SEC Media Days: Bobby Johnson remarks

Bobby Johnson (B. Wiseman)

Here's a complete transcript of Vanderbilt Head Coach Bobby Johnson's Q&A session with the print media from SEC Media Days 2005, held Thursday at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala.

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON

I am very pleased to be here. Looking forward to the season. When you have a frustrating season that we had last year, the thing you want to do is try to get back in action and get back and see if you can do something about it. That's why I am very thrilled with the attitude of our players, they had that kind of attitude throughout the off season and we're looking forward to getting started here shortly. I will be glad to answer any questions.

Q. Talk about your major concerns going into the season?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: Major concerns is just reaction have coming off a poor season and also the reaction of losing one of our top players in the tragedy of Kwane Doster's murder in Tampa, but you know, talking X's and O's. We have got to do a better job in the kicking game, number 1, and you know, we feel like we have some candidates there that are going to help us we have got redshirt freshman Daniel Lee and true freshman Bryant Hahnfeldt who are going to be going against Patrick Johnson in the kicking duties.

Defensively we think we have got to get a lot faster. We tried to address that in spring practice we moved Herdley Harrison from strong sideline backer to defense end, Marcus Buggs from safety to linebacker to make us a little faster there. And trying to be a little bit more consistent in those positions. Probably overall though the biggest concern is the mental aspect of trying to overcome a bad season.

Q. Jay Cutler, all he's done for the program, talk about him what you expect from him this year?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: I can't tell you enough about Jay Cutler. No. 1, he's a complete quarterback. He has got size, he has got strength, arm strength. He can run. He can run the football. He knows what our offense is trying to achieve every time he goes out on the field. He's tough. If you have seen us play the last three years, he's taken some hits. I don't know what else you can want in a quarterback. The other thing is I think Jay Cutler did a great job of investigating his possibilities in the NFL, and made a good choice and decided to come back and tried to help our football team at Vanderbilt. I think that tells you volumes about Jay Cutler's character. It would have been very easy for him to go into the NFL draft and leave Vanderbilt behind. I tell you I have the utmost respect for his loyalty and his priorities and just the kind of character he has.

Q. You got the most experience in Cutler, the most experienced quarterback in the conference, in the League, that doesn't have much experience at that position. How important is that in what you are trying to do at Vanderbilt?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: It really is important because it just makes it a whole lot easier if we're going to make any kind of changes to the offense, it makes installation so much easier, just run it by Jay and he can get it in there. But also helps us out on another little project we have got going, moved Steven Bright our back-up quarterback to our halfback or fullback position and we moved Chris Nickson up to become our second team quarterback. Chris is a freshman now we get an opportunity to just let Chris learn by watching Jay Cutler do it over and over and over. So he's almost like another coach for that situation. So it helps in everything you do in your planning, your installation, your game planning, when you have an experienced quarterback, it just makes your coaching job is a whole lot easier.

Q. You talked about Jay. What was your reaction to his being named preseason All-SEC Quarterback by the coaches; what does that show about their level of respect for him?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: I was very pleased for Jay. Moses Osemwegie, our linebacker, was also elected, but I was very pleased for Jay. No. 1, it was from the coaches, which I think they see the most film and watch and see what a guy goes through and what he's trying to do and what the offensive is trying to get accomplished. And see how close he's coming to doing it. Also I did not have a vote. I could not vote for my players. So it wasn't my bias going in there and trying to get him an extra vote. I think it was a very high honor for Jay, but Jay will be the first one to tell you it's preseason, and I know that's a cliche, but he's that kind of guy. I am telling you he's that kind of guy. He doesn't care about it. He wants us to win, and Jay came back to Vanderbilt to help us win.

Q. What are some of the things you need to do and are capable of doing in the short-term but need to do in the long-term to get back to say something like eligibility to be more competitive?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: We have to do everything in our program well. Just can't say, well, we are just going to beef up recruiting, we're not going to worry about the academics or visa versa. Everything we have to do, we're behind in just about every aspect of our program compared to the rest of the SEC. So it's a constant battle, a constant building program where you are trying to increase your depth, your talent level, as far as how good you are. Increase your ticket base, everything. So we have a lot of concerns about that, but that's what we do every day. We work at it, try to improve some way every day and we don't sit around and say, well, we will work at it tomorrow, we're not going to work at it today. We're trying extremely hard.

