Tuesday’s practice marked a return to full-pads and contact for Vanderbilt players as well as the return of former coach Bobby Johnson. It was Johnson’s first visit with the team since his abrupt resignation in July.
On the sidelines, Johnson talked with coach Robbie Caldwell during drills and a handful of players in between them. He spent the majority of practice watching alone from the stairs of the filming tower. Caldwell said the two naturally talked about the team but in the midst of other topics, like Johnson’s golf swing.
“It (was) good to see him and I appreciate him being here,” Caldwell said. “I was asking him about his golf game—he busted up and shot a 77 (Monday)—and just (in) general, what I can do to improve. He’s been the head coach a long time.”
The nature of the visit was casual, but it’s something that Caldwell would like to see more of.
“He’s got an open invitation here anytime,” Caldwell said. “I’m trying to get him to hang out with us more. I asked him if he wanted to come out and officiate practice a little bit and blow the whistle so I wouldn’t have to because it rings my ears.”
Caldwell often has stated that as head coach he just wants to keep the program moving in the same direction that Johnson started. However, with any change in head coach there is bound to be some alterations. While Caldwell said that Johnson didn’t notice too many alterations, the most visible differences involve looseness and perks for the players.
“We’ve done a few things the kids like—exercise a little different, play a little music, ‘Dropkick Me Jesus Through the Goalpost of Life’,” Caldwell said. “We try to give’em a little culture mixed in with lemonade and getting big.”
Awareness of Johnson’s presence was unavoidable for everyone at the workout but the visit was not a cause for distraction. Players were locked in to the challenges of the approaching season under their current coach.
“I noticed him but you’ve got to remain focused,” junior linebacker Chris Marve said.. “It’s good to see coach Johnson—he gave me a good opportunity to come to Vandy—but coach Caldwell is our head coach now and we’re following his direction.”
Part of Marve’s reaction, as a linebacker, involves his attention and excitement over the first day in full pads and the first live scrimmaging of fall practice. Full tackling was still off limits for the bulk of drills but the team went live for two drill periods (approximately 12 minutes) at the end of practice.
“It’s [full contact] a great feeling,” John Stokes, another linebacker, said. “As a linebacker, it’s the most fun part of the game. If it’s not, you’re probably at the wrong position. It was great to be in full pads today and get hitting a little bit.”
The difference between a fully padded practice with hitting and previous practices is drastic for the players. Marve said the “intensity level increases exponentially” when hitting is re-introduced at fall practice. Stokes said that despite all the team does during the offseason to prepare for the season, there is no substitute for a full contact practice.
“All summer we’ve been working really hard and getting our bodies in shape but there is nothing like actually tackling,” he said. “Anything else isn’t quite football. You try to make it as close to football as possible but when you’re tackling it’s a competition. Definitely, the intensity rises.”
• Redshirt-freshman Wesley Tate, who sat out spring practice with a broken foot, did not participate Tuesday. Caldwell said the running back was held out due to caution more than necessity. Caldwell did note that Tate hasn’t been doing everything he can to protect the foot, including wearing an orthotic brace this summer.
“He seems to be well, it was time for us to rest him a little bit, he’s got a sore spot on his foot,” Caldwell said. “He was not wearing his orthotic, which he’s got to do. He’s just like most young people; they’re hard-headed sometimes. They don’t believe cow horns will hook you until they find out the hard way.”
• Johnson was not the only notable guest at practice. Kevin Mawae made his third appearance. He hung around and observed the offensive line drills. Caldwell noted that the former Titan has been using Vanderbilt’s weight room to stay fit as he hopes to join an NFL squad. Mawae is also using the Commodores to help determine future career moves.
“Kevin Mawae is just a nice human being,” Caldwell said. “He’s trying to decide whether he wants to go into coaching or ministry and this is a good way to do it. The NCAA has allowed him as an observer.”