DevilsDigest: Coach, let's start by reviewing the two tight ends signed in this recruiting class.
Tom Osborne: Zach Miller: "He's a guy that has demonstrated that he can play at the line of scrimmage and in the passing game. Those guys are very hard to find. Most guys are line of scrimmage players or pass receivers. He's a unique guy that can do both. That's why he's the ranked the #1 tight end prospect in the country. Fans and media equate tight end productivity with how many balls he catches. But that's one of two things that he's doing. Zach can do both."
Andrew Pettes: "Just like Zach, he's proven that he can catch the ball and play at the line of scrimmage. He's a very athletic guy. He did a great job in our passing league last year. He does a great job catching and running with the ball. It's hard to evaluate tight ends because very few of them in high school catch the ball. You can watch five high school games, and the tight end will catch a total of four balls. Both those two guys did catch the ball in high school, and we got to see a lot of that on film and in games. That's a huge plus for us."
DD: One would think that the fact Pettes committed to ASU, knowing he's battling the best freshman tight end in the country, does speak volumes of his character…
TO: "There's no question. Andrew made the decision after Zach committed to come here. Before the end of that day (of Miller's verbal), there were three Pac-10 schools at Andrew's school just hammering him. That in itself was probably a more difficult recruiting job than a lot of people would perceive. That does say a lot about Andrew, and his belief in the program and what we're all about. He's a great young man, and I think he'll fit in really good."
DD: How would you assess the 2003 season from the tight ends perspective?
TO: "From a line of scrimmage standpoint, Lee Burghgraef did an excellent job. We ran the ball better last year than the year before, and one of the main reasons was Lee Burghgraef. He was almost a sixth offensive lineman out there. He did a great job in pass protection too. Those are Lee's strengths. The passing game isn't his strength, and that's why he wasn't utilized there."
"We started the year with Aaron Austin as our second tight end, and we made a change halfway in the season with Jamaal Lewis. Jamaal is a young player still taking time to develop…most players take a minimum of three or four years to develop. Halfway through the season the light bulb went on for Jamaal in all phases. That enabled him to perform better. There were five games during the season where he got better and better in all phases. What he does best, is run and catch the ball. As the season progressed, that he got more involved in the passing game."
"So, we had a redshirt sophomore in Lee, a redshirt freshman in Jamaal, and a JC guy in Aaron. Very seldom does a JC guy come in and play well right away. Some positions, because the learning curve is quite less, JC guys can play right away. Some positions, like tight end, there's a lot to learn. It was two years for him since he played football (Austin took off a year in order to academically qualify for ASU). He's going through a physical conditioning. You can go and run out there as much as you want, but you're not playing football. There's a difference between running shape and football shape."
DD: Speaking of Austin, when you talk about expectations for spring practice, he may be the player you're most anxious to see perform out of all the tight ends…
TO: "That's a good point. We're really hoping for him to catch up in his developmental understanding of all phases of the game, as any first year player goes through. When he first got here, he was catching the ball very well. What happens is that when a player doesn't meet his expectations or the expectations of the fans and the media, they tend to get down and lose confidence. That's why he didn't catch the ball well at the end of the year. When he's one-on-one blocking, he's the best guy we have. But you don't play football in drills (smile). For him, it's just a matter of getting more experience."
"Going into spring practice after their first year, they know what's expected. I will always believe that it takes a player a year to figure out what it takes to play, but three years to really develop into a good player. You look at first or second year players – they may be doing some things very good, but they're not developing to the point where they're being productive for your team to win week in and week out. So having a whole year under his belt can help him."
DD: Keeping in mind what you said earlier, it would be fair to assume that in the spring you'll look for Lee to improve his passing game, and Jamaal his blocking game…
TO: "What we try to do is improve and increase both what they do well, as well as their weaknesses. Lee this year was so much better than a year ago blocking at the line of scrimmage. You look at the 2002 and 2003 tapes; you think it's a completely different player. But you don't see that because he's not catching the ball (smile). Just because a guy catches 30 or 40 balls doesn't mean he's doing a good job, because maybe he isn't blocking as well for the running game or passing game."
DD: Shifting gears towards special teams, is it a concern that a punter wasn't signed in this recruiting class?
TO: "Not a concern at all. Chris McDonald will be a great punter. Right now, after one year here, he's better than Tim Parker after his first year. If we didn't feel that McDonald could compete down the road, we would have signed a punter. We may still sign a punter down the road if we can find someone that's really proven. So, we have our guy and we have a lot of confidence in him. He may be, like a lot of young kickers, a hit and miss guy. He doesn't get a chance to develop in 60 plays like someone on offense. A punter gets 5-6 chances, and if he messes once or twice it doesn't matter what happened the other kicks."
DD: Speaking of young kickers being up and down, would that be a fair characterization of the year Jesse Ainsworth had?
TO: "As a kickoff guy he was awesome. He had great hang time, which is great because the better the hang time the better opportunity we have to cover. His consistency for a freshman was beyond our expectations. He had two bad kickoffs the whole entire year."
"As a field goal kicker, he probably did what you expected a true freshman kicker to do. He didn't get to learn through spring ball, and was thrown in right away. He made some kicks; he missed some kicks. He was 10-15, but he didn't get to kick in the first few games, which is too bad. His first ever kick was a 43-yard one at Iowa. He did hit some field goals from 40 yards plus later in the year. Jesse is gonna be a great field goal kicker for us. There's no question about that. He a very heard worker, and knows what he has to improve in. As a true freshman, he did as well or better than true freshmen in this league the last ten years."
DD: In the kick and punt return department last season, Josh Golden did a pretty good job in this area. How would you assess the job he did, as well as the other returners?
TO: "Josh Golden started the season very well, and then he got hurt. We started rotating a lot of players: Daryl Lightfoot, Terry Richardson…those guys did a good job. Just like tight ends, it does take a period of time to develop. Lightfoot in his third year, was just now getting it. Then, Lightfoot got hurt and suspended. Golden came back, and would get hurt and sit out part of the game. So, we played musical chairs with our returners. Jason Shivers was in there too, and he saved our bacon (smile)."
"Our emphasis is what the other ten guys are doing. Sometimes you see guys make it to the 40-yard line and nobody ever touches them, and others make 5-6 guys miss. To make big plays, you have to have big play making ability. That's what we always try to find and recruit."
"Josh Golden, Terry Richardson, Rudy Burgess will get chances to return (in the spring). Josh Barrett was a great returner in high school, but he isn't medically cleared for spring practice. But he's a guy we're definitely gonna work in there once he's healthy."
DD: Jason Burke seemed to do well at long snapper. What's your take on his performance?
TO: "He snapped very well. We didn't have a bad snap in three years. It's a situation we all take for granted until someone start firing over somebody's head. We had a guy that was hurt, Ryan Sensen, that demonstrated that he can really snap out there. This is another position where it takes time to develop, but Jason did an excellent job snapping for us last year."
Q&A with Coach Tom Osborne
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