Opening Statement: "I'm very excited for the game, obviously, and the environment I think we're going to have Thursday. I know our kids are excited, not really because of who we're playing or that it's on national television but just because we've been working really hard since last year. We ended the season with a little bit of a bad taste in our mouths, and they're itching to get back out on the field. Our guys are excited, and looking forward to it.
There are really no surprises when it comes to the depth chart, nothing different in terms of schemes or plans. We're just going to go out an play the best Vanderbilt football we possibly can, and hopefully put a product on the field that not only Vanderbilt but the Nashville community can be excited about as well."
How important are traditions to you when it comes to building the product you put on the field? "The coaches, the players, the administration, the alumni and community, have done a lot in terms of traditions. I think it's important to lay a foundation for what you want the future to be and what you want it to look like. Branding is very, very important: our colors, the Star V. We have strong colors; we have strong emblems, so I think all those things are important. I think building a sense of pride in who we are and what we represent is very, very important and brings us all together. Whether you're in California or New York or London and you see somebody wearing a Star V, you have something in common with them."
Can you tell who has stepped up as leaders on defense or will that develop as games start? "It's not going to jump out with one specific guy like last year. Our leadership is going to come from a number of guys. We have a very unusual situation in that we have eight captains: three on offense, three on defense and two on special teams. We have all different types of leaderships. They're not just seniors, they're not just defensive linemen, they're secondary, they're special teams, they're offensive linemen, they're quarterbacks, they're receivers and running backs. The leadership is spread throughout the whole team, and that's what we're looking for. To think you're going to be able to replace one guy with just another guy is probably not going to happen, and I would make the argument that you don't want that to happen. I love that our leaders aren't just seniors. Some people might say it waters it down, but I don't think so. Whether it's in class and on campus, on the field or out in the community, we have representation that understands that we hold everybody to a higher level. These guys are really going to be held accountable."
How does having such a strong opponent to start the season effect your preparation leading up to the game? "We always break down the first three opponents. We have a game plan, and we might tweak it a little and it might change throughout the summer. We do a four-game breakdown on whomever we're playing. With it being a Thursday game, basically we're treating this Thursday like Saturday and we just count our week back. There are only two big differences: one, you start a little bit early. We got a two-day head start with South Carolina on the field with our players. And the other challenge is that we don't typically practice on Mondays. A lot of people do it differently and have the day off on Sunday, but I think it's good to get out there and practice on Sunday and get the game behind you, move on and put it to bed. The other thing is with the academic requirements here and the demands our guys have on them, it allows them to have one day where they can load up on their classes, take labs and take late classes. This game caused some conflict because we don't usually practice on Mondays, but this week we have to practice today because it's too close to game time. It's not ideal, but from a timing perspective we have to get out there just to stay fresh. It won't be a long practice."
Are you happy with where you are on the kickoff game? How will the kickoff rule change effect what you do with kickoffs and returns? "The way we'll approach the kickoff is to not be greedy. If we feel we can kick it into the end zone and get the touchback, we'll probably do that, especially if we think a team has a guy that's really dangerous. You have to weigh the risk of them returning it for a touchdown versus the extra five yards they're getting in field position.
I feel good about the field goal kicking situation. Those guys have worked extremely hard and have been really consistent in practice. We have emphasized pressure situations where the whole team would have to run if our snap, hold or kick wasn't successful. We've used air horns in their ears, whistles, bumping them, pushing them, kicking them, doing anything we can to put them in an adverse situation. They've handled it pretty well. It's been a toss up; you could really go with either one of them. Their percentages throughout camp have been very similar and I think that's a positive."
What are your concerns with South Carolina? "They're big, they're strong, they're fast, they're talented, they've won a bunch of games, they're coached well, they've got a Hall of Fame head coach. They'll probably bring some fans with them to the game. They're preseason number nine and are talking about possibly playing for a national championship. They're a good team."
