Is sky falling for Vanderbilt football? Hardly

Bobby Johnson found out last week that two of his top juniors, fullback Matthew Tant and Jovan Haye, would opt for the NFL rather than return for their senior year. Star quarterback Jay Cutler could be next. After a third consecutive 2-9 season, and with several of its marquee stars not returning, will there be a morale problem heading into next season? We asked a few returning players for their thoughts.

NASHVILLE-- The 2005 outlook for Vanderbilt football turned a little cloudier last week with the announcements that juniors Matthew Tant and Jovan Haye would take their chances with the NFL rather than return for their senior seasons.

Although neither player had the season he'd hoped for in 2004, both Tant and Haye would unquestionably have projected as key leaders on a team squad will be looking for leadership. While Haye's NFL prospects are bright, there are those who would question whether an undersized fullback like Tant has much chance of being drafted.

Meanwhile quarterback and captain Jay Cutler, the undisputed offensive team leader and a starter for three seasons, is pondering his NFL options as well. The fourth-year junior told VandyMania he is requesting a confidential evaluation from NFL scouts before making a decision. It may be late December or January before head coach Bobby Johnson learns whether or not he will have his offensive star back for next season.

The departures, coming on the heels of a mightily disappointing 2-9 season, have some close observers on the VandyMania message boards wondering if the sky might be caving in on Vanderbilt football. More troubling, does the rash of departing players reflect a lack of faith in the coaching staff?

Rather than speculate about it, I decided to ask a few players who will definitely be back.

Linebacker Kevin Joyce was one of the true bright spots on a defense that often had trouble coming up with the key stop that would have turned a few losses into wins. A vocal, outspoken underclassman, Joyce scoffed at the notion that the players returning would have any problems with morale in the off-season.

"Not a chance," Joyce said emphatically. "Since we lost to Tennessee [in the final game], the whole attitude in the locker room has been about everybody was going to be in the weight room working out to get better."

The players had a week off for Thanksgiving the week after the Tennessee game, and have now had a full week of offseason conditioning under Strength and Conditioning Coach John Sisk. The whole focus already is on next season, Joyce said, and the team's spirits are high.

"Because we're going to win next year," he said. "We've got to. There's no if's, and's or but's.

"That's what you do when you play football. Your goal is to win, and that's what everybody wants to do."

Much has been made of the 15 points by which Vanderbilt lost five of its games. Several of the defeats-- Ole Miss, Rutgers and Kentucky-- were especially crushing in that the Commodores blew fourth-quarter leads.

But there are two ways to look at those close losses, points out Joyce. Two years ago Bobby Johnson's young team was getting blown out by teams that were obviously superior. In five games in 2004 the Commodores came agonizingly close to winning, yet couldn't summon the wherewithal to finish the deal.

"If you compare it to last season, yeah, it's definitely progress," Joyce says. "Is it what we wanted? Of course not. Nobody wants to lose that many games by that few points.

"But we're trying to take it for what it is and try to find the good in it, and try to be successful next year."

Defensive end Chris Booker, who started nine games in 2003, suffered a discouraging knee injury in spring practice that kept him out of the 2004 season. Booker was able to take a medical redshirt this season, and if his knee continues to heal, he should be a strong candidate to replace Haye in 2005.

Booker has struggled with injuries since high school, and many players who have suffered as many injuries as he has have been tempted to bag it. I wondered whether his latest knee surgery (last spring) might have dampened his desire to get back on the field. Just the opposite, he said.

"I'm definitely coming back," he said. "I would have given anything to be out on that field with them this year."

Booker was healthy enough to practice with the team on a limited basis toward the end of the season. He will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Probably no Commodore did more in 2004 to improve his NFL draftability than junior outside linebacker Moses Osemwegie. Despite missing the Tennessee game with a sprained ankle, the Nashville-MBA product was third in the SEC in total tackles, averaging 9.4 per game. He was the defense's linchpin and its most dependable tackler.

Most observers think Osemwegie also has an NFL future, and like Haye, Tant and Cutler, he's close enough to graduation to be giving the pros some serious consideration.

He won't be doing it this year, however.

"I'll be back next year," the star linebacker says. "That's a sure thing. You can bank on that."

The NFL is definitely a goal of his, but the team's tackle leader doesn't feel his prospects will be hurt by another year in school.

"It's definitely a dream of mine," says the All-SEC candidate. "But I plan to get my degree first."

How many fourth-year juniors will return next season? Several are still thinking things over. But even if a few more elect not to return for their fifth year, the number of fifth-year seniors is likely to be in double digits.

The schedule definitely gets tougher in 2005, and it's put-up-or-shut-up time for a team that has posted four straight two-win seasons.

Still, my sense is that there's a strong nucleus of returning players who are saying, don't start shoveling dirt on us just yet.

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Contact Brent at brent(at)vandymania.com


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