BIRMINGHAM-- Vandy coach Woody Widenhofer was a little too outspoken before last season, he now acknowldeges. This year, he made a point of making no predictions-- just a "guarded optimism," as he puts it.
"I like this team an awful lot," Widenhofer told a group of 500 at SEC Media Days on Wednesday. "This is the favorite team I've had since I've been at Vanderbilt because of the hard work they've put in the last couple of years. We've got 15 starters back from last year, and that's a pretty good base to start with."
Widenhofer had special praise for his senior quarterback Greg Zolman, who returns for his fifth year this fall. "If you're going to be successful in this league, it's going to start with the quarterback," said Widenhofer. "I like him a lot. He's a leader, and his conditioning is super. He works harder than anyone else in the weight room. He's a sharp guy, and he'll be playing football while working on a master's in business.
"This is the hardest-working team I've had in terms of conditioning, running, lifting, all those things. It's also the closest team I've had since I've been at Vanderbilt. These guys really care about each other.
"Last year I was very excited about our team, and we got off to a really bad start. We had two key players suspended two days before the first game. We lost the first game on the last play of the game, and we lost a tough game to Alabama in Birmingham before losing to Ole Miss, 12-7. At Vanderbilt, where we haven't won in a while, starting off 0-3 really knocks the starch out of you. We never really recovered.
Widenhofer went on to talk about how he addressed the leadership issue. "We started two weeks after the season was over with leadership classes every Wednesday. We invited two players from every class to be in it, and any seniors who wanted to be in it. We just talked about leadership and things we can do to get better. I think this will be a team with camaraderie and unity.
"This is my fifth year at Vanderbilt as a head coach. This will be all my players. It's time to WIN. And it's time to see what kind of job we've done recruiting the last four or five years."
Widenhofer was asked about getting more involved with the defense. "I really missed that part of coaching. I'll be working with the linebackers and secondary. When I got the job of head coach, I felt I couldn't do it justice by doing all the other things I was doing. Now I'm in a position to get back involved in it, and I'm looking forward to it.
"If we protect the ball on offense and don't turn it over, with all our skill players returning, we should be productive on offense. You can't win games in the SEC scoring 15 to 17 points a game. You've got to get up in the 20s. The league is so talented on that side of the ball."
About his receivers, Widenhofer said, "We have a very talented receiver in Dan Stricker coming back-- he caught about 60 balls for about 1000 yards last year. He's one of our captains, and a very productive football player. All of our skill guys are back, and all have experience."
Asked which of his other receivers might step up to complement Stricker, Widenhofer was quick to mention junior M. J. Garrett. "M. J. is a clone of Stricker, about 6-2 1/2, 4.5 in the 40. He's probably the best athlete on our team. Then we have Chris Young who was a true freshman last year. We have some young players who may step up and help us in that area.
"I'm looking forward to Greg growing with this talent and getting us a lot better in the passing game."
Asked if Ray Perkins was ready to carry the load at running back, Widenhofer said, "We have a pretty good stable of running backs. Rodney Williams has really worked hard, and this is probably the best position he's ever been in to be productive. Lew Thomas is a backup and Norval McKenzie, a young redshirt freshman from Atlanta, is a very talented player. We also recruited a young player named Matthew Tant who has a lot of talent. We have a great chance to be better at that position."
Widenhofer also said better administrative help was making his job easier. "I'm excited about our new Chancellor, Gordon Gee. I think he wants to win, and he's going to raise the bar and help us get there." But Vanderbilt will not be changing its admission standards, he said. "We just have to do a better job recruiting and finding players. This team has confidence and talent, and we just have to go out now and win close games."
Widenhofer was accompanied to Media Days by two senior players, linebacker Nate Morrow and quarterback Greg Zolman. Both players wore a spiffy black suits set off by bright gold ties as they addressed the media hordes.
Widenhofer made no predictions, but neither Zolman nor Morrow was shy about making a forecast. "I think six wins or more is achievable by this team," said Zolman. "We have a lot of returning players and great depth. We are looking for great things this season."
Morrow was equally emphatic. "I think we can make it to a bowl game, but whether we do is yet to be seen. It all depends on how we step up during the season. We are in control of our own destiny, and as long as we put our minds to it and have the discipline, then it is in our own destiny to make it to a bowl game.
"I can't imagine the city if we make it," Morrow added. "The fans have been waiting years and years for that opportunity. It would have astronomical effects on the campus and town."
Zolman paid a compliment to Vanderbilt fans. "Our fans are great. We struggled and they were still there every Saturday. I am excited to be a part of this program and to get started in the fall."
NOTE: VandyNation also obtained exclusive interviews with Widenhofer, Zolman and Morrow at SEC Media Days, and we asked the questions Vandy fans have been asking. The complete text of these interviews will appear on VandyNation over the next few days… so be sure to check VandyNation daily.