Are priorities one, two and three stopping the run Thursday night? "I'm not going to stand up here and be real creative and come up with something else; we have to stop Marcus Lattimore. I think that's obvious to everybody. I do think they have a quarterback who's a coach's kid, who's going to protect the football, going to make good decisions, is a good runner and keeps you honest there. But really, to be honest, our focus is on playing the type of football that we want to play around here which is aggressive, clean, fast and disciplined, which isn't always the case early on in the season. Penalties, turnovers and things like that cause people to beat themselves. That's been our focus, and we'll see if it translates the game. We've gone into the stadium a lot, which we don't typically do, to get them adjusted to the lights and the jumbotron so they're not surprised by it. I don't want them to focus on those things; I want them to focus on the game. We also introduced noise into practice a lot earlier. Even though we're playing at home, and people say the noise shouldn't be a factor, the quarterbacks have to make sure they're using a game-type cadence in practice every single day. Unless you have some type of noise going on, they won't be able to train their voice to speak that loudly.
We had a very detailed dress rehearsal with the locker rooms, substitutions and such. We did a lot with putting coaches and players on the sidelines and forcing them to run personnel groups on the field.
On the running backs... Right now, Zac Stacy's our guy. He's our workhorse. We feel good about him. A combination of Wes Tate, Warren Norman and Brian Kimbrow we'll look at as being the number two. We have plays tagged for certain guys, especially Brian Kimbrow as a freshman. You don't really require him to know the whole playbook, but you have plays where you're comfortable with him running when he's in the game and you have them tagged."
Who are some of the true freshmen who can gain some playing time early in the season? "The guys we're planning on playing right from day one are Caleb Azubike, a local kid out of McGavock. He's impressive. Sometimes guys look the part and don't play the part, look like Tarzan and play like Jane. He looks like Tarzan and plays like Tarzan. I've been very happy with him. We also have Brian Kimbrow, who for an undersized guy, I've been very pleased with how tough he is. He runs very hard and aggressively. There's also Darreon Herring. I've been very pleased with those three guys. There are other guys that could redshirt, or could not, based on depth."
Can you elaborate on Connor Shaw, and what challenges he'll bring as opposed to Stephen Garcia? "He's more willing to pull it down and run. They run a lot of zone reads and things like that. The biggest thing is that he's a coach's kid, therefore, he makes great decisions. He doesn't make plays that will hurt their team. I don't foresee us getting the four interceptions that we had last year. That's our goal, obviously, and we're doing everything we can to create those turnovers. But with his mentality, I don't see him doing that, and we're just going to have to beat him through fundamentals, schemes and technique."
How much more comfortable are you on the first game this year as opposed to last year in year one? "Everybody in our building is much more comfortable. Year two is completely different from year one, not even close. It's really the little things, not just that they know the offense, defense and special teams. It's the expectation and how we practice. It's that it's not the first time going into that stadium. It's all those things. Our coaches have a much better feel of how we work together as well. I think from top to bottom, we're light years ahead of where we were last year. Have we closed the gap that we need to close? We've taken some strides, but we still have a long way to go as a program. But I'm much more confident this year.
Last year, I thought we had a good plan, but we had never done it before. This year, after going through those experiences and having some success together, I think everybody believes. Belief is a very powerful thing, and we have that right now. I met with every single player this spring, and after those meetings I felt almost the opposite, that we might be a little too confident. But I would rather have it that way. They feel that if the Green Bay Packers were to walk into that stadium that they're going to play with them, and they're going to beat them. That's their mentality. And that's good, because that's not the situation we were in last year."
How realistic is it for the tangible aspects to translate into wins and losses on the field this season, with facilities, recruiting and atmosphere surrounding the program? "The realistic expectation is to beat South Carolina on Thursday. Nothing exists after South Carolina. Even our schedule posters just say South Carolina. No other game exists. This is our Super Bowl. Next week, we'll get ready for the next opponent."
How would you guys react to wet weather Thursday night? "We spend all of our time focused on the things we can control. We can't predict, effect or change the weather. I can't control that. When it rains, we practice in the rain. If it rains, awesome. It'll be a great atmosphere; we don't have to deal with a sloppy field anymore. We have a great surface to play on. If it doesn't rain and it's a beautiful night, awesome."
