he can stay healthy and do all the things he’s capable of doing, because he’s a pretty special player, an outstanding young man. I think day before yesterday he received an Outstanding Citizen award from Birmingham for the city. He’s that kind of guy.
Everybody thinks we stole Earl. A lot of people knew about Earl. Our coaches did a good job of recruiting him. There are a lot of guys out there that blossom late in their senior year in high school or even in their career in college that don’t have the ratings that some people do. That’s what recruiting is all about.
As a recruiting coach and staff you look at those guys and you try to project where they can play in your system. You try to look, see who they played against in high school. There’s all kinds of factors, not just the big plays they make every once in a while in big games.
It’s a process. You said “science.” It is not a science. That’s the thing about it. Sometimes you take a chance and you make a big coup in recruiting. Sometimes you make mistakes. You try to limit those mistakes as much as you can. The key to I think having a great program is consistent recruiting, you know, over four , five , six year period.
“Consistent” means sometimes you’re going to get a big star, but keep those mistakes to a minimum and make sure you’re getting players who can contribute to your program year in and year out and stay in school.
Q. You brought up your offensive line being better than it’s been since you’ve been there. Do offensive lines take longer to build?
COACH JOHNSON: Ours was decimated when I first got there. We had only four guys the first spring practice. We were looking for the fifth guy. Knew they were going to make us play with five when we started the season. We were looking hard.
Again, we were coming off just getting there, trying to recruit. It takes a long time to build up a position that’s really down. Some of the guys we recruited were good players. Some of them weren’t quite good enough. It took us a while to build it up.
Right now we feel like the last four years we’ve been pretty consistent in recruiting and we’ve retained some guys.
Chris Williams, our left tackle, 6’6”, 6’7”, whatever you want to call him, 325 pounds, and can run. He came to Vanderbilt as a 245 pound guy. He’s worked extremely hard to make himself a great player.
Brian Stamper, who was an all SEC candidate last year, and didn’t play because he got hurt, was awarded a fifth year by the NCAA. They did a smart thing. I applaud the NCAA for giving that young man another chance. But he’s going to give us a lot of experience.
Experience and depth. We got some guys that are going to back those guys up, who are pretty good, and actually pushing some of those guys for the starting position. That some steady recruiting, good coaching by our coach Robbie Caldwell, our line coach, assistant head coach, I think we’re going to have our best offensive line since we’ve been there.
Q. Two guys that you mostly did without last year were Jeff Jennings and Stamper, who you just mentioned. I assume they had major rehabs. Talk about their readiness to play this year, and what having a healthy Brian Stamper will have for your team.
COACH JOHNSON: Brian Stamper had a back injury. Had an operation on his back after the season. Was actually ready to go for spring practice and broke his foot about the third practice. We call him Lucky now (smiling).
To get him back, obviously he was a quality player but also just the depth part of it and the leadership part of it. He’s ready to go. He’s back to about 305 pounds now, running real well, lifting well. We think he’s ready to go.
Jeff Jennings hurt his knee in the next to the last game in the 2005 season. Did not play at all last year. Jeff was having a very fine year. Jeff is a big back. He’s 225 pounds. He can get those short yardage things. He also has a little in that case on the goal line to get in the end zone.
Those two things are going to help our running game. That’s what we need to happen to be better and more consistent on offense. We threw the ball very well last year. Our quarterback ran very well. In fact, he was our leading rusher. Our running game needs to get better. Those two things, having Jeff Jennings back and having Brian Stamper improve our offensive line, is really going to help us.
Q. Can you assess the number two quarterback spot. Chris is established as your starter. How do you see that going into camp?
COACH JOHNSON: Well, I think Mackenzi Adams is working extremely hard. He’s been in summer school all summer. He’s up to 215 pounds now. He’s worked real hard to try to improve his throwing motion.
I just think the world of Mackenzi Adams. He’s just right there with Chris Nickson. We would feel very good about putting him in the game.
Richard Kovalcheck is coming back. Very experienced quarterback. He’s a young man who transferred last year from Arizona. Excellent arm. Excellent vision. He can see the field, knows who to throw to.
Richard will be a senior. Mackenzi will be a redshirt sophomore. Probably right now, if something were to happen to Chris in a game, we’d probably go with Mackenzi to look to the future of the program, get him some experience.
But at certain positions, certain situations, Richard might be the guy to try to bring you back if you get behind in the fourth quarter, whatever. He’s got an excellent arm and can do that kind of stuff.
We feel good about the quarterback position. We got some quality talent there. We got some older guys and we got some young guys coming up that we’re excited about. It’s a good spot for us.
Q. With Dr. Gee moving on to Ohio State.
COACH JOHNSON: Who?
Q. Your president.
COACH JOHNSON: I was just kidding (smiling).
