Q & A with Coach Mark Carrier

The new attitude and passion of the Sun Devils in spring practice has ceased to become a novelty, and has become rather routine. New cornerbacks coach Mark Carrier has undoubtedly been at the forefront of this vital transformation. In this exclusive DevilsDigest interview, the three-time pro bowler and 11-year NFL veteran talks about his impressions of practice, his methods of teaching, and overall expectations of his unit.

DevilsDigest: Coach, you're half way through your first spring practice at ASU. What are your impressions thus far?

Mark Carrier: "It's been pretty good. As coaches we wanted to instill attitude and tempo in practice, and it has crossed over to the players very well. They're communicating well with the coaches and with their teammates. We wanted to also show competitiveness, and so far that has been going real well."

DD: What are the positives and negatives that jumped right at you in the first few practices?

MC: "The negative is that is when you come off a losing season, you see unfamiliarity. The players are kind of in a wait and see situation asking ‘Where are we going? What is our direction?' As coaches we had to come out and set the tone. You're always as good as your last game, and we won the last game. But during the season, we didn't win a lot of games."

"The positive is the attitude of the players wanting to right the wrong, get rid off that stigma and that bad taste in their mouth. Everything we have thrown out at them, they have been more than willing to absorb it and take it all in. They wanted to get on the field as fast as possible."

DD: Aside from the obvious difference in talent, what else has really caught your eye going from a high school coach to a college coach?

MC: "Spending a lot of time recruiting. I never really did any recruiting; I was only recruited (smile). It's a time consuming commitment on that specific field. California is a big part of our recruiting area, as is Arizona. Because we're out of state, you end up spending a lot of time watching film, communicating on the phone…so that has been a big adjustment. Then you have all the guidelines, and especially after the Colorado situation, college coaches are under an even bigger microscope now, and that's understandable."

"Understanding how to recruit, that's a big difference from high school. In high school, this is what you have, and that's who you're gonna play. In college, you spend a lot of time recruiting, plus you have to spend time with the players that are already here in your program."

"The speed of the game – the college game is obviously faster than high school. The personalities are a lot different. The players in college are a lot smarter and more athletic than I was in college. You also have much more structure in college than you do in high school. It's been a big change trying to get as many things as you want done in the daily allotment of time you have."

DD: Would you say that your transition was made easier because of the fact that you have lived in the Phoenix area for a while?

MC: "The transition has been very easy for me because I've been living here since 1996. I know the lay of the land. My wife and kids have been on board with this move right from the start, so that has been great."

"But another reason is the coaches. They've been wonderful to me. Everyone from Gene Smith, to the equipment manager and secretaries have helped me a lot since I got here."

DD: You've been heard once saying that even though your résumé speaks for itself, that credibility can only go so far. Can you elaborate on that statement?

MC: "Everybody is always saying to me that I should command respect because of where I've been. I say that's true from a standpoint of walking though the door and initial conversation. But I always believe you have to earn your respect, no matter what you do. Even though I had success as a professional player, it doesn't mean the players have to trust me. I have to earn that trust, and I go with that mindset. If I can do that, our working relationship will be better and we'll have a chance to succeed. So I never go with the attitude of ‘I know more than you do.' I try to show my players what to do through film and conversation. When they see the fruits of our labor on the practice field this garners more trust for me with them, and they'll say ‘he knows what he's talking about."

DD: Your enthusiasm in practice has been quite evident from day one. However, you probably know better than anyone that enthusiasm, just like credibility, can only take you so far…

MC: "Enthusiasm for me is just natural. The one thing about college football, is that you're playing for pride, honor, respect, credibility…you don't have a financial agenda – you're playing for a Pac-10 championship and a bowl game. There's so much fun and excitement playing college football. I haven't played college football since 1989, and that was the first thing that came back to me – the enthusiasm of being around players."

"I'm not doing it just to inspire, per say, to do things the way I do them. Everybody is individual in the way they learn. I'm doing it because I enjoy it, and I'm hoping they feed off me and absorb that excitement. It's an exciting and fun game. When I'm on the football field, whether it's hard work or not, it's still fun for me and it should be fun for them."

