COACH JOHNSON: I am extremely pleased to be here. We start up practice next week. We're anxious to get started. Obviously this is a huge challenge for our football team, but we're excited about getting the season underway.
I'm here to answer any questions you may have.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about D.J. Moore, his emergence as a versatile player for you, just what you expect from him this season.
COACH JOHNSON: Well, D.J. Moore I think is a very special football player. 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. He's a great returner. Seems to be able to find the soft spot every time he returns the football.
We even played him on offense last year a little bit and he made some big plays for us. I think he's one of the best players in the conference. He's really working hard in the off-season. I think he wants to expand his role maybe a little bit on offense.
You have to be careful as a coaching staff when you do that because he's very valuable to our defense. You don't want to strip him out, not have him available to play defense in the fourth quarter.
Everybody wants to use him, I know that. I think that's a good sign. But he's been a joy to have in our program and it's great to see the progress he's made.
Q. There's five current SEC coaches who won national titles in this conference, BCS Bowl games. Talk about what it's like to coach in this league, the level of it, what Bobby Petrino's addition means to that?
COACH JOHNSON: I was an assistant coach when we won the national championship. We played the national championship when I was the head coach but did not win.
It's just as tough at this level to get to that championship game. It's always a thrill to do that. Any time you look at the coaches who have won national championships coming out of the SEC, I think it's even a tougher job than other places because you've got to survive the SEC all year, then you've got to go through a championship game, then you've got to win the national championship game against a very tough team.
Hat's off to those guys. Coach Petrino will fit right in with all of them. He's proven that he's a winner. His Louisville teams I always thought were very disciplined, maybe ahead of the game scheme-wise than most people. I'm just glad we don't play Arkansas this year.
Q. You've made some inroads in Memphis in recruiting, got kids out of there. Talk about John Stokes, his growth from the time you got him last year till right now.
COACH JOHNSON: Well, John is going to be a huge player for us on defense this year. He's out of the Memphis University school. Just an outstanding young man, a great student, a scholar, a gentleman. I like to compare him to Hunter Hillemeyer, who is now playing for the Bears. A big rangy guy who can run, but also just extremely smart. Knows the defense already. Can do anything for you.
Another Memphis guy, Chris Marve, who was one of the Mr. Football winners from the Memphis area, was going to probably be -- got a great chance to start at our middle backer. Chris is also a dedicated player, works extremely hard. DeAndre Jones we just signed last year from the Memphis University school. Also going to be a good player for us.
We like the Memphis area. We try to get back in it. We finally made some inroads. Hopefully that will be the key for us to continue to get good players out of that area.
Q. You've talked about D.J. already. Talk about that secondary. You have all four guys coming back.
COACH JOHNSON: The secondary is really extremely important to our defensive scheme because we do put a lot of pressure - try to put a lot of pressure - on the quarterback. Those guys have to be really sharp back there to know what's going on, try to take advantage of that pressure.
Reshard Langford, which y'all will probably talk to today, you can see he's a dedicated young man, a great safety for us. Very physical but also makes plays with the ball in the air. Ryan Hamilton at free safety is very physical, also made some big plays. I real think Myron Lewis is going to have a breakout year. He's a 6'1", 200-pound corner. Very athletic, great ball skills. We think he's going to step up and really play well. Darlron Spead is our nickelback. We got some other guys that I think are going to step up. Joel Caldwell at safety is going to allow Reshard and Ryan to get some help, get some rests at times. And Alan Strong at field corner may even allow is to move D.J. down at the nickel sometimes and give him an opportunity to get on some slot receivers and take them out of the game, you know, maybe make some big plays on some of those shorter passes.
Coach Jamie Bryant has done a good job with our secondary. They work extremely hard. We really feel good about them. We played well on defense last year. 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.
Q. Could you talk about the spread of the spread offense and do you anticipate using more of it or any of it? How difficult is it to defend?
COACH JOHNSON: Well, we've used it, a lot of it, the option principles of it ever since we've been at Vanderbilt. It's really not a whole new thing to us. Back in the Southern Conference, there were a lot of options. So concepts are concepts. Blocking schemes are blocking schemes.
I think the tough thing about the spread offense is that it creates matchups that are difficult for the defense to overcome sometimes. We've got some very sharp coaches in this conference. They're going to take advantage of it. If they get Percy Harvin matched up with a linebacker in pass coverage, that's just sometimes too hard to overcome. Now you're going to add other teams that go a little bit more with the option phase of it like West Virginia did, and you really bring something else into the picture.
It's always just a battle. Offensive coordinators against defensive coordinators, to see who can come. I think the zone blitzes and the pressure sort of knocked the offenses back a little bit, but they've come back with the spread, spread options, to probably take control again.
I also think the new 40-second clock is going to allow the offense a great opportunity to control the tempo of the game now. I think that's one thing that the defense is going to have to work hard to be prepared to deal with this year.
