"That was a disappointing loss last week. Watching the replay, we had several opportunities to take charge of the game and we just didn't get that done. To be successful week in and week out – and actually have a chance to win in this league – you have got to take advantage of every chance you get. But give credit to Kentucky. They did a good job of that and of winning the game."
Have you been able to figure out why you're having so much trouble on special teams?
Johnson: "Most of the time it is individual breakdowns. At this point in the year, especially after playing 11 straight games, we've got guys in there who were playing that position for the first time. We see a new block or a new rush or whatever and they don't get it covered. That is the danger of using guys who are inexperienced. We wanted to make a change in the returner and that guy goes in and drops a punt. So, you try and improve it, and sometimes it doesn't work."
Is this an area where a 12-game schedule with no break really rears its ugly head?
Johnson: "I wouldn't blame it all on that, but it is a factor. We've had a number of guys on the punt team for example and had some young guys in there against Florida when we had two (punts) blocked. That still is not an excuse that we can't get them to do the right thing."
What are you going to do about the punt return game?
Johnson: "We are going to have an audition out there and see who can do it. Maybe we can just fair catch it and make sure we don't lose yardage or lose the ball. It was very disheartening. We opened up the second half stopping Kentucky, making them punt and then we give them the ball on the 30-yard line. That is just too much to ask of your defense."
What are you seeing in Bryant Hahnfeldt? Are some of his problems related to what is going on up front?
Johnson: "Most definitely. We take a lot of pride in getting the ball off and on time and that is one thing that we like to make sure we do. Bryant is going to be on time, but we just haven't been able to get the ball down with the right timing the last couple of weeks. Whether that is a confidence thing that we are having with our snapper, I'm not sure. But it is something that you have just got to fight through. The same guy has been doing it all year."
Is there anything going on with Bryant individually?
Johnson: "I don't think so. He kicks really well in practice. When the ball is there to kick, I think he is still an excellent kicker. I have a lot of confidence in him."
Can the same be said for Brett Upson?
Johnson: "He has gotten a little bit inconsistent. But he had some excellent punts the other day against the wind. In fact, they were too good – they went into the end zone. But, the wind was blowing against us on our side of the 50 and we said 'kick it as hard as you can' because we didn't want another 20 or 25-yard punt. So, he kicks it into the end zone. And when you are kicking to (Rafael) Little, that's not a bad place to kick it."
Did you expect to have the ball in Chris Nickson's hands as much as he has had it this year?
Johnson: "Sure did. A lot of people didn't get to see Chris in spring practice because he had a sore hamstring almost the whole spring practice. We knew Chris was an excellent runner and not that he is that blazingly fast, but he sees holes, he makes great cuts, and knows what the play is designed to do. Sometimes he is slippery enough to avoid people and get some extra yards. We always had confidence in his arm. The thing about Chris, when he decided to come to Vanderbilt, he said he wanted to become a complete quarterback. I think he gets better and better every week."
Are you worried at all about Nickson sustaining an injury with the amount of times he has the ball?
Johnson: "We are not that careless with him. We are not going to run him if he is injured or if he has a bad leg or something. But he certainly is a big part of our offense. But we also have confidence in Mackenzi Adams and Richard Kovalcheck if they need to go in there. We feel like we have two very capable quarterbacks to back him up. It isn't like a situation that we had several years ago when we only had Jay [Cutler] and nobody to back him up. We probably did not run Jay because of that."
Q: What were your expectations for Kovalcheck coming in, and what have you gotten from him?
Johnson: "Well, we didn't know exactly what kind of role he would play because we had never actually coached him. We knew that he would perform well in certain situations. Spring practice gave us a great look at what could happen if Chris Nickson were injured. We had MacKenzie Adams and a freshman coming in. Jared Funk. We actually had no backup for our backup. So we thought it was a great get. Richard is very talented and he can play quarterback for us if need be. We have a lot of guys at different positions who are good football players and some of the people ahead of them are right now performing the way we want them to perform. And sometimes that happens. But Richard has worked hard, he has learned the offense, he works hard every week in practice, prepares and watches film just like everybody else. Richarde is ready to go if we need him."
