Preseason camp: First practice report

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Vanderbilt football team went to work Wednesday, opening the preseason with a lengthy evening session that stressed individual instruction, fundamental drills and conditioning.

"It was a good first practice," said Head Coach Bobby Johnson as he left the John Rich Practice Facility following the first of 29 scheduled practices leading to the season opener against Ole Miss on Saturday, August 30. "Our guys were trying hard and were very enthusiastic," he said.

"Of course, with the freshmen involved for the first time, we had to slow things down a little bit, but generally, I was pleased with the way guys were moving around out there.

"I came away thinking that our guys were really intent on trying to get better. That's what I was looking for," Johnson added.

The largest contingent of Commodore prospects in recent years-- 102 players including 82 scholarship athletes and 20 walk-on candidates-- greeted Johnson and his staff. The players, equipped without pads, saw no contact action.

The team will continue to practice in shorts and helmets through Saturday, and go to full pads on Sunday. Two-a-day practices are expected to begin Monday. The coaches worked on every phase of the game, rolling out offensive and defensive schemes, introducing pass coverage drills and blocking patterns, and working on special teams.

Conditioning was a primary focus throughout the practice, with coaches demanding players to complete running drills at full speed.

Several key players were returning to the practice field after missing much of the 2002 season to injury, including junior tailbacks Ronald Hatcher and Norval McKenzie, junior defensive end Robert Dinwiddie and junior center/guard Jordan Pettit. Each appeared sharp through the session.

"It just felt good being out there," McKenzie said at the end of practice. "I'll say this, you never know how much you miss football until you can't play it. I found that out last year. I'm just very happy to be back."

The practice ended a long day that started early with position meetings and weight training in the morning. More meetings were conducted before practice, and all first-year players participated in a two-hour orientation. The team will continue with a similar schedule Thursday and Friday.

Prominent Practice Visitors

Nearly 100 Commodore fans watched the practice, including a pair of popular Vanderbilt basketball players, forward Matt Freijie and guard Russell Lakey. Both seniors stayed to the end of practice, greeting players as they left the field.

Nearly all of the local media outlets were represented. WKRN-2, Nashville's ABC affiliate, aired their sports segment live from practice. Staffers from the FOX, NBC and CBS affiliates also were present interviewing Coach Johnson and Vanderbilt players for evening reports.

Beat writers from the Nashville Tennessean and Nashville City Paper, along with the Associated Press, were on hand.

Ideal Practice Weather

After a day of stormy weather and threatening skies throughout Middle Tennessee, the Commodores caught a huge break, practicing in ideal conditions Wednesday evening. Temperatures stayed near 80 degrees through much of the session, dropping into the 70s for the final hour. It took just one practice for the team to benefit from Coach Johnson's decision to move the start of practice back to 6:15 p.m.

Dore Jam II Scheduled Sunday

Coach Johnson, his staff and the Commodore football squad will join other Vanderbilt athletic programs Sunday for Dore Jam II, the athletic department's preseason Fan Day that was a huge success last August. The free event is scheduled from 4:00-6:00 p.m., at the Rich Practice Facility.

Autographs, football posters, free hot dogs and Coca-Cola products (to the first 2,500 fans) and free tickets to the Vanderbilt-Chattanooga game September 6 (5,000 tickets are available with the first 2,500 adults receiving a pair) are part of the activities.

The event is truly a Field Day for young Commodore followers. Numerous activities, from inflatable games and skill contests, are scheduled for kids planning to attend. Coach Johnson and the entire Commodore squad will be available for autographs. Popular Nashville radio station Star 97 will be on hand providing music.

Growing Number of Walk-ons in Camp

Fifteen walk-on candidates participated in the first practice, far surpassing the 2002 total. Last year, six walk-ons were present for the first session, including fullback Clark Lea of Nashville who eventually saw action in 11 games. Three others from a year ago - receiver Jason Burns (New Orleans, La.), defensive back Quintin Shambley (Springfield, Ill.) and kicker Tolga Ertugrul (Bixby, Okla.) - were suited up Wednesday.

Several non-scholarship prospects who participated in spring practice were present, including receiver Walter Clark (Brooklyn, N.Y.) kicker Nathan True-Daniels (Fayetteville, Ark.), receiver Marc Effren (Southbury, Conn.) and kicker Shawn Bercuson (Palm Harbor, Fla.).

Walk-ons participating in their first practice were FB Chris Brown (Erwin, Tenn.), lineman J.P. Day (Indianapolis, Ind.), safety Chuck Edwards (Sevierville, Tenn.), receiver Patrick K. Johnson (Houston, Texas), safety Adrian Reif (Clarkstown, Ind.), DL Troy Rovella (Vero Beach, Fla.), kicker/punter Bill Robertson (Winter Park, Fla.), receiver J.T. Simms (Bourne, Mass.), RB Chart Westcott (Dallas, Texas) and LB/DL Tyler Zahnd (Killen, Ala.).


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