Are we making progress? You don't make progress until you make progress on the scoreboard. But we have seen things that we felt like we have improved a great deal since we have been there and we will try to keep doing that until it starts showing up on the scoreboard and we can tell everybody we have made progress.

Q. A little something on the demands of the modern day head coach time demand. There appears to be more of a growing frustration level off the field and having to address certain things. How much time would you say you spend coaching, working on strategy as opposed to addressing the media?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: It's hard to say on percentage wise. I can tell you it's a lot less than it used to be. It's just the nature of the beast now. Everybody wants to know about every little thing that's happened to your program whether it be a player getting in trouble or somebody flunking out or what your APR is or RPA or whatever, graduation rates. It's just constant scrutiny on your program and you are the lead guy. You have to explain it to everybody and you have got to be available. That's part of your job.

For a coach nowadays I think it's pretty tough to go in and tell your coaches, all right, you watch film for six hours today and I am going to come in and watch film for four hours and then I am going to tell you I know more about it than you do. It's pretty hard to do that. In my opinion, I know some people may disagree, you got to find great assistants who aren't afraid to work on their own and you got to trust them. You got to let them report to you and say, coach, we're ready to go, this is what we're doing this week and you are checking on it the whole time anyway but we're ready to go and this is what we're going to do and we're going to be our very best this week.

Q. The tragedy in the offseason assured that you would have inexperience coming back at tailback this year. Talk about the lead candidates for that position, how well they did in the spring and also would you rather see one of those guys just kind of claim the position or would you rather it be tailback by committee?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: Well, if one of them is going to be a whole lot better than the other I want them to claim it but I think these guys are pretty close. Cassen Jackson-Garrison and Jeff Jennings are both true sophomores they played last year for us as true freshmen. Jeff was more of a tailback for us last year and had (check names (had success, had a good about it after success especially down near the goal line, he's pretty big, 225, 228 pounds, he can get the ball in the end zone for us.

Cassen Jackson-Garrison played fullback for us last year just because of need. We moved him to tailback and planned to move him to tailback even before we lost Kwane, but those two, I had are going to battle all year long and I think we felt comfortable putting either one in the game right now and it's going to be fun to watch those guys mature and get better and you are going to do that. We're going to have some growing pains with two sophomores in there but thank goodness they both played a little bit last year and got some experience.

Q. You mentioned the mental obstacles you faced at Vanderbilt.

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: That I face? Yeah, I face a lot of mental obstacles.

Q. Your team?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: Oh, my team.

Q. How do you deal with the older guys when you guys lose a couple of games early in the season where they don't act like they -- what do you do today to try to avoid same old syndrome if you will?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: Older guys, I think that we have in our program now are guys who choose to be there. We have recruited them to be in our system. The ones we haven't, people like Jay Cutler, the fifth year seniors, Trey Holloway, those kind of guys are sold on the program. They are excited with it, I think that's why Jay came back. So I think we're making progress in that area. There's not going to be a golden moment where we say, all right, we now have confidence. We're going to win all the close games. It's not going to happen that way. I thought we won a big game last year against Mississippi State. I think they beat Florida the week before. And then we beat them the next week. I am not sure about that sequence, but anyway we beat them. Then the next week we ends up blowing the lead in the fourth quarter and losing. It's not going to be a magic moment where you say everybody believes, everybody is in the program, everybody is playing at 100%. Especially in the fourth quarter, that's a process that has to work its way through and you have to build that year after year after year.

Q. Just a little more on Kwane, how has the emotional recovery of your team gone?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: It's been a struggle to tell you the truth. I don't think a day goes by that somebody either doesn't -- they mention his name or they mention the fact that we're not going to have him available to play, or you know, we hear something about how the trial is going on down in Tampa, or playing young guys instead of Kwane, we will be watching the cut-ups and the films and see what a good player we had in him. So we're going to miss him in more ways than one, we will miss him as a player and our guys will miss him as a teammate more than anything else. We're going to have to deal with that. Our guys are doing a pretty good job of it. They are going to find ways to honor Kwane, you know, some uniform stuff and also on the field.

