Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 7/18/13
HOOVER, Ala. - It was the fall of 2008, and while playing high school football at nearby Montgomery Bell Academy, Wesley Johnson got caught in the groundswell of enthusiasm surrounding Vanderbilt football. Then-Commodores coach Bobby Johnson had not only just guided the program to its first winning season and bowl game berth since 1982, but also delivered the teams first bowl victory since 1974 with a Music City Bowl triumph over Boston College. Indeed, things were looking up for a long-suffering program, and Johnson wanted to be a part of all the excitement. "When I was initially being recruited, it was kind of why I committed (to Vanderbilt) in the first place," Johnson, a senior left tackle and team co-captain, said Thursday morning prior to running the gauntlet at SEC Media Days. "We had just won the Music City Bowl ... We were coming off that, and everybody in Nashville was really on the bandwagon." But just as quickly, the program failed to seize the moment and stalled dead in its tracks, eventually leading to a coaching change that ushered in the Coach James Franklin era in 2011. "I got here (at Vanderbilt)," the 6-foot-5, 295-pounder said, "and my first two years, we went 2-10 both years. So, that was a pretty big downer." My how times have changed under Franklin, whose Commodores went to the Liberty Bowl in his first season. Then last year, they exploded onto the national scene by going 9-4, including 5-3 in the SEC, and capping the remarkable campaign with a Music City Bowl victory over North Carolina State. "Coach Franklin came in and brought in all the new coaches," said Johnson, who has started 38 straight games and was named Preseason All-SEC third team offensive tackle at SEC Media Days. "He really brought that belief back that we could be a great team. "We kind of knew we would be at this point when he first came here and started preaching to us about what he expected out of the program. I guess I am glad that we are here now." Where Vanderbilt is now heading into the 2013 season is coming off what can be labeled the best season in program history. Some of the many program markers eclipsed in 2012 include the most overall wins since 1915 and most during the SEC era that began in 1933, the most league wins since 1935, a final top 25 ranking -- No. 23 by 'The Associated Press' -- for the first time since the poll went to a post-bowl vote in 1968, and an offense that averaged 30 points per game, most since 1916. Johnson credits Franklin for moving the needle as far it has ever gone for Vanderbilt football. "Yeah, he is definitely a live wire with a lot of energy," Johnson said of Franklin, whose team opens the season at home Thursday, Aug. 29 with a nationally-televised game against SEC foe Ole Miss. "But he also brought a lot of discipline." Which didnt take long for Johnson and his teammates to learn was not an option. He remembers one of the teams first winter workouts led by Franklin. "We came off and huddled up at the of end practice -- and it was already one of the hardest practices workouts we had ever done in our entire life -- and we were looking down at the gym floor and not looking up at him while he was talking," Johnson said. "And just like that, he made us circle back up and do 50 more ups-and-downs to make sure we were all paying attention." Johnson enters his final season already a candidate for two prominent national awards -- the Lombardi Award for the nation's top lineman or linebacker and the Outland Trophy for the top interior offensive lineman. Despite being tabbed to start at left tackle, he is nominated for the Outland Trophy because he has started at guard, center and both tackle positions during his career. And if there is one stat that jumps off the page at you when it comes to Johnson other than not allowing a sack all last season, its that he has never been flagged for a holding penalty. That means Johnson has never held an opposing defender during his entire college career, correct? "Thats exactly what it means," he said with a laugh. "You think by the law of average I might have been called once. I think thats just a credit to (offensive line) Coach (Herb) Hand and the way he has coached us up. "He makes sure we are always running our feet, always keeping our hands inside and always playing through the whistle and not getting lazy. Holding penalties happen most often when you have bad technique or you get lazy on the play and you stop driving your feet." Counting Johnson, the Commodores return an offensive line that features six veterans with starting experience, including junior right tackle Andrew Bridges, junior center Joe Townsend, sophomore right guard Jake Bernstein as projected starters along with senior Chase White at left guard. "They mean everything to me, Johnson said of the offensive line group of which he is the avowed leader. We call ourselves the band of brothers. We all try to make sure we are as tight as we possibly can be. I consider those guys to be my best friends on the team."
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