VandyMania: Coach, you of course have a fifth-year senior coming back at quarterback, as well as some good receivers who are also coming back. Your offensive backfield may be a little bit unproven. The rumor that's floating around out there is that you guys might be looking at slinging the ball around out there a little more this fall. Is that true or false?
Vanderbilt head football coach Bobby Johnson: (Laughs) Well, it's neither! It's neither true nor false. Of course we're always looking to use our personnel properly, and as you know we do believe we have one of the best quarterbacks [Jay Cutler] in the league coming back, and we do want to take advantage of his talents. But we also feel like we've got some good running backs who can do what we ask them to do, in our offense, and we want to take advantage of that too. Jeff Jennings and Cassen Jackson-Garrison are going to be outstanding running backs for us. They'll be able to do some of the things that our backs have in the past, and in some cases we might use Cassen at fullback. But right now we've got them both at tailback. But Jay can also throw to Dustin Dunning, who's having a good spring-- or Erik Davis or Marlon White. We're looking to get some guys back in there like George Smith, a wide receiver who was hurt last year, and Jason Caldwell, who was also hurt last year. Those guys have got to come through and give us some depth at those positions in order to give us the options that we want. We can throw it if we want to, or we can run it if we want to.
VM: So the rumor that you guys might be becoming BYU on West End is more or less false?
Johnson: Well, at the first of spring practice we were working on a few little [plays] that are little more than runs, like short passes and spot passes, like we did against Tennessee in the last game. We're trying to give our guys some opportunities to catch the ball and make some yardage after the catch. But that's just something that we're working on... it doesn't mean we're going to do that all the time, and that's all we're going to do.
VM: Let's talk about some of those guys you just mentioned... Jeff Jennings and Cassen Jackson-Garrison. Could you compare and contrast their running styles, and is there perhaps a third tailback that you're looking at trying to work in there?
VM: You sound pretty confident with that tandem, but is there a third tailback, or are you maybe looking at a signee this fall filling in there?
Johnson: Well, that's always a possibility. But Tim Miller has done some good things for us. Ron Bullock could go back to tailback if he absolutely had to. We're looking at Daniel Dufrene maybe having a chance to come in here and make something happen at running back. But those things... you just can't count on a freshman coming in here and making a big impact.
VM: At receiver you've got two excellent, explosive guys coming back, but to me the interesting thing this spring is, OK, who's going to complement them? You mentioned George Smith, and I remember he had a great spring last year before his illness. Is he back to where he was physically and able to do all the things he was doing last spring?
Johnson: He's close to that. I think George has made great progress since the illness. He has come back and tried to put on a lot of weight in the weight room. We don't want George to get too heavy, but we're very pleased with his progress. George will be one of the guys we look to to back up Erik and Marlon. The other is Sean Walker, who has shown us some good things. He's still not as consistent as we want. We've got Jason Burns, who came here as a walk-on. He's very steady and knows what to do. Ronnie Swoopes has moved from the secondary over to wide receiver, and gets a little better every day at it. Then Bryant Anderson is a redshirt freshman who has a big body, about 6-3, 205 pounds. He'll be an X-receiver who will hopefully give us some consistent play. Somebody has got to step up and be a consistent performer there. Sean Walker has certainly got the explosiveness. Bryant has got the body that can help us.
VM: You're having to rebuild the left side of your offensive line. I hear some things about Chris Williams. Can you tell us how you're looking there, and who your five starters would be if you had to start today?
We're very pleased with the progress of Josh Eames. Josh has lost some weight and is much more mobile right now. He and Merritt Kirchoffer are working over there at the left guard position. Both of them have the size and ability to do it. Merritt is very athletic, a big guy. We feel like the only thing holding back those guys is experience-- that's going to be the key to that left side.
VM: Anyone really shining at fullback so far?
Johnson: No... we've got two freshmen, Zach Logan and David Whittington. Obviously experience there is the big thing. Ron Bullock has shown some good things and has really improved his toughness. Ron was a tailback, and there's a little bit of a transition going from tailback to fullback, sticking your nose in there against defensive ends and linebackers all the time. We feel like he's gotten tougher and has a chance to help us there.
VM: Sounds like that might be a position that's wide open for someone to win.
Johnson: It is, and we're also looking to do other things. We may go with double tight ends, or we might use Brad Allen in that situation as an H-back. That's still up for review.
VM: I'm sure you guys are going to continue to be very multiple on offense the way you've been in the past?
Johnson: We're trying. We want to make people defend everything. Again, we're working with a little shorter passing game right now, but we'll also still have some option in there, and we'll make people defend that. And hopefully it will give us a chance to pick and choose what we want to do every week, to give us the best chance to move the ball.
In Part Two, Johnson discusses the defense and kicking game. (Photos by Don Yates, copyright 2005 for VandyMania.com.)