One reporter asked, point blank: "Does Vanderbilt have more talent now than when you arrived?"
"I think so," Johnson replied.
A fourth consecutive two-win season this fall will bring Johnson's judgment into question. A feeling permeates the Vanderbilt football program these days that talk is cheap. Last year proved that, as fans and players talked about a bowl season.
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There is no such talk this summer. Prides and egos were wounded last season, when the Commodores lost five games after either leading or being tied at halftime.
Players and coaches insist the problem is mental, not physical. I chatted last week with senior center Trey Holloway, who is majoring in Sociology and whose father is a child psychiatrist. Holloway believes he knows something about human behavior, especially as it relates to football.
"It's a matter of believing and leaning on each other," he said.
Although Vanderbilt has several holes to fill and questions to answer, Johnson says that overcoming the disappointment of 2004 is the biggest challenge of 2005. Football is a demanding sport to play and prepare for, and doing so without the reward of winning can drain motivation.
"It beats you down," Holloway admits.
Can the Commodores rally once again and give all they have for their coaches, for their school, for each other, for personal pride?
Let's rank this question as the most crucial as camp opens tonight.
Here are some others that we'll be following in the coming weeks:
- Will the coaches open up the offense and unleash Cutler and his strong right arm? Did Cutler come back for his senior season to play in a conservative offense? Were any promises or assurances given to him?
- Some within the VU football program think sophomore tailback Jeff Jennings has the potential to be one the school's all-time best. Is he really that good?
- Will the linebackers be as strong as advertised? We already know what Moses Osemwegie can do. Middle linebacker Jonathan Goff has all the physical tools, and outside man Kevin Joyce turned in an impressive spring.
- Will senior receiver Erik Davis emerge into an all-SEC performer?
- True freshman Earl Bennett is going to play this fall and maybe play a lot. Will he become the third receiver the team needs to complement Davis and Marlon White?
- Can Vanderbilt find adequate newcomers to man the left side of the offensive line at guard and tackle? If not, will Cutler be able to find a passing rhythm without running for his life?
- How will an overhauled secondary develop during camp? Strong safety Kelechi Ohanaja is the only returning starter at his position among defensive backs.
- At the defensive ends spots, can Chris Booker, who is back from a knee injury, and converted linebacker Herdley Harrison get the job done?
- Will Johnson's loyalty to his coaching staff be rewarded? It's not often that an entire staff is retained after a 2-9 season. Can these guys deliver more wins?
The answers will arrive soon.
Email Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo by Brent Wiseman