QuarterbacksVanderbilt will have to start over at quarterback after the graduation of Zolman, the school's all-time passing leader. Last season, Zolman completed 186-of-357 passes for 2,512 yards and 14 touchdowns. He finished his career with 596 completions--good for 41 touchdowns and 7,981 yards--in 1156 attempts. Zolman finished No. 1 all-time in all those categories, as well as total offense (7,607).
It's a safe assumption that neither of the quarterbacks who competed to replace Zolman in the spring, junior Benji Walker (6-4, 208) or red-shirt freshmen Jay Cutler (6-4, 202) will ever toss up 357 passes in a season or 1,156 in his career. Johnson's plan is for the Commodores' offense to become more balanced.
Walker, a hometown product from Brentwood Academy, has seen limited action in his two seasons at Vanderbilt. In 2001, he played in four games, usually in fourth-quarter mop up roles. His season highlight came against Florida. He rushed for 33 yards and two touchdowns and completed 2-of-6 passes for 48 yards. Those passing numbers were also Walker's season totals.
In 2000, Walker played in just one game. He didn't complete a pass but rushed for 14 yards on his only carry against Kentucky.
Cutler, who sat out last season, comes from Heritage Hills High School in Santa Claus, Ind. He's a proven leader, taking Heritage Hills to a 15-0 record and the 3A state championship in 1999. Cutler completed 60 percent of his passes that season.
Johnson and Cain were delighted to learn in the spring that Walker and Cutler were suited to the new offense the Commodores will run. Instead of relying on drop-back passing, the offense will feature roll-outs, throwing on the run and the option.
"We're very pleased with both of them," Cain told The Tennessean. "They're both tall, strong, athletic, they can both run, and have very, very good arms. And they're both smart; they've been picking up the offense very well. With either one of them, we can do what we have in mind."
No less an expert than senior wide receiver Dan Stricker, who has caught 108 passes the last two years, thinks Vanderbilt's passing game can be even better than it was under Zolman, regardless of whether Walker or Cutler is the starter.
"Along the years, Greg and I have not hit as many big plays as we could have," Stricker told The Tennessean. "What I'm real excited about is that both these guys throw the long ball better than Greg. These guys are extremely accurate throwing balls 40 yards and more...I'm excited that these guys are going to connect a lot more with those long balls."
Blue Ribbon AnalysisVanderbilt administrators aimed high when searching for a coach last fall. They tried and failed to land Gary Barnett and Tyrone Willingham, but did manage to hire a successful coach in Bobby Johnson.
The hiring of Johnson didn't register much excitement with some Commodore fans. But he's an intelligent, experienced coach who has dealt with the particular constraints, albeit at a smaller level, of recruiting to a school with higher academic standards than the rest of its league opponents.
"All the years we had success at Furman, we had a good formula," Johnson told the Birmingham News. "We were extremely well prepared, we were not going to beat ourselves. And at he same time, we were going to be very physical. And we never used academics as an excuse. [Former Furman coach] Dick Sheridan started that, and it was never allowed to be a crutch."
Johnson and his staff hurriedly salvaged Vanderbilt's recruiting class. And though the Commodores' group of signees ranked last in the SEC in the opinion of most recruiting analysts, the class marked a great start as Johnson began to put his stamp on the program. The Commodore coaches were able to sign several players who could help as early as this season.
In between recruiting and preparing for spring practice, Johnson blanketed the state, speaking to Vanderbilt booster and alumni groups. He also made it a goal to meet and start a relationship with the 304 high school head coaches in the state. Johnson's willingness to meet and greet could help somewhere down the road.
In 2002, Vanderbilt will be solid defensively and more diversified offensively than it was the last few years, when the Commodores won or lost behind the arm of Zolman.
It's not likely Vanderbilt has enough talent to rise above sixth place in the SEC's Eastern Division. But in the years to come, as Johnson brings in his own players and puts his system and philosophy into place, the Commodores might emerge from their long string of futility and start to challenge for a winning record and a bowl berth.