Were you able to follow any of the Goodlettsville little league team? "I'm a huge fan of Goodlettsville. I'm a little concerned because we've been fighting and selling for the fact that we're Nashville's team, and we've got some competition now. I'm very, very proud of them and what they accomplished. I'm looking forward to getting a chance to get to know them and their coaches better. What a great thing for Tennessee, what a great thing for Nashville."
Will you be disappointed if the stadium isn't full Thursday night? "I'm looking forward to the stadium being full. Again, I'll be focused on the people in the stadium. I expect it to be sold out, packed and for everyone to be wearing black and gold. I expect there to be a good crowd because there is more buzz and excitement about Vanderbilt football than there has ever been before."
Is there any better way to kick off the season than playing South Carolina, who some people are picking to win the SEC? "I don't think you can have a better environment, a better opening game with it being against an SEC opponent. I think the real thing for us to focus on is that it is an SEC East game. If we want to do what we think we can do in this league, we need to win SEC East games and we need to start it out on Thursday night. I couldn't ask for a better atmosphere with it being on ESPN. We're all really excited, this week has been a little different, a change of pace because we aren't used to playing on Thursday, so practice has been a little different but we're excited."
What do you remember from last year against South Carolina? "I played most of the fourth quarter last year against South Carolina. They're good, they're physical and they're long on the outside. We're going to have to do a good job up front on keeping their hands down for our short passing game because they bat down a lot of balls. That's going to be a struggle for us to keep them out of the passing lanes. Their whole front seven is solid. Not just the front four but the linebackers are real solid and they have a lot of experience. The secondary is thin and a little less experienced, but they have some good players. (D.J. Swearinger) is a great player for them, so we're going to have to figure out what to do against him when he rolls down the box. He's a physical player, but overall they are very hard working. It's going to be a tough test."
What do you see when you watch Jadeveon Clowney on film? "He's very athletic. Sometimes guys will go to cut him and he just hops right over them like he knew it was coming. He's really long, really athletic. He's one of those guys that we're going to have to know where he's at, at all times. I think we're going to have success. Our offensive line has been working really, really hard. It's going to be a matter of us putting ourselves in the best situation against those talented guys up front and what schemes are going to work best against the talent and athleticism they have."
What tradition that Coach Franklin has brought back do you like the most? "Coach Franklin did a great job of coming here and reestablishing traditions. The one I like the most is probably the fight song. I like the fight song a lot and beforehand we didn't really know it. He came in and installed pride in us to sing it. We sing it with pride and we have a great time singing it."
Did you know any of the words before Franklin came? "Not at all. That's a big thing now because you have to learn it as a freshman coming in. They have to learn the song and I know that the sophomores, juniors and seniors all know it now. We sing it with pride."
How much of the focus will be on shutting down Marcus Lattimore? "Marcus Lattimore is a great back for South Carolina, but really we're looking at it as the offense as a whole because if we focus too much on Marcus Lattimore then Connor Shaw can scramble out of the pocket. They have a lot of talent on offense, so we're really focusing on being the best defense we can be."
What is it going to be like trying to stop Marcus Lattimore and knowing he is coming off an ACL injury? "Lattimore is a great player obviously and he's coming off an ACL injury, which is tough to come back from, but we're not even thinking about that. He's a great player and he's proven that he can compete at a very high level in this league, so we're focused on stopping the entire offense. We're excited about the opportunity to go against him."
How important will it be for the defensive line to play well in this game, knowing Connor Shaw's running ability? "We play against a lot of good athletes in this league, but it's definitely more of a challenge for the defensive line. We are going to approach it like any other game. We want to get pressure on him and make plays like we always do."
Last year South Carolina relied heavily on the run, do you expect the same this year? "They are definitely a run-first offense because they are good at it but they are still dangerous as a passing team, so we're ready for anything. Coach Shoop is a great coach and he has a great scheme that has prepared us for this game. We're ready to get going."