ATLANTA-- So, what was Bobby Johnson's demeanor like as he faced the media in his first postgame press conference after a deflating 45-3 shellacking at the hands of Georgia Tech?
Much the same as it's been since the day he was named coach-- relaxed, unflappable, and matter-of-fact.
"We've got a lot of new players offensively and defensively," said Johnson. "Our goal was to get out and try to do things as simply as possible, and make sure we weren't asking our young guys to do too much.
"At times we did some good things, and at times we did some bonehead things, and did some bonehead coaching things. We all acted like we were rookies at times."
Mere minutes later, Johnson was whisked by his handlers aboard one of six GrayLine charter buses, and the team was whizzing up I-75 back toward Nashville. Johnson sat beside his wife on the lead bus.
The beginning of the Bobby Johnson era had brought a renewed sense of anticipation to the Vanderbilt faithful. An enthusiastic contingent of over 2,000 Commodore fans had made the trip in hopes of perhaps seeing Vanderbilt pull off a season-opening stunner over the Jackets from the ACC. They made their presence known.
But the lopsided loss was a signal that there will no instant turnarounds. The 2002 Commodores were outmatched in every aspect of the game by the athletic Yellow Jackets. They were out-athleted, out-quicked, and yes, probably outcoached. The dreams of a new, better day for Vanderbilt football had gone up in flames on this dreary night in Atlanta.
But before Commodore fans begin singing, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss", it's important to look at just how young this team was that started Saturday night.
Due to graduation and injury, two key offensive starters-- quarterback Jay Cutler and tailback Norval McKenzie-- were playing their first college games ever. Meanwhile on defense, three of the starters-- Jovan Haye, Dominique Morris, and Moses Osemwegie-- were playing in their first games, while three others who played extensively-- Cheron Thompson, Trey Holloway and Ralph McKenzie-- were also getting their initial taste of college football.
And that's just the REDSHIRT freshmen. Johnson also used at least eight true freshmen-- Greg Johnson, Kwane Doster, Erik Davis, Grant Brigham, Herdley Harrison, Chris Booker, Ray Brown and Andrew Pace-- though most except for Johnson were used in backup and special teams roles.
Without names on the backs of the jerseys, it took a roster card to keep track of all the newcomers. At times it seemed the coaches were searching for someone, anyone, who would show some extra effort and make a big play.
Coaches always consider the first game a measuring stick, and the Commodores learned that they have miles to go before they're ready for SEC competition. At this point what fans should hope for is not an immediate turnaround, but steady improvement from week to week.
Some injuries took a toll on the Dores in their first game. Defensive lineman Brett Beard was unable to play due to a foot injury that's been slow to heal. Hard-luck linebacker Brandon Walthour, who likely would have started, was held out due to surgery on his thumb last Thursday.
Junior Jordan Pettit started the game at right guard, but injured a leg on the second series of the game. He was taken off the field on a truck and X-rayed, and may be lost for the season. The Commodores were already thin at offensive line, and Pettit's loss will no doubt aggravate that precarious situation.
On the good side, Robert Dinwiddie played a good amount of snaps at left defensive end, completing an almost miraculously quick recovery from knee surgery last spring.
It was very interesting to observe the substitution patterns at the various positions.
At quarterback, Jay Cutler started as the coaches had said earlier in the week, and played (by my count) 10 of Vanderbilt's 13 possessions. Benji Walker was inserted for one series in the first half, and two in the second half (both after Tech had taken a 45-0 lead).
Norval McKenzie started at tailback, but he and Ronald Hatcher seemed to be alternating series, with Kwane Doster getting some carries toward the end. Matthew Tant started at fullback, but walk-on Bara Cola saw plenty of action and looked for my money to be the better blocker.
The same five offensive linemen played most of the game-- Justin Geisinger, Jim May, Jamie Byrum, Kenan Arkan and Brian Kovolisky (who came in after Pettit was injured).
Most interestingly, the defensive coaches seemed intent on letting defensive linemen rotate series to keep them fresh, especially at tackle. The one lineman who never seemed to come out was redshirt freshman end Jovan Haye. (One of the hallmarks of great SEC teams is the ability to rotate defensive linemen to keep them fresh.)
Of the true freshmen who played, three probably made the biggest impact.
Greg Johnson punted 8 times for a very respectable 42.5 average, including a 53-yarder. Johnson also handled the kickoff and placekicking duties-- he caromed on a 28-yard chip shot off the upright, but later atoned for it by making a 37-yarder for Vanderbilt's only points (bringing a lusty cheer from the Vandy fans who were still around).
Kwane Doster was used as a single-back kickoff returner, and brought back four for 90 yards. Late in the game he came in at tailback and had three carries, one of them a nifty 13-yarder.
Grant Brigham had one catch for 32 yards, the Commodores' longest reception of the night.
Ted Cain is evidently an offensive coordinator who chooses to stay on the sidelines near the heat of battle. During timeouts he was often observed with his 11 offensive players around him, explaining and diagramming plays.
Defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler, on the other hand, chooses to call coverages from the booth, and relay them down to the sidelines through linebackers coach Warren Belin.
Or at least that's what it looked like to me.
Though Jay Cutler did throw two interceptions, those were the only two Commodore turnovers. Vanderbilt escaped the opener without a single fumble, and was penalized only five times for 25 yards. For an opening game, and with all-new offensive and defensive schemes, that's perhaps one good thing on which to hang your hat, after an otherwise depressing evening.