So when you brought Kovalcheck in, it was more for depth?
Johnson: "No, not necessarily. If Richard had come in here and been the best quarterback, he would have played. We're looking for the best quarterback to run our offense, what we want to do."
Is there any added pressure in this game because of the attention within Tennessee that it gets and because you guys beat them last year?
Johnson: "We want to win any game that we prepare for. Obviously it is a big game. We felt like we at least made the rivalry a little bit more interesting by winning over there. To tell you the truth, when all is said and done and after you practice all week and you concentrate on what they are doing and what they are trying to do, you don't think about a rivalry when the kickoff happens. You're just trying to get your job done. I think it helps in preparation. Your players get fired up during the week, they practice harder, and they practice better. When you have motivation, you always practice harder. And that is how you get better. You don't come in the dressing room and all of a sudden say, 'My gosh we are playing Tennessee, I am going to play well today.' Doesn't happen."
What have some of the benefits to the program been from beating Tennessee last year besides adding a spark to the rivalry?
Johnson: "It gave us a lot of exposure, especially in the state. It gave us a lot of credibility. That is an outstanding program. It is tradition filled. To win in that (Neyland) stadium is an accomplishment. Not many people do it. That's why they have been so good. It is important that we try and take advantage of it and keep building on it, keep getting better, keep competing. And I think it gave our players a little bit of confidence."
Do you know what to expect from Tennessee at quarterack?
Johnson: "I think Coach Fulmer is going to call me at 12:30 and tell me. Really, no we don't."
Are you preparing for either (Erik) Ainge or (Jonathan) Compton at quarterback?
Johnson: "They have two of them. We have to prepare for two of them. You look back, and, taking nothing away from Crompton because he has come into a really tough situation with the teams that he has had to play against, but they still almost beat LSU. If they had had Ainge all year, I think you'd be looking at a different scenario."
Will you talk to your team about the significance of beating Tennessee twice in a row?
Johnson: "Sure. One year, two years, three years. You are just trying to win this year's game. Last year's is a great memory. I am sure they will be fired up about last year. We will be fired up about last year. But it all comes down to getting ready in practice this week and playing this week's game."
Do you feel like your defense has dropped off in the second half of the year?
Johnson: "I don't want to get back into that injury excuse anymore, but when you start playing and you are playing this many, we have a bunch of guys bruised up. They go in for about 10 plays and then come out and then go back in. It is hard to be consistent. We have not helped our defense in the last two games. Two punts have been blocked, we dropped a punt last week against Kentucky. We've had too many short fields. I don't think it is anything to be concerned about. And I think Kentucky was the first team to gain over 400 yards against us anyways. If we would help them a little bit more and not put them in such tough spots, I think that we could play better."
Over the past couple of years, your biggest wins have been on the road. What isn't happening at home (to get similar results)?
Johnson: "I don't think it is much. Just circumstances. I can't tell you. I don't know. But I don't think that there is any voodoo or anything going on at home so that I'd get a voodoo doll to take care of it."
Do you perceive a home field advantage when you are at home?
Johnson: "Yeah we do. We are very comfortable at home. We have a great situation here. Our stadium is across the street from our practice field and we stay close to it. We don't even have to get on a bus. We walk back and forth. It is easy. We've enjoyed good crowds this year. So it is nothing negative, for sure."
You will say goodbye to 16 seniors this Saturday. If you could get them into a room, what would you say to them?
Johnson: "I've already thanked them. A lot of these guys are fifth-year seniors who came here in our first recruiting class and hung in there pretty tough in some tough situations and had some success. I think they had a lot to do with it. Anytime a guy will work that hard and stay in situations where you are not having a lot of success early in your career, you have to take your hat off to them. I appreciate everything they have done. For example, Steven Bright has probably had more injuries than, I don't know, most anybody that I have had in my career. Seniors are always special. But this group, I think, is extra special because it is the first complete class that we have gone through."