We have got some things in the media guide. We still have his locker just like it was because he's still a member of our team. The one thing I don't want to do is try to use that as a motivational tool for our players. That's just beyond football, beyond motivational tricks.


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Q. Do you guys bring in psychologists or anything like that to help the team deal with Kwane's death, if so what do they tell you to do as a coach or staff to some keys to help them deal with it as they continue?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: We have some counselors working with our team and available for them. Everybody handles those kinds of things in different ways. That's basically what they told us to do, let them handle it individually, but one of the great things that we did, I thought Vanderbilt handled this situation as about as good as you can do, it they chartered a plane for us to take the players down to the funeral, they had a memorial service on campus. They had a basketball game where we brought Kwane's family and honored them and honored Kwane's memory. I think Vanderbilt has handled it in about the best way you possibly can. I was thankful for our administration for doing that. I tell you, when you take 65 or how many players we took down to that funeral and they see that teammate of theirs laying in the casket, it made an impression on everybody.

Q. Winning and losing has become awful important. I know you have spoken before about the commitment to do things right there. My question is same old question that has been said many years: Do you have what it takes for Vanderbilt to compete in the SEC, can you compete for championships there and specifically the athletic department reorganization the last couple of years, how does that seem to be working? Pleased with that? Comment on that, please.

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: Well, last year I hate to say we were close to doing this or doing that but we lost five games by a total of 15 points. I think we led four of those games at half-time that we lost. So I think we're moving closer to being able to compete in the SEC. Are we going to win Championships? You know that's not going to be on the near horizon. Are we going to be able to compete every week and have a chance to win? I think we can do that. No matter how good we get at Vanderbilt we are recruiting on a consistent basis and getting the very best players that we can find in there. It's going to be a battle every week for us. No matter whether we're playing SEC games or out-of-conference games, it's going to be that kind of battle. I am convinced we can do it. We're going to have those years, I hope, I am working for that to get in bowls and try to win that. That helps everything. It helps your recruiting, ticket sales, we got to get things going in a positive way. Hopefully we're going to have some of those seasons when you win a Southeastern Conference, at least the divisional championship. There are only a few teams in the League that win those championships. We're not the only ones that don't win them. There's only a few and everybody is trying to catch those guys. That's a tough, tough League and we have got a tough job, but I am not denying that. I am not denying that we need to win football games. Believe me I want to win more than anybody, anybody.

Q. You have said that you felt like that you guys underachieved last year. Could you kind of expand on that a little bit? Was it in terms of strictly wins and losses or --

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: I think we underachieved with the opportunities we had. We got in position several times to win some key games and we didn't take advantage of them. We underachieved with those opportunities. I thought our guys worked really hard last year. They worked all season long. Even after some tough, tough defeats. You come in on Sunday after a Saturday game and you got to practice after some of the tough defeats we have had, and I have been amazed at the attitude of our players. I have been amazed at the attitude and the work habits of our coaches. They have not backed down one iota. If our coaches hadn't had that kind of commitment that we would have lost those games by a lot more than we lost them. Underachieved, obviously? We were 2-9, but I am talking about the opportunities we had to beat Navy, Rutgers, Mississippi, you know, those were winnable games and we led Florida at half. Winnable games. You lead Atlanta at the half you got a chance to win.

Q. How do you overcome the negative perceptions about Vanderbilt because you have the smallest stadium in the league, highest academics, when it comes to recruiting there are a lot of negatives thrown at you. How do you overcome those negatives?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: We don't think having the highest academics in the league is a negative. We think that's a very, very good positive. We are proud of that. When we go out recruiting we try to sell the great things about Vanderbilt. No. 1 I ranked, No. 17 in the country, all universities in the country. We tell a guy he can come and get a great education and he can play in the SEC, he can compete against the very best athletes in the country. The stadium, you know, we use the other teams stadiums, we like to go play at Florida, at Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, we use those as recruiting tools. We get our program where we want it our stadium will take care of itself.

So we don't accentuate the negative; we try to accentuate the positives. I won't sing that song --

Q. On your schedule what are some dates that jump out to you if any, that you even look forward to or things you got to do to get through them and then how do you deal with the schedule in terms of assessing your team at the end of the year or how do you approach your schedule?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: Actual games?

