Media Days: Widenhofer, Tuberville & Cutcliffe

Vanderbilt's Woody Widenhofer led off the program this morning, with Tuberville of Auburn finishing up. Spurrier provided by far the most sound bites (see our earlier story), but it was David Cutcliffe who actually uttered the phrase that sent chills down the spines of all Alabama writers present. "I know it's a challenge," the Ole Miss coach actually said. "But we're really looking forward to the opportunity."

Notes and Quotes: DAVID CUTCLIFFE, Ole Miss

General assessment of Ole Miss: "We're a very young football team. We've only got 12 scholarshipped seniors, so we need good leaders. A lot of our players are unproven in critical areas--offense, defense and the kicking game.

"We're very young in the kicking game. We lost our placekicker, our punter, our holder and our return man. We're talented, but the guys haven't done it before yet. My biggest fear really is how well we're going to play in the kicking game. In the SEC, a lot of games are decided in the kicking game. That lays heavy on my mind.

"Once again we're not very big on the defensive line.

"Our backfield is a real plus for us. People look at me funny when I say that with Deuce McAllister leaving. And granted he did a lot of things for us, but he's the only one we lost. We have several coming back that have played well for us.

"Our receiving corps is without question more talented by far. But we're depending on people that haven't yet made plays. We think they can get it done, but they haven't done it yet."

Ole Miss played fairly well on offense last season, but a defensive unit that seemingly couldn't stop anyone crippled their chances to make a championship run. And Cutcliffe responded by bringing in Don Lindsey in the off-season to coordinate the Rebel defense. "We're making a complete change on defense. Right now the players are very enthusiastic about what we're doing, but they won't talk about it. They've been schooled well. But the kids enjoy it and are playing with enthusiasm.

"Sometimes just making a change in itself is a positive. From a creative standpoint, that helps. We're looking for a creative edge. Don has been tough to coach against for me. He's a very enthusiastic guy. We want to get back to having fun on defense. My expectations are in line with his philosophy. We know we're going to take risks, and we'll sometimes struggle with that.

"Eddie Strong (Ole Miss' premier linebacker) is back from his injury, and we plan to use him in different ways on defense. This year we'll roll the dice a bit, take some risks. We have to do that to be as good as we need to be. We're not a big, physical football team."

Cutcliffe coached Peyton Manning at Tennessee, and he now finds himself with the younger Manning brother as his starting quarterback. "It's difficult to compare Peyton and Eli at the same point in their careers. Eli has been around our system for a long time. He's a very prepared football player. He had a good spring, but the last time he started a football game was in high school. They are comparable players. That's just being honest. Eli can play well early, but he doesn't have any games under h is belt."

Could there be a problem on the team because of Manning's publicity? "We talk about having high profile players on the team. We're honest with the players about that. Eli loves and enjoys his teammates. If he maintains that attitude, then he won't have problems with his teammates."

In recent seasons Ole Miss has signed two talented receivers from Alabama. "Ratavious Biddle is a fine talent, but he's like all freshmen. He's very, very talented. Great speed and size. He's in Oxford now working out with the players. Eli has great things to say about him. We've also got Bill Flowers, a redshirt freshman, and other guys as well."

As a former offensive coordinator, what does Cutcliffe think about the adage that ‘Defense wins championships?' "I don't think that defense is the only way to win championships. Championships are won with team responsibility. When you win 45-42 or lost 42-45, if your offense is hot that day, then the responsibility falls on the offense. When we don't win those games, I don't point to the defense. If you lose 3-0, then it's the defense's fault. They were hot that day. They should have shut out the other team.

"All great teams step up on any given day when needed. Of course when you're sound on defense you have a chance to win every game you play. If I had my choice, I'd like to be stronger on defense."

Are SEC teams at a disadvantage in qualifying for the BCS? "I'm a big fan of the regular season being so intense. If you're going to win a national championship, then you'd better go 8-0. We've got the best regular season in sport. It's the toughest championship to win in all of sport, in my opinion. If you're a national championship team, then you'll find a way to get there."

Notes and Quotes: TOMMY TUBERVILLE, Auburn

Most pundits are picking Auburn down in the pack this season, but Tuberville doesn't necessarily see that as a bad thing. "We want to prove people wrong. That's good in coaches' eyes. We talk to the players about improving. We did lose several players from last year. Some we lost to the NFL that we wished had come back. But really, this is the first time I've ever had close to 85 players on scholarship. We'll finally get a chance to scrimmage during two-a-days, which is good because we need that time.

"This is probably the most talented team I've been around, but we don't have the experience. Last year we honestly only had about 14 Division IA football players on defense, but with Rudy Johnson we didn't need any more. This year we have at least 20."

An early schedule that includes road games to Syracuse, Baton Rouge and Vanderbilt has Tuberville worried. "We've got a tough schedule. Usually I put our schedule up on our refrigerator at home, but this year I didn't. When my wife asked me why not, I told her I just didn't want to look at it. Playing on the road at Baton Rouge, Syracuse and Vandy is pretty tough."