Q. I believe you're entering a year this year that is going to make you as long a tenured coach they've had at Vanderbilt in over 20 years.
COACH JOHNSON: They said we couldn't do it (smiling).
Q. Did you have any sense how long you would be around at Vanderbilt and has anything surprised you about the job in terms of how hard it is to win in the league? Are you as convinced now as you ever were that you could?
COACH JOHNSON: No, I knew what I was getting into when I came to Vanderbilt. I knew it was going to be a long project. 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? Really, he did. I said, I don't know. You know, that never was a thought.
The thing is, our coaching staff has invested a lot into this program. They've worked extremely hard. We want to see it be successful. We're hoping we can get it done. I think we made strides towards that. I think we were extremely close last year. A couple games go either way, we're in a Bowl.
We think it's always gonna be tough because we're in the SEC and the teams we have to play. But we're also confident that we can compete with anybody on our schedule.
Q. By my count you've coached 48 SEC games. In those games, how many times do you think you had better talent?
COACH JOHNSON: I really don't look at it that way. Probably not many times. But, you know, we don't talk to our players about that. We don't really even discuss it as coaches. What we try to do is get our players to play as well as they can possibly play and see how it's going to work out that day.
Sometimes you can be a better football team, even though you don't have the better athletes. And that's what we're banking on every time we go out, that if we take care of our business, play as good as we can, you know, we got a good chance of winning.
Sometimes early in my career here I thought we got overwhelmed in some games, but it didn't discourage our coaches, didn't discourage our players, and we came bouncing back.
I've never, you know, really felt like our guys quit in a game since I've been at Vanderbilt. That's something I really appreciate from our players. And that means a lot to a coach.
Q. Tim Corbin is a big believer in the importance of having players who are energy givers instead of energy takers. I know you probably heard him say that on occasion. He preaches that a lot. I wondered if you have a similar philosophy, if you've seen how that works out on your team, and how important that might be at a program that's tying to get up into the upper tier of the SEC.
COACH JOHNSON: Well, obviously it's extremely important. But, you know, every person we have in our program has got to, you know, contribute. We can't afford to have guys who are just sitting there. And we talk about it when we recruit 'em. If you're coming to Vanderbilt just to be a doctor or a lawyer or a huge businessman, you know, we don't want you. We want you to be a great football player and be a great doctor and a lawyer and a great businessman.
So it all comes together. It's about expectations. You know, if you're just going to sit there and just sort of go with the flow, you know, we don't need you. We need those guys who want to get something done, want to change history, want to make something happen at Vanderbilt.
Q. When you look at the loss of the starters offensively that you had, plus a play-maker like Earl Bennett that had such a prominent role, how big of a challenge will it be this year offensively as far as trying to maintain what you've been doing?
COACH JOHNSON: Well, it will be. I think we're going to be better offensively this year. 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. He had some very fine games for us last year. Those two are going to be pushed by Jared Funk and Larry Smith. Whoever the quarterback is, he's going to have to play well in the pre-season to beat the other three out. I think we're going to have a good player there.
I think we're going to be better at runningback. 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.
At wide receiver, you know, we're not going to have a guy probably who's going to catch 70, 80 passes like Earl did, but we're going to have some guys who are going to be ready to step up and take his play. The offensive line on paper looks like a huge concern because we lost five starters. But Thomas Welch has played the last two years a lot, especially when Brian Stamper was heard. 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.
Those guys aren't without some experience. They have some. We knew that was going to happen. We're probably more athletic on the offensive line this year than we were last year with the exception, of course, of Chris Williams, who was drafted in the first round in the NFL.
I think Coach Caldwell does a fantastic job with our offensive line. He prepared Chris Williams to go in the first round. He can coach 'em. We expect our offensive line to step up and be as good as we were last year.
Q. A year ago when you were kind of going back and forth with Chris and Mackenzi at quarterback, you said there was not a lot that distinguished them from each other with skill sets. What will either one of them have to do to win the jobs?
COACH JOHNSON: I think they're both very similar. They're both very mobile, but they're also good passers. I don't think we're going to have a game plan for Mackenzi or a game plan for Chris. We think both of 'em can execute the game plan we come up with for the team.
We're gonna let 'em push each other and one of 'em's gonna step up and be more prepared or better than the other. But you've always got to plan on having two ready to go and maybe even three. So that's why I feel so good about it. I think either one of those can be starters. I think Larry Smith and Jared Funk are going to push 'em. And they will be ready to step in if they're needed.
I think we got a great situation at quarterback. We will be better at quarterback this year than we were last year, no doubt about it.
Q. Can you expand on Jeff Jennings coming into his senior year and do you expect his role to be the same or similar as it was last year?
