Inside the Vanderbilt offense

Vanderbilt unleashed a potent passing attack vs. Ole Miss that resulted in 298 yards in the air. But who's actually calling the plays? And how does Head Coach Bobby Johnson respond to fans who feel his offense is too conservative? Johnson gives VandyMania readers a rare, behind-the-scenes look at Vanderbilt's unique offensive philosophy.

At a recent National Commodore Club function, a curious fan asked Vanderbilt Head Coach Bobby Johnson, "Who calls the plays? You or [Offensive Coordinator] Ted Cain?"

Johnson was quick to answer, tongue-in-cheek, "The ones that worked are the ones I called."

But the truth of the matter is that the job of calling Vanderbilt's plays-- the ones that work, as well as the ones that don't-- has been almost entirely delegated to Cain. Johnson and Cain have been coaching together so long and know each other's thought processes so well, said Johnson, that when he named Cain offensive coordinator shortly after taking the Vanderbilt job, both of them knew exactly the style of offense they wanted to run.

"Ted, [Offensive Line Coach] Robbie Caldwell, [Quarterbacks Coach] Jimmy Kiser, they all worked together at Furman," said Johnson. "It was almost an osmosis thing-- it was going to happen the way it was going to happen."

The job of head coach is so demanding, says Johnson, that there's simply no way he can devote the necessary time to scouting, watching film, scheming and developing a gameplan to suit the opponent week-in and week-out. So he entrusts the job to Cain, who was also offensive coordinator at North Carolina State for 11 seasons.

"Ted is very meticulous and does a great job of planning our practices," Johnson said. "He's also in charge of our preseason practices, and does a good job managing our game."

Johnson says he sometimes has to resist the urge to micromanage the offense and defense. "If I try to get too heavy, and just come in there on Thursday and start making arbitrary suggestions, it's detrimental. But we certainly talk about everything. Ted runs everything by me, and I have complete confidence in both our coordinators.

"Ted calls all the plays for us. We discuss things in certain situations-- are we going to kick a field goal if we don't make it, or are we going to go for it? Are we going to punt if we don't make it, or are we going to go for it? So sometimes that affects his call.

"I was a [defensive] coordinator for years and years, and I had two head coaches who let me do my thing. As a head coach I know I can't put near the time in on film study and study of the other team that that coordinator does. I can't be in two places at the same time.

"They [the two coordinators] have eaten it, breathed it, slept it all week long, so they are going to call it. Now, defensively I might be more likely to have a little something to suggest, because I coached defense for 22 years."

Johnson acquired a reputation at Furman for running a very conservative offense. "I was accused of being more conservative than Attila the Hun," he laughs. Perhaps he heard some of the same criticisms last year after coming to Vanderbilt-- under Johnson and Cain, the Commodores ran the ball 65% of the time in 2002, a sharp contrast to Steve Crosby's pass-happy offense.

But Johnson really doesn't think the term conservative is appropo. He sees the Vanderbilt offense as diverse and multiple.

"We're really not conservative," he insists. "We have a lot of things in our offense that we can do.

"We run the option, and it gives defensive coaches fits. We have to play Navy this year, and they run the option every play. It's going to drive us crazy that week, I can tell you that right now.

"We played Alabama last year, and they had a great defensive coordinator, Carl Torbush, who used to be head coach at North Carolina. When the game was over, he came across the field and said, 'Keep on running that option. We worked on it all week.' It's a weapon that makes people prepare for it."

Vandy's option attack, though not the cornerstone of the offense, is nonetheless a key component. The idea is to run it just often enough to keep defenses honest and force defensive coordinators to consume valuable practice time defending it. Ole Miss Defensive Coordinator Chuck Driesbach acknowledged that the strategy had been effective against the Rebels.

"They know right now instead of working on the majority of their offense, we're spending a lot of time on the option," Driesbach told the Daily Mississippian last week. "It's a great philosophy. They're going to run it around nine times and we've got to spend day after day after day to make sure it's covered with our blitzes and our base defenses."

Because sophomore quarterback Jay Cutler and the Vandy offense run the option so well, and so few offenses incorporate the option these days, some fans around the SEC have come to think of Vanderbilt as an "option team". But fewer than 20% of the plays called in the Ole Miss game were option plays.

"We can throw passes off the option," Johnson explained. "We had that pass open so many times last year, and I think we completed it once. It's almost always wide open because they're all up there trying to play the option."

"Then we've got a dropback game. We can put three wides or four wides out there. And we have our power running game. We have a fullback and a tailback, and there are certain things you can do off of play action where we feel like we have the advantage.

"They've got nine or ten guys up there trying to stop the run, we feel like we have a chance to complete not only a pass, but sometimes a big pass. So we have a variety of things we can do."

With Cutler manning the controls, almost all of the components of the Vanderbilt offense were in evidence in the first game vs. Ole Miss. The multiple offense produced 399 yards of total offense vs. the Rebels, with almost three-fourths of the yards (298) coming through the air. Though the rushing total (101 yards) was down a bit from last year's average, the passing output was easily the best of Cutler's career.

The rejuvenated aerial attack came as a pleasant surprise to many fans.

"As you see us evolve a little bit, get some more consistent running, that you're going to see us throw more, because people are going to be up there trying to take the run away," Johnson said. "And that's what we want. We want them to try to take the run away.

"We're not afraid to pass, but we'll pass hopefully under our terms. The worst thing you can do is throw two incomplete passes and have third-and-ten. I think our offense is diverse and will be fun to watch as soon as we get enough guys in here who can run it." Top Stories