The Wheels Are Turning, Not Spinning

A 24-point loss to Georgia is nobody's idea of whoopee. With that said, a few things got un-stuck in the coaching corridors of the Vanderbilt football program this past weekend. Bobby Johnson's willingness to mix things up just made the second half of this season a lot more interesting.

Just what can be said after last Saturday's 34-10 downer against Mark Richt's Bulldogs on a fittingly gray and sunshine-free afternoon in Nashville? Well, for the first time in 2009, the Commodores' decorated defense gave way on numerous occasions—more than what Johnson or coordinator Bruce Fowler surely expected. The linchpin of the program experienced critical lapses throughout the day and allowed the guests from Athens to pull away late. Poor angles on a quick hitch pass to A.J. Green in the first half, plus a stuttering and unsteady style in the fourth quarter, doomed a unit that has to flash its finest form on a regular basis just for the Dores to remain competitive. This defensive decline marked an appreciably new dimension of another sad Saturday story.

In the big picture, however, Vandy's defense—inhabiting the same mortal flesh, the same human physiology, the same biological makeup everyone else does—is certainly owed a debt of understanding. Not quite a "pass" or a "freebie", mind you—that goes against the football code—but an allowance for imperfection. Indeed, it was quite difficult to think that at some point, VU's offensive struggles wouldn't flow to the other side of the ball, and create a cumulative fatigue that would bring a fragile formula for success crashing to earth.

Georgia, as the whole SEC knows, isn't a league title contender in 2009. Heck, the dusted-up hosts of the Hedges aren't even Outback Bowl contenders at this moment; their season seems likely to end in the very same Music City Bowl Vandy was so thoroughly happy to win last December. Losing big to this particular Georgia club—and on home soil at that—is no indicator of any form of progress.

With that being said, don't mistake the lack of progress for a downward spiral. If Vanderbilt is failing to climb the ladder in the SEC, the Dores' loss to Georgia didn't constitute a further fall in the sport's pecking order. A lack of forward movement up to this point in the season doesn't mean that the remaining five games of 2009 can't witness a bounce-back from the Johnson Boys.

The emergent drama of this season, provided in clear relief against Georgia, flowed from Bobby Johnson's willingness to do two things on offense: install Jamie Graham at receiver, and give Mackenzi Adams some snaps (and throws) at quarterback. Those two moves, which were long overdue, offer Vandy zero guarantees of improvement, but they do create a context in which this coaching staff can learn more about its personnel with an eye on 2010… and maybe win a few extra games before this year's trek reaches its endpoint, which won't be in the Music City Bowl, to say the least.

It's worth noting—as Vanderbilt fans chew on this offense's unfolding intrigues—the train wreck emerging at Ohio State, where even a coach as accomplished as Jim Tressel is so fully and clearly failing to bring out the best in Terrelle Pryor, the kind of athletic specimen who—if garbed in an all-black jersey and a helmet with a "V" on it—would make the Dores a regular bowl-game participant. The Ohio State staff—like any other coaching staff at an FBS program—has forgotten more about football than working stiffs and humble scribes will ever learn, but what coaches often fail to recognize is that if the same methods don't bring about improvement, the structure and style used to communicate football wisdom must be tweaked, if not overhauled.

Football coaches are great at teaching football, but what they often lack—in their often religious devotion to their own methods and principles—is a willingness to adjust to the skill sets and learning habits of the players they coach. For most of 2009 (a game against grossly inferior Toledo was an exception), Pryor manifestly struggled, with the Buckeyes making few if any appreciable changes to the way they operated. If the teaching method used by OSU coaches had any degree of merit, Pryor would be making improvements… perhaps not huge ones, but discernible ones… in his holistic handling of the sport's most important position. This weekend's ugly loss at Purdue showed, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Pryor is regressing. Therefore, it's the height of folly for Tressel and his staff to think that the same methods can bring about the results they want.

This leads us back to Bobby Johnson's mind, where the wheels are truly turning, and not just spinning, stuck in the mud and mental mush of stagnation.

The "let's leave Larry Smith out there to fend for himself, and allow him to take his lumps" strategy had run its course… at least without Jamie Graham in at receiver. Now, with a speedy specimen on the edges—in an attempt to recapture that D.J. Moore mojo of past seasons (a ballsy move that definitely worked out well for Vanderbilt)—perhaps Smith will see the game differently and find a new and trusty target on downfield routes. That could change the equation in the Commodore camp.

The move to give snaps to Mackenzi Adams—a man who has served this program with valor and toughness if not Jay Cutler quality (then again, who has?)—was not only the right and decent thing to do for a loyal player, but also a situation-shifting tactic that could provide a welcome shake-up on the offensive side of the ball. Smith now knows he's not guaranteed every gameday snap, for one thing. Secondly, Smith might learn more by viewing at least some plays from the sidelines. The change in perspective, combined with the ability to be coached up by Johnson and offensive coordinator Ted Cain, could unlock Smith's potential in ways that previously-employed methods didn't. The simple fact that Johnson got off his methodological dime, and changed course on two fronts, means that this coaching staff isn't willing to go the Ohio State route with Terrelle Pryor: Vandy might lose more games, and VU might even fail to make more progress, but by putting an end to the head-banging routine of doing the same thing while expecting different results, the Commodore braintrust has injected a fresh sense of possibility into the remaining five games of the year.

That's not what VU fans wanted to imagine after seven games, saddled with a 2-5 record, but it sure beats sticking to the same old song and dance. Here's to more wheel-turning in the weeks ahead.

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