How did you deal with probation at Ole Miss? "As a young staff we just didn't know any better. We tried to have the best walk-on program ever. We got players to turn down scholarships elsewhere, and that's tough to do. We tried to make it fun for the players. We tried to get real close to the players. Our coaches had them over to their homes during the week. When they hit you with scholarship situations, they're going to set you back no matter what.

"Recovering from probation depends on the attitude of your staff and your fans. The fans have to be understanding. They tried to close us down at Ole Miss. It's up to the fans as much as anything, because there ARE going to be problems. I told our fans how important they were in staying behind the team in rough times. If you get fans that are very critical, that's not going to do anything except make it worse."

With question marks surrounding his quarterback situation, Tuberville is still determined to name a starter soon after the start of fall practice. "We WON'T have a controversy. We will have a starting quarterback.

"I think your quarterback is the leader of your team in the locker room. I believe you're only as good as what your quarterback does leadership-wise. After 10 days, we're not going to have any doubt as to who our quarterback is. If you're undecided as coaches, then the players pick up on that. If you get into alternating them, then I think you're really asking for a situation where you are going to fail."

Former Alabama ‘Mr. Football' DeMarco McNeil is expected to anchor the Tiger defensive line, but interestingly Tuberville recruited him to play on offense. "McNeil is an in-between player. He's 6-1, and we thought when he came in he'd be an offensive lineman. But he proved he has the defensive mentality. He's proved a lot of people wrong, including me. I thought he was more of an offensive player."

Another prep star from the Mobile area is back on the Tiger squad, and Tuberville expects Deandre Green to play a key role on the team. "Dandre is back. We need him on the field. He's a physical receiver. I sat him down last spring and talked to him. He wasn't breaking any rules, he was just following a path that I didn't like where he was headed. So I asked that he take a semester off."

Though Auburn was thin last year on defense, Tuberville says Rudy Johnson made the difference for Auburn. "Defense wins championships---WITH a running game. You can't keep your defense out there all the time. It sets the tempo, it makes you're a more physical team. It runs the clock. We were supposed to be one of the worst defenses last year, but we were on the field the least and ended up one of the best."

Tuberville also thinks the days of dominating defense and a basic running game are finished in college football. And he blames the NFL. "Recruiting and professional football have changed what we do on the college level. Everybody thinks they're going to the pros---even your offensive linemen. Running the option is basically off the table. Recruiting has brought everybody away from selling defense and just a strong running game."

Notes and Quotes: WOODY WIDENHOFER, Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt entered last seasons with high hopes for earning a bowl game, but once again the perennial SEC doormat fell short. "I'm normally a very optimistic guy, but I promised myself I'd be guarded optimism this year. We've got 15 starters back, and it's the hardest working group I've had since I've been at Vandy.

"Last year we started off the year excited, but then we lost our two best defenders for the first two games and started out 0-2. Then we lost to Ole Miss 12-7. At a place like Vanderbilt where they've always struggled to win, that sort of knocked the starch out of us. We never recovered. Last year was the first team I've had that I thought underachieved. The early suspensions and losses just killed our momentum. We lost our confidence.

"This is my fifth year at Vanderbilt. All these guys are my players---guys that I recruited. I think it's time to win. Time to see what kind of job we've done the last several years recruiting."

Recognized around the country as a quality defensive coach, Widenhofer plans to return to his roots this season. "I'm getting back more involved with the defense this year. I've really missed that part of coaching. I've always enjoyed working with the linebackers and secondary, so that's where I'll help. I just really missed coaching. Earlier when I started as head coach, I thought I couldn't do both. But now I have more administrative help.

"We're not going to change our schemes---just try and get better with what we've got. Most defenses these days are using four down linmen (4-3), but we've got more linebackers than linemen. It's hard to find those great pass rushers at defensive end. Those Jevon Kearse's are hard to find."

But Widenhofer is also convinced that it takes offense as well to win. "We have all our skill guys back, but that doesn't make them good. But they're back. In this league, you must be able to throw the football. If you can't, then you can't run either, because they'll stack guys at the line. If we protect the football and don't turn it over, then we should be productive on offense. You can't win in the SEC scoring only 15 points a game. The other teams are just so talented that you've got to have people that can score points.

"I've always heard that defense wins championships, but we tried that at Vanderbilt and it hasn't worked yet. One year we were No. 1 in the conference and eighth in the nation, but we only won four games. In this league, you've got to score points."

Will having the Tennessee Titans located in Nashville cripple Vanderbilt's efforts to grow its fan base? "I think that to have a major city, you've got to have professional sports. I try to sell our academics, our school, our team and our city. I think the NFL helps recruiting. If you win the games, then you'll solve those problems."

With Vanderbilt committed to higher academic requirements than the rest of the league, can the Commodores ever compete consistently. "I don't think we need to change our academic or admissions standards. We just need to do a better job of recruiting. Those type players are out there, we've just got to go out and recruit them."

Coaching at Vanderbilt will likely always be an uphill battle, but Widenhofer hopes a favorable early schedule will help next season. "We start off with five of six games at home, and that will hopefully help. Fan support on the road is unbelievable. You find full stadiums with 90,000 fans. That can be quite intimidating. Our early schedule will be a plus, if we start off winning."

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