Johnson’s Commodores have made great strides in the last three seasons, knocking off Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina on the road during that span. Even with those landmark wins the program has yet to make that elusive bowl game under Johnson falling just short in a 5-7 effort last season.
Johnson says he knew it was going to take some time to build the Commodores into a respectable team in the fiercely competitive SEC, and he is as motivated as ever to do so.
“I knew what I was getting into when I came to Vanderbilt. I knew it was going to be a long project,” Johnson said. “I think we made a lot of strides since we've been there. I didn't have a set time that I thought I would be there. I remember in my first press conference I think the very first day I was at Vanderbilt, some guy said, ‘How long do you think you got before they fire you?’”
No one in the Gold and Black wants to fire Johnson now as the well-respected coach has guided Vanderbilt to 14 victories in the last three years—the most wins in a three-year span since 1992-94.
The Commodores lost many players who were a major part of those 14 wins, but Johnson believes the talent base he has developed will allow his team to continue to get better.
On defense the Commodores will be anchored by their secondary, which is led by All-SEC junior D.J. Moore.
“D.J. Moore I think is a very special football player,” Johnson said. “He's one of the most natural football players I've ever been around. He just seems to know how to play the game at cornerback. He anticipates where the quarterback's going to throw the ball.
Opposite Moore is the imposing Myron Lewis, whose 6’1” frame allowed him to match up with the bigger, prototypical wide receivers that so many corners struggle with. At safety three-year starter Reshard Langford is as good as you’ll find in the league and Ryan Hamilton enjoyed a solid sophomore campaign last season.
Johnson will be counting on his talented defensive backs to lock down receivers one-on-one and allow the front seven to make plays.
“The secondary is really extremely important to our defensive scheme because we do put a lot of pressure… on the quarterback,” Johnson said. “Those guys have to be really sharp back there to know what's going on, try to take advantage of that pressure.”
Applying that pressure will be a Vanderbilt front seven that will be looking to replace the leadership of All-SEC star Jonathan Goff and Marcus Buggs at linebacker, and Theo Horrocks and Curtis Gatewood on the defensive line.
Johnson believes his defense has enough talent returning to be very good again this year.
“We played well on defense last year,” Johnson said. “We were I think 16th in the nation in total defense, had a lot of negative plays. We got Broderick Stewart and Steven Stone coming back at defensive end. I think they had 12 sacks between them. We think we can be just as good on defense this year as we were last year.”
On offense the Commodores have an ongoing battle at quarterback, but both senior Chris Nickson and junior Mackenzi Adams have experienced success. Johnson has confidence that whoever wins the spot will be able to get the job done.
“I think we're going to be better offensively this year,” Johnson said. “I think we're going to be much better at quarterback this year because Chris Nickson is confident and healthy again. I think we did a disservice to him last year trying to play him as much as we did after he got hurt. Mackenzi Adams is going to be better because he's a year older.”
The Commodores will have to replace 2007 leading rusher Cassen Jackson-Garrison at running back, but Johnson is confident the unit as a whole will be more productive.
“I think we're going to be better at running back,” Johnson said. “Jared Hawkins is ready to step up. We have Gaston Miller coming back, who is more explosive than anybody we've had. Jeff Jennings is back in the best shape of his life to help us with the tough yards, just grinding it out.”
The Commodores could struggle on the offensive line early in the season, but despite losing all five starters, Johnson believes this year’s unit will be just as good as the last.
“The offensive line on paper looks like a huge concern because we lost five starters,” Johnson said. “But Thomas Welch has played the last two years a lot, especially when Brian Stamper was hurt. Bradley Vierling is probably going to be an upgrade in athletic ability at center. Ryan Custer has played a lot at guard. Eric Hensley at left tackle has played a good bit… We expect our offensive line to step up and be as good as we were last year.”
The Commodores will also have to replace the production of the SEC’s all-time leading receiver Earl Bennett who chose to forgo his senior season in favor of the NFL draft. While one receiver isn’t likely to match Bennett’s production, a host of talented receivers should combine to create a formidable receiving corps.
Seniors George Smith and Sean Walker are returning starters who had productive junior seasons. Juniors Justin Wheeler and Alex Washington both had solid finishes to last season, though Washington missed almost all of spring practice with a knee injury.
The 2008 Commodores may look vastly different from the group of guys that helped Vanderbilt take a big step forward in the last few years, but Johnson is confident he has a group of guys committed, like him, to see Vanderbilt into the future.
“I like the situation I'm in; I like the kind of school I coach football at,” Johnson said. “I like dealing with the kind of student-athletes that we have. So those kind of schools have always intrigued me…. We've invested a lot at Vanderbilt. I don't think I'm going to coach anywhere else but Vanderbilt in my career.”