COACH JOHNSON: Well, probably so. You know, I think Jeff is a fine young man, number one. He overcame a very, very tough knee injury and he's worked his way back. Like I said, he's probably lost weight. I think he's probably about 212 pounds. He was about 220 last year. I think that's going to help his mobility.
But Jeff has a knack of getting the tough yardage. I think he'll always be one of the first guys we look to in that role. But he's also a very good pass protector and a very good receiver coming out of the backfield.
Jeff has enough skills to help our program enough that he's going to see a lot of action.
Q. You've been pretty consistent in saying you wanted to see this thing through at Vanderbilt. Have you been close at all when other people have come calling? Have you had a lot of opportunities? Have there been any that really intrigued you since you've been there?
COACH JOHNSON: There have been a few opportunities. I haven't been out looking for those. I like the situation I'm in. I like the kind of school I coach football at. I like dealing with the kind of student-athletes that we have. So those kind of schools have always intrigued me.
But, like I said before, we've invested a lot at Vanderbilt. I don't think I'm going to coach anywhere else but Vanderbilt in my career.
Q. Just wanted to get your opinion on a couple of issues. First, early signing period. Would you be in favor of it? If so, when would you like to have it? Do you like the BCS model the way it is, or would you like to see a playoff or plus one situation?
COACH JOHNSON: I was really in favor of the early signing date. I think our coaches did a great job of going over it in the spring meetings. We wanted to do it right before the contact period started and restrict anybody who wanted to take an official visit, you know, before that. If you took an official visit before that, you were not eligible to sign. We envisioned it for guys that were sure where they absolutely wanted to go, let them sign. Everybody knows where they're going, you don't have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars recruiting them through February. I thought we had a great solution. I was disappointed when it was tabled by our presidents. But, you know, what do they know?
The BCS I think is great like it is. Even when you have that controversy, I think that's great for college football. People talk about it for weeks before the final game and weeks after, who should have been there, who shouldn't have been there. The plus one, there's still going to be arguments about who should be that team. If you got one team that went undefeated, then you got three teams that didn't, you know, that's not fair. You might have a three-loss team be one of those teams that makes it up and then beats the team that didn't lose any.
I mean, it doesn't solve anything. So I think we got a good system right now. Stay with it. Have it consistent. It's just like the clock rules. You know, we've changed them three years in a row. Let's get consistent with something.
Q. You've mentioned Gaston Miller on a couple of occasions on the last couple of weeks. What did you see out of him in the spring that makes you optimistic about what he can bring to the offense this time?
COACH JOHNSON: Gaston Miller is a tailback of ours that we played as a freshman two years ago when Jeff Jennings was hurt. When Jeff came back last year, we redshirted him. He had a great high school career and did well when he played as a freshman. But I think the year of maturity that he got last year, he got stronger and he got bigger. But Gaston is one of those guys who has the breakaway ability or the big-playability that I don't think we had last year at tailback - at least maybe with Jared a little bit. But sometimes I think Gaston will make plays when we don't block everybody. If he could give us that capability, you know, it will certainly make things a lot easier.
It's hard to grind the ball, you know, to block everybody right every time and grind the ball down the field and move it 80 yards against SEC defenses. You got to have some explosive plays. And hopefully he can give us those.
Q. I know you have had some impressive wins in recent years, especially on the road, winning at Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee. Vanderbilt has had 25 straight losing seasons now. In a situation like that, how do you keep grinding through it, stay upbeat and positive?
COACH JOHNSON: Unfortunately, we don't have a choice. You know, until we change that. That's what we're trying to do. That's our goal. You know, I think our guys have seen that we've gotten better and we competed in this league the last couple years and had some big wins. There's no reason we can't compete on a more consistent basis.
So, you know, we don't worry about what happened in the past, except to try to make ourselves better by learning from our mistakes or learning from what we see from other people. But I don't care what happened at Vanderbilt 25 years ago.
Q. Talk in a little more detail about Reshard Langford, what he's brought to the program on and off the field.
COACH JOHNSON: On the field he's been a very good player for us. He's made big plays consistently throughout his career. He's been extremely steady. I think, you know, even if you don't say a word, I think that sends a great message to your football team, your other players. Here's a guy who's played extremely well, has been recognized as an outstanding player. And he goes through all the little things to make himself better, all the things at practices that he does to make himself better that obviously, you know, everybody else can do it, too.
So, you know, without saying a word, he's a great leader. And then he takes it upon himself to be a vocal leader also. He can back it up. He demands a lot out of his teammates. Like I say, he can sit there and demand it on anybody on our team and they're gonna respect him.
We expect him to keep playing at the high level that he does, but we're going to also lean on him for those leadership skills. Hopefully, you know, make a difference in one player, two players, three players, one game, two games. Whatever it takes, he's willing to do it.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, coach.
COACH JOHNSON: Y'all did well. Thank you.