Q. Yes, on Saturdays.

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: First one is you know, only one right now, September 1, Wake Forest, Thursday night, ESPN-U, big game for us.

Wake Forest had a season a lot like ours, except they have enjoyed more success over the last five or six years than Vanderbilt has. I am sure they are anxious to try to get back and regain that success. So we're trying to make sure we go in and we can play as good as we can possibly play against Wake Forest. Of course next week we go to Arkansas which is our first SEC game which is going to be significant. And then the next week we play Mississippi, which is our first home game. We have three firsts there. That's the only thing we're really talking about. After the season, you know, we look at them all. We try to win them all. We play them all to win, and that's the only thing you look at is how you did.

Q. Are you still playing with pain or just put on a --

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: I am no longer in pain as far as my collar bone.

In case you all didn't know, I broke my collar bone riding a bicycle on the beaches of South Carolina on vacation and just like those Tour de France guys I fell off my bike and broke my collar bone. Unlike those Tour de France guys I was going really slow for a really short period of time.

Q. Talk about Erik Davis, I think sometimes he gets lost in the shuffle with like the guys you brought in today, how he has looked in the spring, is he going to be the --

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: I am anxious to watch Erik Davis this year. Erik I think was probably affected a little bit more by Kwane's death than anybody and I think he's using Kwane's memory as a motivational tool on his own. Right now Erik Davis is in the best shape of his life. I have seen him run since January. I don't think a day has gone by that he's not been out there trying to get better. He had a wonderful spring and he's having a great off season program and he's obviously going to be big in our plans. If Jay is going to be able to throw the ball Erik is going to have to get open. We think he has the capabilities of doing that and hopefully he will have a great year along with Jay and reward those guys for coming back and believing in us and hopefully get us where we can compete in this great League.

Q. You talked about the offense, how about the defense; what are some places that you are expecting specifically about your defense this year, positive or concerns or both?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: In the spring we made some major moves on defense, we felt like we will to get faster and I mentioned before we moved Herdley Harrison , he brings a lot more speed to the defensive line. We moved Kevin Joyce from backing up Moses on the weak side to the strong side so we think we're a lot faster there. We also moved Marcus Buggs from safety to linebacker to make sure we're faster at linebacker position. So that's one of the key things.

The other thing is we're just going to try to be a little bit more consistent in our playing the secondary. We moved Andrew Pace from strong safety, and Andrew, if you have seen him play or read about him probably been our most consistent player on defense the last three years. He's very talented and knows what he's doing, knows all the tendencies we moved him to the boundary corner. We think we're going to get much steadier, play at corner there. Also gives us the chance to move up a redshirt freshman who had a wonderful fall last year and had a great spring, Reshard Langford from Alabama. Move him up and give him a chance to get in that mix because he's big, he's 6-2, 215 pounds, he can run and likes to hit. So want to get him on the field. Those changes were very, very important to us because we did want to get faster and wanted to try and get our best players and get them on the field and we think we have done that.

Q. Talk about Moses Osemwegie, the linebackers, specifically him as a player... do you see that group being the strength of yours?

COACH BOBBY JOHNSON: That group will probably be the strength because Kevin Joyce played extremely well when we would take a linebacker out, put him in for another man, kept Moses and Kevin there at the same time. He was probably most productive at times last year. We said, heck, let's try to make that permanent, so we moved him over to the strong side.

But the key thing obviously is Moses makes us click back there. He was not only preseason All-SEC now, but he was first team All-SEC last year, because he was one of the leading tacklers in the conference. And Moses is just one of those guys that has a knack, he knows where the ball is going. He has some ability to get away from blockers, or go through them or around them, and make tackles. So he's been very consistent for us. Knock on wood, very durable, so we're anxious for Moses to have a great year-- but we think the moves are going to allow Kevin to come over the strong side. Also in the middle we're very, very confident that Jon Goff is going to be a very fine football player for us. He's big. He's about 6-3 and 1/2, 230 right now. He'd be our middle linebacker, and played well for us last year as a redshirt freshman. We expect him to mature and get better every time he plays. He's certainly got the physical tools to play for anybody in this conference.

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