Commodores looking to regain their edge

You don’t have to probe Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson long to find out what’s foremost on his agenda this spring.

“Right at the top is getting some confidence back for our whole team,” said Johnson, whose Commodores open spring drills on Wednesday. “Spring practice is a great venue to do that. It gives you a chance to work on the fundamentals and do the things you have to work on to win games.

“There are all kinds of reasons for what happened last year, and I think our guys realize that. The only thing we can do about it is to try and get better.”

The Commodores are coming off a 2-10 season in which they didn’t win an SEC game for the first time since Johnson’s debut season in Nashville in 2002. That’s after winning a total of 10 SEC games in the previous four seasons.

For perspective, that four-year run from 2005-08 accounted for the Commodores’ highest win total in SEC play in nearly 50 years. You’d have to go back to the 1956-59 seasons to find another four-year stretch where they won 10 SEC games. And from 1955-58, they won 11 SEC games.

So it’s safe to say that Johnson and his staff took the program to new heights last decade.

But they’re hardly satisfied with tasting a little success in this league and then falling back down to where Vanderbilt has traditionally been in the SEC.

Remember Johnson’s comments after the Commodores beat Boston College to win the Music City Bowl following the 2008 season?

He was asked what the next step for the program was, and he very astutely answered, “To not take a step backward.”

In this league, that can happen in a flash … for anybody.

Well, one bad season -- especially one that that included as many injuries as the Commodores suffered a year ago -- probably wouldn’t be considered as a full-fledged step backward. But two bad seasons in a row certainly would.

“A lot of what happened last year was because of our lack of firepower on offense and our injuries,” Johnson said. “But our guys never quit. They never rolled over. They were playing as hard against Kentucky and Tennessee at the end of the year as they were at the beginning.

“I think there are some lessons to be learned from last year. We’re not throwing everybody in last year’s wash out. We’ve got some good players coming back. We want to be positive, but learn from that experience. At the same time, there’s not going to be a whole lot of talking about last year. We just know we want to be better.”

The only way Johnson knows how to get better is to make the competition as fierce and as intense as possible this spring, and that’s exactly what is going to happen on the Vanderbilt practice fields.

It starts at quarterback and goes right on through to every position on the team.

Junior Larry Smith started most of the season at quarterback a year ago until he injured his hamstring, but Vanderbilt brought in junior college transfer Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

And to illustrate that Johnson is serious about this being a hardcore competition, he said he’s not counting out Jared Funk or Charlie Goro in the quarterback race.

Who could blame him?

When you’re coming off a season in which you scored just five offensive touchdowns in eight SEC games, you take nothing for granted.

“We’re not afraid to go with any of the four,” Johnson said. “We’ve invested a lot in them and expect any of them to be able to go in there and run the offense. It should be some great competition. May the best man win.”

The Commodores will be missing a few players this spring while they recover from injuries.

Among the players that won’t be practicing or will be severely limited are offensive tackle James Williams (ankle), running back Wesley Tate (foot), tight end Austin Monahan (knee) and linebacker Tristan Strong (knee).