Speaking to the press after Saturday night's deflating loss to Middle Tennessee, a shaken head coach Bobby Johnson had little good to say about anything-- and rightfully so. The Commodores had killed themselves with penalties and silly mistakes.
But when someone asked him about punter/kicker Greg Johnson's performance, the coach's downcast face brightened-- if only slightly, if only for a fleeting moment.
"He punted great," said Coach Johnson. "He did a good job kicking extra points and kicking field goals. Greg has got a lot of talent. He's got a great leg. He works hard at it. Greg Johnson is a really bright light for us."
When it comes to the kicking game, the freshman from Lilburn, Ga., has become Vanderbilt's one-man band. Against MTSU he shone in all aspects of the game, but it was his punting that really caught fans' eyes. He punted six times for a 53-yard average, including punts of 65, 62, 58, 54 and 52 yards.
"On the first punt, I was a little nervous," said Greg. "I shanked it a little bit, but I got a good roll, so I was happy with it. As the game went on, I just got more and more confident."
His season average, which rose to 45.4 yards, is now fourth best in the nation.
At least thrice, the MTSU return man had to turn around and run backwards. "Some of his punts were just killed," marveled Coach Johnson Monday. "I mean, a few were just launched!"
But there's more. Johnson is 6-of-8 on the year on field goals, and a perfect 16-of-16 on PAT's. Entering the 2002 season, placekicking was a huge question mark for the team-- the Commodores had made only four field goals all year in 2001. But suddenly, it has become a strength.
"On the field goals, we let one of their guys through the middle," said Coach Johnson. "And he got it up so quickly, the ball was over his hand before the player could react."
Against MTSU, Johnson was also asked to kick a pressurized extra point from 35 yards after a 15-yard penalty was assessed on the touchdown play. Was he nervous?
"Not really," he said. "Really, it's the same kick. It's right in the middle of the field. As long as we keep getting great snaps from Jason and good holds from Howdy [MacPherson, the holder], it's the exact same thing."
Johnson was also involved on one of the game's critical plays, a pooch punt that bounced off an MTSU player and rolled to the two, where it was recovered by Andrew Pace.
"I'd been having a little trouble with hitting pooch punts up in the air this year," said Johnson. "I'd been having trouble with them hitting and bouncing into the end zone. So we decided, why fight it? We put two gunners on one side, and the plan was just to kick the ball end over end. Maybe it will hit somebody, and if not, then the ball should roll down there inside the 20 where we want it.
"I can't say I was aiming for anybody. We were just lucky that it happened to graze one of their players, and we took advantage of it."
The most overlooked aspect of Johnson's game is kickoffs. The kickoff team works hard on containment, but the coaches still love it when a kickoff is unreturnable. Most SEC teams have kickers who can put the ball through the back of the end zone fairly consistently, but Vanderbilt hasn't for a number of years-- since Johnson.
"We work on it a lot in practice," said Johnson. "I just try to be consistent with it and kick it down there every time. Hopefully we can pin them deep, kick it in the end zone."
Having Johnson do all of the kicking was really not in the plans at fall camp. The Commodores have another scholarship placekicker on the roster, and some walk-ons who handled some kicking duties last year. The plan called for Greg to focus exclusively on punting, and let others handle the placekicking-- doing it all, it was thought, was too much of a burden to place on a raw freshman.
But Johnson's leg strength, it was obvious, was in a league of his own. Bobby Johnson, who gives special attention to his kickers in practice, gave him some pointers on improving his technique. Once he was able to prove to the coaches that he could kick the ball accurately as well as deep, the job was his.
The technique for punting is entirely different from placekicking, says Johnson.
"I usually split my time between kicking and punting. I usually warm up with punts, then move to placekicking and split my time evenly."
Johnson's impressive performance Saturday evening earned him a nomination for SEC Special Teams player of the week. But the SEC opted for Georgia placekicker Billy Bennett instead, whose performance contributed to the Bulldogs' 18-13 win over Tennessee. (Vandy's next opponent is Georgia, Saturday in Athens at 11:30 a.m. CDT.)
"Greg is quite a talent and will get better and better before he is done," said Coach Johnson. "I understand that award, though. Georgia won their game and their kicker did his job. Greg will get his due."