There was no shortage of voices at Vanderbilt’s first spring football practice Friday afternoon.
Coaches with every position group challenged, exhorted, corrected and encouraged. They were loud. They were upbeat. They were tireless.
It was a whistle, though, that spoke the loudest. And first-year head coach James Franklin was the one who blew it only when he saw fit to do so.
“A lot of times I’m going to watch a guy on the back side of the defense and see if he’s running to the ball,” Franklin said. “If he’s going hard and everybody else is, I’m going to blow the whistle quick. If I feel like someone is not going as hard, I’m going to hold it. If I feel like the offense had a chance to break the play and a chance to score then I’m going to hold the whistle … and see if they can break big ones.”
As it turned out, getting to the ball was good. Getting to the whistle was more important.
It was revealed as one of the details Franklin talked about prior to the start of spring drills when he said one of the themes of the next couple weeks would be “learning to practice.”
“It’s that transition, and I think this is the worst of that you’ll see,” defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone said. “It’s going to get better and better every day. We’re going to learn what he wants and know what to expect out of ourselves.”
It took less than one full workout for players to figure out they can expect to find themselves watching for a time if they don’t do what’s expected of them.
Franklin, himself, personally showed Sean Richardson, one of the leaders on defense and one of the top tacklers in the SEC last season, to the sideline early in a seven-on-seven passing period.
Richardson was made an example when he ran to the receiver and tagged the man with the ball. That’s when he erred. He stopped.
“It was a learning mistake,” Richardson said. “It was a tag-off period but the guys … we didn’t totally understand. We figured … everybody just tag off, but it was tag-and-chase. Coach said that he should have addressed that in the film room, but we’ll get that corrected.”
Franklin didn’t just focus his attention on the defense. He was an equal opportunity enforcer.
A short time after he made his point with Richardson, he sent quarterback Charlie Goro off because Goro stopped running after every member of the defense got to him … but before the whistle blew.
“If they’re not running hard then they’re being selfish and they’re letting the team down,” Franklin said. “Go out. I have no problem if you go hard five plays and you can’t do seven — tap out and get somebody else in there who’s fresh. When you go, you’re in there going full speed.”
Beginning Sept. 3, when the Commodores host Elon in their 2011 opener and Franklin’s debut, it will be the officials’ whistles that tell them when to stop.
Until then, there’s only one whistle. And that’s the sound that matters most.
“On defense, I’m going to hold the whistle until I see everybody running,” Franklin said. “We’re going to run to the ball. We’re going to pursue the ball. Last year we gave up too many big plays, and one of the easiest ways to correct that is to get all 11 guys on the field running to the ball. Good things will happen when you do that.
“We are going to make big plays on offense, defense and special teams through sacks, through turnovers, through long runs, through touchdown passes to kickoff returns to blocked kicks. We’re going to be a big play offense, defense and special teams, and that’s what we’re emphasizing.”
If it works, the ship’s horn at Vanderbilt Stadium will blow often this fall.