Johnson's intensity already paying dividends

Vanderbilt has yet to play a single football game under head coach Bobby Johnson. But with spring practice now complete, to hear some of Vanderbilt's players tell it, some big changes have already occurred-- changes that could pay big dividends come fall.

All doubt has disappeared-- there's a new sheriff in town. The hiring of Johnson from Furman last December was viewed as a disappointment by some Vanderbilt fans, who perhaps had hoped Todd Turner could land a more recognizable name.

But the low-key Johnson came to Nashville and promptly began preaching the old-fashioned values of discipline, fundamentals, strong work ethic, and attention to detail. It's an approach that has quietly begun to win over players and fans, and has restored some tempered excitement to a program that ran aground the last two seasons.

"This new staff is a no-nonsense staff," said starting cornerback and All-SEC candidate Rushen Jones. "They expect you to work hard, and they get 100 percent out of you every practice. It's a total change of scenery from the coaches last year. These guys come in here and they mean business."

An old-school approach like Johnson's has not been seen on West End since the days of Gerry Dinardo (1991-94) and his "Hell Buckle" camps. Rod Dowhower, who succeeded Dinardo for two years, and Woody Widenhofer, who succeeded Dowhower for five, both came from the professional ranks, and adopted pro-style management techniques. Neither, as Vanderbilt fans painfully recall, had much success in the SEC.

Johnson wisely opened up spring practices to the fans. Spring practices, which culminated with last Saturday's Black and Gold scrimmage, allowed fans to witness Johnson's hands-on approach firsthand, and many took advantage. Saturday's scrimmage drew an estimated 2,500 fans-- a decent number for a team that went 2-9 last season.

But is Johnson's approach really that different from Widenhofer's? Junior safety Jonathan Shaub, who had an impressive spring after coming off surgery to repair both shoulders, said the change in approach has almost been a big about-face for the players.

"The best way to describe it is, completely opposite from the old staff," laughed Shaub. "Not that the old staff was all bad-- it's just that we do things differently now. We go live [full tackling allowed] a whole lot more now, which is definitely a change. We never went live under the old staff, except for a weekly scrimmage maybe.

"We'd go `thud`, which means we'd get in position to make the tackle, but not actually make the tackle," said Shaub. "It wasn't really full-speed hitting. But now, almost half the practice always is live, full-speed, full-tackling.

"There's a lot more intensity. We put a lot more into practices. With the old staff we did a lot more walkthroughs, and making sure that we knew stuff. With the new staff we're going the whole time, and there's no breaks, no downtime."

The all-out, all-the-time intensity level of Johnson's staff was obvious even back in winter conditioning workouts, according to Shaub.

"It's definitely been a step up," said Shaub of Strength and Conditioning Coach John Sisk's offseason conditioning program. "The old coaches never came-- they weren't here during winter workouts.

"It's a lot different now, especially when you're trying to make a good impression on your coaches, and you've got a coach standing over your shoulder going 'Hit the dirt! Hit the dirt!'" said Shaub, with a grin. "I think it's been good for us. We've definitely gotten a lot more disciplined and a lot more hard-nosed."

Asked before the spring about whether his players may have been caught off guard by the intensity of the offseason program, Johnson merely shrugged.

"I think some of them may have been 'shocked'-- we really didn't take a poll," said Johnson drolly.

"We just asked them to do certain things, and they've come out and done them. I don't really concern myself with how much they've done in the past. We feel like we've got to get certain things done.

"Obviously we're going to have to take advantage of every little bit of athleticism we have, every chance to out-condition somebody," continued Johnson. "We've GOT to do those kinds of things. I think our guys know that, and in the long run, that's what they want to be able to do. They want to be in great condition, not get tired in the fourth quarter, be able to make plays. So they're buying into everything we're saying right now, which I really appreciate."

Benji Walker, a strong candidate for the starting quarterback position, said Johnson's staff made it clear from the very beginning that "you either have to get with it or get left behind."

"The coaching staff, especially Coach Johnson, came in and made it really clear what their philosophies were," said Walker. "I think our team has definitely responded to that. They know exactly what our coaches stand for."

Rushen Jones added,"[This staff] makes everyone work hard, and hopefully that will translate into some wins."

Music to this fan's ears.
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