VandyNation sat down with Vanderbilt Head Coach Woody Widenhofer recently at SEC Media Days in Birmingham.
VN: Tell us your thoughts at this point about opening up with MTSU.
WW: Well, it's kind of a scary situation, because they really have a fine football team. We scheduled this game two years ago when they were a Division I-AA team. What happened was, Boots Donnelly, who is a great friend of mine, pushed for the game, and I said OK, we'll go ahead and play you. Boots did a good job of getting that done, in his conversations with Todd Turner and myself. It should end up being a pretty good rivalry. They have created their own momentum by moving up to Division I and going 6-5.
VN: When you look at MTSU, what do you see?
WW: Boy, they're loaded right now. I see an awful lot of talent. Wide receivers, running backs, quarterbacks are solid. Now, they've got to replace some offensive linemen, so I don't know how good they're going to be there, but skillwise, they're as good as anyone we play.
VN: Losing to Miami of Ohio last year, does that get your players' attention for a non-conference opener?
WW: Hopefully. I think our kids understand that Murfreesboro is just up the street, and how important this game is.
VN: Have you considered going down there [to Murfreesboro] and playing?
WW: I wouldn't be real excited about that.
VN: You said last fall you were planning to get involved with your defense on a daily basis. Tell us how that has played out, and do you plan to continue that as you get into the season?
WW: Yes I do. I'm excited about helping out. What I mean by that is actually being part of establishing a scheme and coaching on the field, and being involved as much as I can.
VN: You've lost 3 guys off your defense to the NFL, plus you lost Ryan Aulds and Russ Nicoll. Talk about some of the guys stepping in for them, and can you possibly be as good after losing guys like that?
WW: I think we're going to be better on defense than we were a year ago, simply because our guys have worked harder. There's more team unity than last year. They really care about each other. We've got some fine players who are going to replace those guys-- they've just got to go out and do it.
VN: Any names on defense that you think are really going to step up and surprise us by how good they are?
WW: I think our two corners, Rushen Jones and Aaron McWhorter, are really solid players, along with Harold Lercius, our strong safety. On our defensive line, Doyle Crosby, Wally Conyers and Brett Beard at nose guard are bigger and stronger than we've ever had there before. They just need some experience.
VN: You also lost your placekicker John Markham to the NFL. Are you concerned about replacing him.
WW: Yes, I'm very concerned. John was a great guy and a great kicker. We recruited a freshman named Lance Garner from Copperas Cove, Texas, and we're hoping he will be able to step in.
VN: You mentioned Matthew Tant in the press conference as a guy who might be able to come in and help you right away.
WW: Well, that's really up to Matthew. He's a true freshman. That's a pretty tough transition. He lives very close to campus. We're not allowed to be with them until they get to campus, but he was a very fine high school player.
VN: Luke Hammond coming back this year, does that help to fire the team up, and what does that say about him?
WW: It says a lot about him, his character and toughness. Our players know how lucky he was, and how much football means to him.
VN: Talk about your secondary.
WW: We have three starters coming back, Rushen Jones, Harold Lercius, and Justin Giboney, and a corner coming back who I think is every bit as good as the player we lost… that's Aaron McWhorter.
VN: Do you think Brett Beard is ready to take over where Ryan Aulds left off?
WW: I definitely think so. Brett Beard is a MAN.
VN: Are you concerned about depth on your defensive line?
WW: Not really. I think this is the most depth we've had since I've been here.
VN: You are staying with the 3-4, right?
WW: Yes. We're staying with our scheme. We may get into more unders and overs than we've ever had before. That's a 4-man look out of a 34 front. It's a good defense for us, because if you want to drop 8 men, you drop 8. It gets a little more speed on the field too.
VN: You got a new offensive line coach, Bill Laveroni. Is his approach to coaching the offensive line any different than you had with Mike Deal?
WW: I think it's very similar. I've known Laveroni for a long, long time, and he's really an excellent teacher. So far our offensive players like him an awful lot. They respect him, and they spend a lot of time with him. We have four starters returning in the offensive line, Pat Green, Duncan Cave, Jim May, and also Jamie Byrum, who I think might be the best center in the league right now.
VN: In the last couple of games last year we saw a little more of a 2-back set where you were using Chris Mitacek as a fullback. Will we see more of that this year?
WW: That's one of many offensive sets we run. We do have a 2-back set, and that's just one of our many personnel groupings.
VN: Brandon Walthour… what's his status with the team right now?
WW: Up in the air. It's an academic problem.
VN: How about Doug Wolford?
WW: The jury's still out on Doug. We're getting more and more facts that say it may not have been his fault. I don't condone fighting, I'm just glad both players are OK and nobody got hurt. But I will deal with this.
VN: At this point he has not been suspended or anything?
WW: At this point he has not been suspended. We are going to deal with this fighting. The last article I read in the Tennessean was that his attorney had four witnesses that stated that it was the other guy's fault. So we'll just wait through the fact period and see what we've got to do.
VN: You said you are not making any predictions this year, are you still sticking by that?
WW: No predictions. I just like our football team an awful lot.