HOOVER, Ala.-Vanderbilt head football coach Bobby Johnson spoke to the media about his team during the second session of SEC Football Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel on Thursday. Among the topics he touched on were the death of running back Kwane Doster, making his defense faster and the overall ability of the Vandy program to win in the Southeastern Conference.
Doster was shot and killed on Dec. 26, 2004 in Tampa, Fla. He had 1,877 yards of total offense his first three seasons in Nashville.
"It's been a struggle to tell you the truth," Johnson said. "I don't think a day goes by that somebody either mentions his name or they mention the fact that he's not going to be available to play, or we'll be watching cut-ups and the films and see what a good player we had in him.
"So we're going to miss him in more ways that one. We will miss him as a player and our guys will miss him as a teammate more than anything else. We're going to have to deal with that. (But) our guys are doing a pretty good job of that."
Johnson added that the team will find a way to honor Doster on their uniforms this season. He also said that he didn't want to use Doster's death as motivation for this year's squad to perform on the field.
"It's way beyond football," he said.
Senior wide receiver Erik Davis, however, has used his fallen teammate as inspiration during the offseason, according to Johnson.
"Erik, I think, was probably affected a little more by Kwane's death than anybody and I think he's using Kwane's memory as a motivational tool on his own," Johnson said. "Right now, Erik Davis is in the best shape of his life. I have seen him run since January. I don't think a day has gone by that he hasn't been out there trying to get better.
Davis caught 37 passes for 510 yards and three touchdowns in 2004, slipping from the previous season when he caught 41 balls for 638 yards and seven touchdowns.
Sophomores Cassen Jackson-Garrison and Jeff Jennings are expected to compete for playing time.
Johnson praised senior quarterback Jay Cutler for not bypassing his senior year and going to the NFL. The returning quarterback in the SEC with the most experience, Cutler was a preseason first-team All-SEC selection by the coaches.
"I was very pleased for Jay," Johnson said. "No. 1, it was from the coaches, which I think they see the most film and watch and see what a guy goes through and what he's trying to do and what the offense is trying to get accomplished and see how close he is to coming to do it."
Cutler threw for 1,844 yards and 10 touchdowns, adding 349 yards and six touchdowns on the ground last season. The senior from Santa Claus, Ind., knows that the key to this season may be the Commodores' ability to win close games. Last season, Vandy saw late leads against Kentucky, Rutgers and Ole Miss and lost games against Tennessee and Navy by less than 10 points.
"You have to learn how to close the deal and that comes from believing in your teammates and yourself," Cutler said. "We are just going to take things one game at a time. If it comes down to me leading (the Commodores) in the fourth quarter and putting the ball in my hands, I'll take my chances."
Johnson thinks a slew of position switches made in the spring on defense should allow Vanderbilt to field a faster unit than in 2004, when the 'Dores finished 11th in the SEC in total defense. Among the moves he talked about were Herdley Harrison from strongside linebacker to defensive end, Marcus Buggs from safety to linebacker and Andrew Pace from strong safety to cornerback. Linebacker Kevin Joyce also made the switch from the weak to the strong side.
"In the spring, we made some major moves on defense" Johnson said. "Those changes were very, very important to us because we did want to get faster and wanted to try and get our best players on the field a we think we've done that."
One of those players will be linebacker Moses Osemwegie, who also earned first-team preseason All-SEC honors from the coaches and is Vanderbilt's leading returning tackler. The senior from Nashville will be flanked by Buggs and Joyce and will have a talented backup in Jonathan Goff, who Johnson is high on.
"In the spring, the guys really stepped up and showed they can compete at this level," Osemwegie said. "Our second string guys stepped up and looked better than I think most people think."
Osemwegie tallied 94 tackles a season ago.
"The key thing obviously for us is Moses being back there," Johnson said. "He is just one of those guys that has a knack. He knows where the ball is going and has the ability to get away from some blockers or go through them or around them and make tackles."
Johnson also was asked bluntly if the Commodores program, which has not had a winning season since 1982 had what it took to compete in the SEC.
"Are we going to be able to win championships," Johnson said. "You know that's not going to be on the near horizon."
"No matter how good we get at Vanderbilt we are recruiting on a very consistent basis and getting the best players we can find in there. It's going to be a battle every week for us. No matter if we're playing SEC games or out-of-conference games, it's going to be that kind of battle."
Johnson, who will begin his fourth season in Nashville when the Commodores play Wake Forest at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 1 in Winston-Salem, N.C., has a 6-29 overall record. The game will be televised by ESPNU.