DD: On that note, is it true that during one practice you came out in full pads and a helmet?

MC: "(smile) The first day we were in pads, I asked the equipment mangers to get me a uniform. I was out there warming up and stretching in my uniform, and that was my way of relaxing and having fun. If felt good but it also felt very hot (smile). I wanted to show the players that I was with them in this all the way. But of course then I have offensive and defensive guys wanting to challenge me. They wanted a piece of me, and I told them that I liked their competitive nature, but ‘you don't want a piece of me' (smile). It was a situation where I wanted to do something that would make practice fun, but it didn't take away from the focus of what we wanted to do. It was just telling the players ‘we're putting on pads for the first time and I'm excited too."

DD: Would you agree that your enthusiasm has transformed itself to the players?

MC: "I can't complain about how we have been working in practice. I say ‘we' because it's a learning process for me too. I don't know it all and I tell my players that all the time. I do have understanding knowledge of how the game should be played, but when we watch the film I put myself in their shoes and we all talk it out. The more they understand why we try to do something a certain way, the better chance they have of doing it in practice."

"The best thing that I've seen when I turn on the film is when I they're actually trying to work on it. Not everyone will do the same thing the same exact way. But if at least I see them trying to work on it, after we discussed it, then at least I know they're learning. They're trying to teach themselves to get better."

"After they watch practice film, I have them write down in their notebooks what they're going to try to work on today in practice. I don't care what it is, but I want them to pick one or two things out before they go out and practice. I don't ask them before practice what it is, I ask them after. Then we watch film and we see if they really worked on it."

"The players are writing in their own words with their own pen what they're gonna work on. That helps them get focused, and as practices go on they just eliminated a flaw in their game, and elevated their overall game. It gives them confidence when they actually see they did get better."

DD: In a conference such as the Pac-10, with some of the most skilled quarterbacks and receivers in college football, the cornerback position can be viewed as a thankless job. Would you agree with that statement?

MC: "Yes it is. That's why in the NFL that position is one of the highest paid. They have a tough job playing against the best athlete on the field, with no help most of the time. You can do everything you can right, but one play is all you'll be remembered for because it was such a big play."

"Cornerbacks have to have an attitude where you don't have to be brash about your play telling everybody how good you are. But you have to have the mindset that ‘I'm the best out here, no matter what happens.' When a big play happens, you have to forget about it and go back out there and show why you're the best. It's tough situation to be in, especially on our team. We play a very aggressive style of defense, and our corners will be in a lot one-on-one situations. Our players have to be confident and smart about what they're doing. They have to understand that sometimes their guy will make a good catch – good receivers make big plays. Give him his due, but let's see how you respond. When our offense kicks our butt in practice, I see my guys respond very well after that."

DD: R.J. Oliver is a fifth-year senior and one of the better corners in the Pac-10. Can you talk about your impressions, as well as your expectations of him?

MC: "When I first met with R.J., without watching film or really knowing him as a person, I put the burden on him to be our guy. I told him that right away. I didn't want to have any secrets or hidden agendas about what we're trying to do, and I do that with all my players. I wanted him to know what was going on, so when he screws up he knows I'll be harder on him because I expect him to be almost perfect."

"He has to understand that with where he is at and where he wants to be, he has to deal with that burden. He has looked at this as a challenge, and has accepted it wholeheartedly. I told him that I'm expecting him to have a big year, and I want him to expect the same. Unfortunately he has a minor injury, and he's begging to get back on the field."

DD: Lastly, what are your expectations of the cornerbacks group as a whole this spring?

MC: "Our initial goal was to improve as a unit. When I watch film, I want to see us competing no matter what happens. I want to see our intensity and attitude. I want to see our body language when I watch film. Show me that you're trying to win. Because we're introducing a little different scheme than last year, I want us to get comfortable with it."

"The biggest thing to see is how much success we'll have. We'll lose some our battles. We have an experienced quarterback, good receivers and tight ends. If our offense doesn't make plays on us – we have problems. But that's good for me, because we have a good offense. If we can compete with our offense and make plays against them by the end of spring ball, we've taken a big step into the summer of being a much better unit."

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