There’s a phrase that describes people like Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Jason Tarver: married to the game.
As in, the game literally does not leave his side.
According to Commodore players, Tarver will carry around a football everywhere he goes. In the meeting room, he’ll toss the ball around to his players. You can’t drop it.
If you’re carrying the ball around somewhere, Tarver will try to strip it from you. If he has it, he’s going to bait you into stripping it from him.
“If you have the ball and you’re walking around with it, he’s going to come up behind you and try to strip it out from you,” junior cornerback Joejuan Williams said at Vanderbilt’s media day on Wednesday. “That’s the thing. That ball is really everything. He’s trying to create that connection, etch that into this team’s mind.”
To some, it may seem like an over-the-top coaching gimmick. To Tarver, it’s his way of emphasizing a ballhawk mindset. He wants his players to see the ball and get the ball. He wants turnovers, something last season’s defense struggled to find. The 2017 Commodores forced just nine turnovers (seven interceptions, two recovered fumbles), dead last in the SEC by a wide margin.
“Coach Tarver came in and really pushed that mantra: the ball is everything,” Williams said. “We have pictures of footballs everywhere, on our lockers, from our lockers to our meeting rooms. Coach Tarver carries a football with him everywhere he goes. The ball is really everything to him and getting that ball back is really important, really what we emphasized over the Spring from our practice habits, raking the ball out at every single play no matter what. Practice makes habits and you’ll see it on the field.”
The emphasis on seeking the football comes from a larger mentality of the defense, and a phrase that has been repeated “until our ears bleed,” according to linebacker Charles Wright: All gas, no brakes.
“All gas, no brakes,” Tarver said. “That means there isn’t any brake. That means wherever that ball is, we are flying around to the football. All the time. That’s our job. There’s only one, go get it.”
Tarver’s obsession with the game of football knows no bounds. Throughout Wednesday’s press conference, he expounded on his defense’s mindset and mission with unrivaled enthusiasm.
The former NFL assistant coach comes in to take the defensive coordinator role from Derek Mason, who had the title in addition to his head coaching duties. The team’s defensive approach will likely look different just by nature of having a more focused defensive supervisor.
As some of the veterans of the team put it, though, the difference isn’t night and day.
“Both those guys talk about the same kind of thing,” senior defensive end Dare Odeyingbo said. “The ‘All Gas, No Breaks’ terminology might be new with Tarver, but that’s the same kind of mantra that Coach Mason always preached. You always go hard no matter what. Both these guys are both great defensive minds, so they really clicked and meshed. I think having them both on our staff and having Coach Mason be more of a head coach and Coach Tarver as a defensive coordinator really helps our team in the long run.”
With training camp getting underway and a mix of veterans and youngsters in the fold, Tarver will be seeking to emphasize individual skill sets and make sure they contribute to the broader goals of the team.
“We need to be the same people every day,” Tarver said. “You come to work, this is a great game. You get to put this awesome jersey on. It’s black. It’s gold. It’s awesome. We need to live that every day.”
News and Notes
-Backup quarterback Deuce Wallace has been suspended for the 2018 season for a violation of school policy. Redshirt sophomore Mo Hasan will be the team’s backup this season after transferring from Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. He had started his career at Syracuse in 2016.
Mason said Wallace’s suspension should not affect his potential redshirt plans regarding freshman phenom Allan Walters Jr. and will not affect Wallace’s potential to assume the starting role in 2019.
-As a junior in a secondary full of young talent, Williams is enjoying becoming a leader on and off the field.
“I’m an old head now, that’s crazy,” Williams said with a laugh. “I had a great leader coming up here in Willie Herndon. I always looked up to him and he really guided me through that young phase, and now I’m just trying to be the same leader that he was to me to these young cats.”
-Freshman wide receiver Cam Johnson has stood out early on at camp, and in a group of receivers that’s in flux, he’ll have a chance at getting some serious playing time.
“I still haven’t seen him drop a ball yet,” Mason said. “I’m excited about Cam Johnson. Cam’s going to find a way to crack this roster and I don’t think there’s a guy on the roster that’s going to stop him.”
-Vanderbilt will have a crowded backfield this year with players like Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Khari Blasingame and Jamauri Wakefield. Mason said they’ll be looking to roll them out by committee, but that doesn’t mean each individual isn’t hungry.
“I think the chance is there, but I have to go in there and step into it and really grab it and make it my own,” Blasingame said of his role on the team.