Q&A with Safeties Coach Dan Fidler

The defensive resurgence of the Sun Devils last week against Oregon State was in large part to the play at safety. With Al Williams being voted Pac-10 defensive player of the week, and Jason Shivers being the second leading tackler on the team, coach Fidler has many reasons to smile lately. Fidler gives us his take assessment of his safety squad, talks about the adjustments to the 4-2-5 scheme, and how the Arizona State alumni feels about coming back to home.

DevilsDigest.com: What is your mid-season assessment of the safety position?

Dan Fidler: Last week they played by far their best game as a group. They gotten better since the beginning of the season, and are adjusting to the scheme and the different things we're trying to do on defense. They're also playing at a tempo that we need to play. The outside safeties (Williams and Willie Daniel) have a lot of different techniques and responsibilities in comparison to the free safety (Shivers). That's why the free safety in the 4-2-5 scheme usually comes along faster than the other safeties. Hopefully after last week's fine play, we as a group can really take off and play consistently well each week.

DD: Do you subscribe to the notion that you "can't teach an old dog new tricks", thus it has taken a while for veterans like Williams and Daniel to play well this season because they entrenched in an old defensive scheme, while first-year players like Shivers and Riccardo Stewart have played better because they really don't know any other scheme?

DF: There's probably some truth to that, and the older guys did have to re-learn some things. But basically Football is Football. It might have been a mental block more than a physical block. They played enough Football and have seen enough different schemes and assignments, which they should have adjusted to at the same pace as the younger guys.

DD: I wanted to get your take all four of these safeties. Let's start with the Pac-10 defensive player of the week Al Williams. He had a rough year so far, and the Oregon State game last week, was a breakout performance for him. How proud are you of his accomplishments?

DF: He was trying to do so many things by the book, that it took of the edge from his natural aggressiveness. He was trying to do everything perfect, and not everything is perfect. You have to play reckless and fast. That's the reason that he has struggled most of the season. It was great seeing him play like he should. I told him after the game that even tough he played so much better; he still had some things you could have improved on. I told him to just imagine how much better he can play this year if he continues to improve.

DD: Willie Daniel may have not gotten all the accolades as Williams did, but he too probably had his best game last week. What's your assessment of his play so far?

DF: I do agree that he did play his best game of the season. Just like Williams he stepped up his aggressiveness. Willie has had a lot of nagging injuries that have been bothering him not only from the beginning of the season, but also in the off-season. He wasn't able to do all the workouts in the summer, and he was banged up during Tontozona. His conditioning was greatly affected as well, and that meant shorting our rotation, which hurt us in past games. Right now he's the healthiest he has been in a long time, so that has contributed to his play. So, Willie's problems were probably more physical than mental, as opposed to Al.

DD: It's probably not an overstatement to say that true freshman Jason Shivers is the biggest surprise on the whole team, and is one of our best defenders.

DF: I've been coaching for over 20 years and I never had a true freshman start for me. This year the team has had a few true freshmen start over the course of the season. He has done an awesome job picking up the scheme, and he is very mature for his age. He's very coachable. He caught onto the system quickly, and the older guys have helped him out a lot. He just keeps getting better each and every week. I can't say I'm that surprised that he's doing so well as a true freshman. Once you're around him and you see what a great student he is, and see his natural skills, you understand why he's the player that he is. He his truly blessed with great makeup speed, which is key for his position. He really has not been beaten in the passing game this year, and he's started to read opposing offenses better and put himself in a position to make big plays against the run. The only thing we really asked him to do is cut loose and be more physical, more nasty with his tackles. Being the second leading tackler on the team, he obviously hasn't missed many tackles (smile). He has a very bright future, and he will be an outstanding player.

DD: Let's talk about Riccardo Stewart, who started the season ahead of Shivers. The coaches stressed that losing his starter spot was a testament to Shivers' great ability, rather than a knock on Stewart's play. It seems that he took the demotion very well, and we really haven't seen a drop in his play. How would you summarize Riccardo's play thus far?

DF: He's doing awesome for a redshirt freshman. He's playing both safety spots, substituting Willie and Jason, and he potentially could play for Al too. This is very helpful because all our safeties run on special teams, and tend to get tired as the game goes along. So, it's great to have Riccardo come off the bench. He's a Football junkie. He wants to do well, and has a great motor. Jason may have better natural skills; he's taller and faster. But we're pleased with Riccardo's progression. He never pouted once, and he did what he had to do to get better.

DD: Which defensive group do you think has the greater adjustment to overcome going from a 4-3-4 scheme to a 4-2-5 one – the linebackers or safeties?

DF: I think it would be the safeties. Like I said, the outside safeties play like outside linebackers, and much closer to the box. On the other hand, they'll cover wideouts like a corner, and have some situations where they play like a regular safety. So, they have a lot of different assignment to learn and execute.

DD: What are your thoughts about Washington? They are probably the best team we faced so far this season.

DF: We have to get back on track. When we prepare for a game, we're more worried about how we're doing. Obviously, our next opponent coming here has won a lot of Football games, and has done so mostly in the last quarter. We definitely have to play four quarters this week. Last game played out perfectly for us, because we had to play four quarters. We got stronger as the game went on, and we were much better in the fourth quarter, than we were in the first. That's what we have to do this week, to win this game. The kids believe that they can win; they know it's going to be tough, and they're excited to play this game. I don't know if Washington has a better passing game than Stanford and USC, but their wideouts are probably the best we've seen so far. On the other hand, Washington's quarterback has less experience than the other two team's quarterbacks.

DD: You're one of several assistants who came with coach Koetter from Boise State. I'm sure that from day one you noticed many differences between your former coaching job and the ASU one. In your mind, what has been the biggest difference between both schools?

DF: To be honest, there hasn't been much difference. Obviously the Pac-10 has much better athletes than the Big West, but it's all relative because we have better athletes over here than we did at Boise State. We still approach our job the same way, and coach the same way regardless of which level or conference we coach. Our preparations are the same, and our schemes are the same. Being new to a conference, it may take you longer to prepare because you haven't seen the conference teams play you each season for the last few years, and you're just not that familiar with them. So maybe that's the biggest adjustment, not being very familiar with our conference opponents.

DD: You and coach Ron English are the only coaches on this team that are graduates of ASU. I'm sure that when you learned that the Sun Devils hired coach Koetter, you were a little happier than the rest of the coaches.

DF: Well, I went to high school in Scottsdale, played and coached at Mesa Community College, and graduated like you said from Arizona State. For me, it's really like coming home, and has been a little less of an adjustment than the other coaches. My parents live here; my in-laws have a winter home here. I just knew everything about where to live, how to get around, and getting used to the traffic (smile).

DD: What's your outlook for the rest of the season? Can our safeties sustain their fine play from last week with much tougher opponents lying ahead?

DF: The thing we stressed is getting better each week. If we can do that every practice, every game, everything we'll take care of itself. We played our best game last week. But, if we play better than we did last week, we'll be tough to beat the rest of the season.

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