Q. With him of moving onto Ohio State, do you see any changes in the way the Vanderbilt athletic department is organized? Do you expect to move back to a more traditional way?
COACH JOHNSON: I don’t really think so right now because if you look at Vanderbilt’s athletics assessed the last year, it’s probably one of the best years ever.
Our interim chancellor, Nick Zeppos, who was our provost, he was in on the change and helped facilitate it the whole time it was going on.
I think he’s very much in line with the same kind of thinking that we had before. In fact, I have a meeting with him tomorrow. But I expect the same kind of setup and same kind of organization.
I think David Williams, our chancellor in charge of athletics, I think is going to stay at Vanderbilt. I can’t speak for him, but I think he is. All the pieces are still in place except for Chancellor Gee. I don’t see why it would change.
Q. Where do you see Jared Fagan now in terms of his progress?
COACH JOHNSON: Jared was a freshman last year. He’ll be a redshirt freshman this year. Jared made a lot of progress in the spring. Excellent arm. I mean, he’s probably got the best arm of anybody on our squad. But he’s got to learn the position a little bit more.
Especially in this league, you know, the defenses you see, the situations you see, are really tough on young quarterbacks.
For him to make that kind of leap and leap over Mackenzi or Chris Nickson is not strong right now. But, you know, we still feel good about his capabilities. If it gets to the point where he has to get in there, we wouldn’t be afraid to put him in there.
Q. With you picking up two ACC transfers in the last few weeks, going back to Kovalcheck last year, is Vanderbilt becoming a more attractive destination for guys like this who may be seeking greener pastures elsewhere maybe because of the recruiting you guys are doing? Is there anything to it? How do you assess that?
COACH JOHNSON: Well, I wouldn’t read too much into it. I think they were both unique situations. We had recruited one pretty heavily out of high school so he knew a lot about us. It was not like he was just reading it on the Internet or anything like that and decided, you know, he was going to go to Vanderbilt. He knew a good bit about it.
We think we got a good product there. Wonderful university. Get a great education. We play against some of the best teams in the country. We’ve been selling out since we’ve gotten there. I think it’s gotten the message has gotten out to some guys. Right now our recruiting for next year’s class that’s going to sign next February is going really well. We couldn’t be more pleased with that.
We got some good things going. We just got to do our job and keep our season going like we hope it can go. Believe me, that helps recruiting a whole lot more than phone calls and text messaging and fancy cards and things like that. If you’re going to get them there, you got to prove that you can compete. Hopefully we can continue to do that.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, coach.
COACH JOHNSON: Thank y’all. Appreciate it.
Linebacker Jonathan Goff:
On expectations for the upcoming season:
“We have really high expectations. We expect to win every game on our schedule. I believe we are physically and mentally prepared to do that.”
On the close games:
“It is good to realize what we could have done and then build off of that.”
On trying to get over the hump:
“We were able to hang in there and make the plays against Georgia to get the win. That was a big win for us to get over that hump. We had a lot of close games in previous seasons that we did not make the necessary plays to win.”
On this being a breakthrough year for the team:
“The mindset of the program has changed, and I just believe that Coach (Bobby) Johnson and his staff have done a great job with recruiting and changing the mindset of the team.”
On Quarterback Chris Nickson:
“He is one of the hardest workers that I have seen on the team. He is always out there doing extra work, and the team has a lot of confidence in him. After workouts, Chris (Nickson) is always out there throwing extra with the receivers. I have also played a little long toss with him just helping him out the best I can.”
On potentially being an All-SEC athlete:
“I believe that I am a quality player. I do as best I can to prepare myself physically during the off-season, and while we are in season I try to do as best I can to learn the game and learn my opponent. Then, I take that and try to give a great effort on Saturdays.”
Wide Receiver Earl Bennett
On being home:
“It feels great to be back in Birmingham, my home city. There is a great crowd, wonderful fans, and it just feels great to be back home.”
On Quarterback Chris Nickson:
“Chris Nickson is a great athlete. He is so dynamic, he can throw ball, run the ball, and it is really hard to scheme against him. I really enjoy playing with him and I look forward to a great year with him.”
On Vandy’s chances this season:
“Our chances are very high this season. We have a lot of returning starters and guys who have been working extremely hard this off season.”
On Jonathan Goff:
“Jon Goff is a phenomenal player. He is a great player both on and off the field, and one of the best linebackers in the nation. All of the recognition that he gets is deserved and I love to play with him.”
On your expectations for this season:
“I really don’t set expectations for myself, I just go out there, play hard, and do the best that I can to help this team (Vanderbilt) win. That’s the most important thing to me, for the team to win, not how many touchdowns or catches that I have.”
Courtesy of SEC Sports Info