Q&A with Coach Tom Osborne

With the new two tight-end system, freshman phenom Zach Miller bursting onto the scene, and exciting prospects at the kicker positions, there was more than enough ground to cover with the Sun Devils' tight ends and special teams coach. In this exclusive DevilsDigest interview, Coach Osborne discussed those topics and many more.

DevilsDigest: Coach, as we approach the season opener in a few days, how would you evaluate the tight ends group?

Tom Osborne: "There's been a lot of competition, so that created a sense of urgency to compete more than in the past where we were very limited in our options. Now we have more guys that can fill certain roles, and that has helped the entire group. Each of those guys has gotten better."

DD: When you look at Zach Miller, it seems a little too easy. You have the #1 tight end prospect in the nation that becomes a starter after just a couple of weeks of fall practice. But there must be a lot more that has contributed to his ascend aside from his sheer talent…

TO: "He learns faster than any guy I've ever coached in 22 years. I can see why he's a 4.0 student. He's like a sponge. He's so focused on trying to learn, and you only have to teach him once. Some guys it takes a season, or two, or three to develop. Zach has learned so fast it's mind-boggling. It's not just the assignments, which in itself is difficult. All the little subtleties and techniques that help him do his job better; picking that up so quickly was very surprising. We had 4.0 students before. But 4.0 students that learn football that fast in two weeks…I never seen anything like that."

DD: Do you think Miller has an advantage because the incumbents, who played under a different tight end system, are now learning the two-tight end system, while Zach is coming fresh into the new system?

TO: "I don't think so. I think being here in spring ball and the summer, helped him with the terminology, so it isn't totally foreign to him. That gave him a jump-start. But we can teach all the techniques that he's never learned, and he just picks it up so fast. That's what enables him to be a very good player."

DD: As far as the other starting tight end, how has Lee Burghgraef looked in the pre-season?

TO: "He's a little bigger than he was last year. He takes pride in his blocking. That's his niche, his role on the team. We always talk about fans and media perception of a tight end is how many ball he catches, but the value to his team may be different. He's a great line of scrimmage guy and that's what he does best."

DD: Can you talk about the development of the second teamers Brent Miller and Jamaal Lewis?

TO: "Brent has never practiced with us since last year, and he has made some amazing progress. But he hasn't played, and he hasn't played with his hand in the dirt in high school, so that's all foreign to him. That learning curve of playing at the line of scrimmage, something he has never done in high school, not playing for a whole year, coming back from a knee surgery, all those add up and it takes a while for a guy to get into the swing of things. But he's learning fast, and has gotten better every week."

"Jamaal's niche is in the passing game. What we're trying to do is make him an all-around player, and he's gotten better. We can't just put him in a game and throw the ball. You have to balance the run and the pass. He's been here three years, so it's time for him to punt or pass. He has to play at the level you expect someone that has been three years in the program to play. He's probably the most athletic tight end on the team."

"Andrew Pettes is still learning, but he's making huge progress. The more reps he gets, the better he gets. But he's still on that learning curve that most freshmen have. He's gonna be a good player down the road. He catches the ball probably better than we thought he did. He has very natural receiving skills. He runs pretty well, and once he feels confident assignment wise, and learns the techniques, he can be a good player for us. He could move up the depth chart, he could redshirt. Aaron Austin has played better than he has ever played all his life. Again, the competition has made everyone better."

DD: As a group, how are the players grasping the two-tight end scheme?

TO: "I think they're doing real good. They understand that from a defensive standpoint, it's a nightmare covering two-tight ends. You don't have to change personnel when you change formations. Zach Miller be flexed out on one play, next play he's a fullback blocking a defensive end. From a learning curve standpoint, it's amazing what those guys have to learn."

DD: When you look at the run block, pass protection, and catching the ball, how do you feel this group is doing in all three of those aspects?

TO: "In the passing game, Zach Miller in practice can put together an ESPN highlight film. Diving parallel to the ground to catch a ball is so routine for him. Players aren't jumping up and down anymore. When you have defensive players coming from the sidelines to congratulate an offensive player who just made a play that tells you something. That happens everyday in practice. There's no question that the number of balls caught by the tight ends will increase this year."

"In pass protecting and run blocking there's no question the group is better now than they were in the spring, and they're better now then they were at the beginning of fall camp. We have great depth. The goals are for each of those individual guys to get better as the season goes on. You don't want to reach your peak in week three."

DD: Things are looking great with the tight ends, but the same can be said about the team's kickers Jesse Ainsworth and Chris MacDonald

TO: "They've done real well. In the last year, Jesse was a true freshman and he hit 67% of his field goals. If we had a true freshmen quarterback play in this conference, that completed 67% of his passes, most of us would be happy. Half of the field goal kickers in our conference didn't make 67% of their kicks. It's a whole new arena when you're not a true freshman anymore. You have a new level of confidence. We changed his mechanics on some things and he has made great progress with that in his kickoffs and field goals. He can be a weapon for us in that regard."

"Chris MacDonald is a totally different player than he was a year ago. He's only be kicking the ball for two years, and we changed his stepping pattern, stance…he's better than some of the guys we had here. He just hasn't done it in a game yet. The biggest thing we're harping on those guys is consistency. These guys get to play only a few times during the game. So there's lot of pressure on them, but they made huge progress."

DD: Speaking of consistency, long snapper Jason Burke is a good example…

TO: "Guys like him are guys that you never read or hear about until they make a mistake. We haven't had a bad snap in three years, with three different snappers. He's not a freshman anymore, he's gained more confidence, and that will help him a lot."

DD: As far as kick and punt returners who are the players that we can expect to see assume those duties?

TO: "Rudy (Burgess) and Terry (Richardson) are the top two for both kicks and punts, which is unusual because usually takes a different skill level to do punt return vs. kick return. But they both do both well. Josh Golden is another guy that will have some return duties."

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