Coach Johnson addressed many subjects in the 60-minute session. When asked about beating Tennessee last year, he commented, "We weren't holding up our end of the bargain in that rivalry, and there was a lot of pent up emotion which came out after the game. It makes me realize what a great situation we could have at Vanderbilt if we make the program better, which we are working extremely hard to do. It could be a great rivalry, and it would be great for the state of Tennessee."
Coach Fulmer responded by saying that after losing to Vanderbilt and finishing 5-6, he was concerned about going on the Big Orange Caravan this summer, to which he received a huge amount of laughter from the audience. Then in a serious tone, he mentioned, "There were a lot of things that you could go back and point to and say we could have done better and should have done better as coaches and players. I have not gone through a season like that before, and I do not plan on going through it again. I have a great coach's wife, and she is absolutely as supportive as anybody could be. I am not accustomed to being at home during Christmas. I was fine on Christmas Eve and fine on Christmas Day, but on the day after, she ran me out of the house. She said, 'you are driving us crazy and you've got to go do something.'"
Coach Johnson then responded by saying he too had a great supportive coach's wife who told him before the start of last season that he needed to start winning games. The audience responded with enough laughter to make Jay Leno jealous.
Both of the emcees asked his school's coach about the quarterback situation for the upcoming season. Coach Johnson responded, "We had so many close games last year that sophomore Chris Nickson didn't get a lot of action as a redshirt freshman. We also have a redshirt freshman in Mackenzie Adams. The opportunity presented itself in Mid-April for us to get a transfer from the University of Arizona under a new NCAA rule, and we signed Richard Kovalcheck to a scholarship. He's going to be in the mix for the competition. He's got a chance to come in here and make something happen with our program. Richard started 11 games at Arizona the last two years, and eight of them were against top 25 teams. We've got a lot of confidence in Chris and Mackenzie, but it's great to have somebody with the type of experience Kovalcheck has. The spot is still up for grabs."
Coach Fulmer admitted some mistakes were made last year with the handling of the quarterback position. "We all saw Erik Ainge as a freshman, and he was a dynamic prospect. He split time with Brent Schaeffer. Brent just couldn't quite get it. He had to do something else. We should have done some things differently on the front end, maybe in spring practice by naming the starter. We started with Rick Clausen at the beginning of the season and let Erik eventually win the job; it just did not happen for him last year like we anticipated it happening. For a number of years, going back to when Andy Kelly took over for Sterling Hinton and when Peyton Manning took over as the starter as a freshman or when Casey Clausen became the Qb, it always worked out for the younger, more talented player to be the guy. This year should be the year for Erik Ainge. I am anxious myself to see how he adjusts and how he manages it; the first thing he's got to do is earn the confidence of the football team. He took great strides in doing that in spring practice and has continued to do so this summer. It's a work in progress."
In other responses to questions, Coach Johnson indicated that Jay Cutler's sticking around for a fifth season not only helped him in the NFL draft, it helped the program a great deal by giving Vanderbilt a lot of exposure. "The exposure we got from Jay being in the first round of the draft was just tremendous. It will help us for years to come, especially when recruiting quarterbacks."
When asked about the schedule for this season, Coach Johnson mentioned the positives in playing at Michigan and at Alabama to open the season. "It will give us a lot of publicity. Everybody is going to be watching Tennessee take on California on September 2nd , and we're going to be on ESPN against Michigan. Our players and coaches are excited about it. It gives them a great goal to work toward in the off-season. We're going into the games full-speed ahead."
When asked about the progress of kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt and tailback Jeff Jennings in their attempts to come back from ACL injuries, Coach Johnson revealed that they are both way ahead of schedule in their rehab. "Bryant is already kicking and should be ready to go at the start of the season. We're going to have to wait and see with Jeff. If he's not ready to go, we have a lot of confidence in redshirt freshman Jared Hawkins. We won't be afraid to put a true freshman in like Gaston Miller from right here at Riverdale High who had a fantastic high school career. We could also put in Steven Bright as the lone back in one-back formations, but Cassen Jackson-Garrison will have to carry most of the load."
On the 12-game schedule, Coach Johnson was not happy the Commodores had to play 12 consecutive weeks this year. "We have to play 12 straight games this year without an open date, so that's a big strain. In 2002 and 2003, we played 12 games and it was extremely tough. In a 12-game season, by the end of the year, you need just about every player on your squad because you're going to get to where you have to play those reserves, and they will have to be in position to win games for you. I hope in future years, we'll have an open date so our players can get some rest."
When asked about the differences he has noticed in the entire team in the past 12 months, Coach Johnson replied, "The guys were more focused and more dedicated, and I think that's carried over. In the off-season, our guys worked extremely hard, and that fires you up as a coach. You see these guys grow as football players and young men, and they prepare themselves to increase that success. Is it a guarantee that that's going to happen? No! We're in a tough league, and we have to play tough games every week, but to see those guys prepare and work as hard as they have, that just fires you up as a coach probably better than just about anything that they could possibly do. We're extremely excited about the new year. If we can somehow survive the tough start, I think we can have a chance at an excellent season."
Photos by Howell Peiser