Bobby Johnson made a lot of right moves this fall.
His acumen as he led Vanderbilt to its best record and first bowl appearance in 26 years was not overlooked by his peers who named him, along with Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ole Miss’ Houston Nutt, Southeastern Conference co-Coach of the Year on Wednesday.
Yet throughout the six victories, including four in games decided by seven points or fewer, and the short time spent in the national rankings and every other Commodores’ achievement, there has been one riddle he has been unable to solve.
Johnson and his staff have been unable consistently to find the right player at the right time at quarterback. Chris Nickson and Mackenzi Adams have confounded at moments and commanded great respect at others.
Now, with the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl three weeks away, the challenge has become even greater.
“We may be a three-quarterback team for all I know right now,” Johnson said. “…We’re going to prepare to win this football game, so we’re going to get our best chance to win out there on the field (at quarterback) … hopefully.”
Redshirt-freshman Larry Smith added himself to the equation with his play in the second half of the regular-season finale at Wake Forest. He completed nine of 17 passes for 46 yards and VU’s only touchdown.
In three bowl workouts conducted thus far, Smith has gotten much more work than usual with the first-team offense. The primary reason has been the fact that Adams has been unable to practice because of a broken bursa sack in his knee.
“It was big for me to finally get that game experience,” Smith said. “I’m just taking it one day at a time, being patient, trying to learn the offense and thanking Chris, Mackenzi and coach (Jimmy) Kiser for helping me out.”
Adams, Nickson (who left the Wake Forest game with a concussion) and Smith all are expected to be available for the bowl game.
Regardless of what Johnson decides – and how it turns out – Johnson’s performance this season obviously was well-regarded by the other coaches in the conference. They were the ones who voted on coach of the year.
He joined Ray Morrison (1937), Red Sanders (1941), Art Guepe (1955) and George MacIntyre (1982) as the only VU coaches to win the award.
Johnson was the 2001 Division I-AA national coach of the year and the 1999 Southern Conference coach of the year while at Furman.
“We grade ourselves usually by the results,” Johnson said. “We’re also realistic and we also set some goals. … It’s quite an honor. Just that group I’m in there with is a pretty good group.
“Alabama was 12-0 during the regular season, and Houston Nutt in his first year brought (the Rebels) back. We got to a bowl game and did some of the things we did. There’s just a lot of stories out there.”
Just like there’s a lot of decisions that a coach faces throughout the course of a season. In the opinion of other coaches, he made the right ones more often than not.