At SEC Media Days, Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson joked that when the Commodores ran their first kicking play of the season, he'd probably be over on the sidelines with his eyes covered. He was partially joking-- and partially not.
Last season the kicking game was one headache after another for Head Coach Woody Widenhofer. Two early-season Commodore losses were directly attributable to field-goal-unit breakdowns. Vanderbilt's cadre of placekickers made only four field goals the whole season. Add to that the absence of four-year punter Joe Webb, and you can understand why Johnson might have reason to hide his eyes this fall.
Enter Greg Johnson, left-footed freshman from Lilburn, Georgia. The 6-1, 190-pound Johnson-- no relation to the coach-- stepped onto campus for the first time two weeks ago, and has given the coaches plenty of reasons to feel more confident.
Johnson appears almost a lock at this point to win Webb's starting job as punter, and may even make a run at doing kickoffs and long placekicks.
"Coach Johnson told me that during practice he really wanted me to concentrate on punting," said Johnson. "He told me that I should try some field goals just in case I had to try some other things too.
"I just hope I can impress the coaches enough to get on the field," said Johnson, modestly.
No problem there, Greg. At a recent practice, Johnson launched booming punt after booming punt, with Coach Johnson monitoring his technique closely. It was enough to get some old-timers reminiscing about the days of another Commodore punter from Georgia-- Jim Arnold of Dalton, an All-American in 1982.
"Coach Johnson's been working with me on my steps and everything, making sure that we get the ball off quick, and that nothing gets blocked," said Greg.
Meanwhile his field goal attempts, while not always as accurate as those of the other placekickers, generally easily outdistance theirs. One gets the distinct impression that if the 2002 Commodores ever desperately need a 50-plus-yarder, Johnson would get the call.
Johnson handled all the kicking duties for Parkview, the Georgia powerhouse that has won 30 games in a row and captured two straight 5A championships. Parkview, widely considered the best high school program in Georgia, was recently rated No. 2 in the nation preseason by Student Sports. The school has produced two other notable Vanderbilt players in recent years, offensive guard Jim May, and former safety Ainsley Battles.
"You sometimes see Ainsley [Battles, now with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars] in the Parkview weight room in the summers," said Greg. "He hangs around us a little bit."
High school football in Georgia is big, big, big, especially at the ultra-competitive 5A level. Greg says that playing in big games in high school has helped prepare him for the intense pressures of SEC football.
"At Parkview we played in a lot of big games," said Johnson. "We played in the Georgia Dome four or five times when I was there, and we played in a couple of state championships." (Vanderbilt, it should be noted, has never played a game in the Georgia Dome, home also to the annual SEC Championship Game-- but some day it certainly would like to.)
Johnson connected on 8 of 14 field goal attempts in his senior year for Parkview. (Vanderbilt attempted only eight field goals in 2001, making four.) His longest was also the last one of his career-- a first-quarter 51-yarder that helped Parkview defeat Northside for the state championship.
In the fourth quarter of the same game, Johnson also kicked the longest punt of his career-- a 57-yard rocket that covered that distance entirely in the air. When the Northside return man fumbled the ball, Parkview's victory was assured.
"At Parkview we didn't really have a kicking coach," said Johnson. "My head coach, Cecil Flowe, actually coached us, a lot like Coach Johnson does here."
Johnson remains close to his friend and Parkview teammate, All-American receiver/safety Jeff Francoeur, who was highly sought by Vanderbilt and every other program in the nation. Francoeur ended up signing on signing day with Clemson, but later opted for pro baseball and a multi-million dollar contract with the Atlanta Braves.
"We usually talk every day," said Johnson of Francoeur, who is now playing in the Braves' farm system. "For being so incredibly talented, he's a really humble guy."
An all-around athlete, Johnson grew up playing soccer. He never kicked a football until his freshman year of high school. "I played soccer my freshman year, but Coach Flowe kind of recruited me over to the football team," he said.
Johnson also is an avid golfer. He had no trouble at all passing Coach Johnson's pre-camp conditioning test, a series of 110-meter sprints with little rest in between.
Still, the adjustment to college life and SEC-level competition is always a difficult one. The placekicking competition is stiff, and the position remains unsettled. Five players, including Greg Johnson, Patrick Johnson [another scholarship freshman placekicker, from Athens, Ala., no relation], and three walk-ons, are competing for the position.
"Patrick Johnson has been kicking well lately," said Greg. "Chuck Folino [senior walk-on] kicked last year, and he's out here doing a good job. 'Ponch' [junior walk-on Abtin Iranmanesh] is out here, and he was doing kickoffs with the team."
There aren't many things that Greg Johnson can't do, but the freshman does have one handicap that might prevent Vandy from pulling off any fake punt plays this season.
"I've got really bad color-blindness," he said. "They for sure don't want me throwing the ball. I might throw it to the wrong guy."