Q&A With Special Teams and TE's Coach Tom Osborne

When Dirk Koetter accepted the position as the Sun Devils head coach, he knew that the special teams unit was in need of vast improvement. Luckily, one of the most highly regarded special teams coaches in the nation, was a close friend of ASU's head coach. Tom Osborne left the University of Oregon, to coach ASU's special teams and tight ends. In this interview, Osborne candidly talks about the performance of his units this past season, and offers his insight for the 2002 season.

DevilsDigest: What were you feeling when the 2001 season ended? Was it relief of eagerness to start planning for the 2002 season?

Tom Osborne: I think a combination of both. It was a horrendous year, and no one likes to go through that. There were mixed emotions. We had a lot of seniors, and you feel bad for them. As coaches, you're bummed you didn't have a bowl game to prepare for. No matter what an outcome of a game or a season, no one critiques a team harder than its coaches, and that just haunts you more when a bad season comes to an end. So, right after the UCLA game your focus is how do I get better for next year, and at the same time you're thanking seniors for the job they have done. And ofcourse after a season ends; you start spending most of your time on recruiting. So, I would say that a lot of thoughts went through my mind after that game.

DD: Let's talk about one the groups you coach – the tight ends. How would you assess this unit's performance in 2001?

TO: Obviously, these guys weren't involved in the offense very much because of their performance in practice. When you throw a ball to a guy in practice and he drops it five times out of ten, chances are minimal that you'll throw the ball to him in a game situation. You try to spread the ball around in offense, but you also have to make sure that you giving the ball to the players who give you the best chance to make the most plays. The tight ends as a whole didn't perform in practice in a way that made you feel comfortable that in a 3rd and 5 situations they would run the right route and catch the ball for a first down. Our wide receivers played well, and were a higher percentage option in our passing game than our tight ends were.

I have a theory that when you don't play well, there's one of three ways to get it corrected: One, the player has to get better. Yes, you do have to coach better, but at some point that player has to make some plays. Second, just eliminate the player from the game plan, and last, just find a better guy to do it. I've been coaching a lot of years, and I don't know another way to go (smile). I do think they did a good job on the line of scrimmage blocking, and they were part of a good offensive line. Anytime you have a 1,000-yard rusher, who averages over five yards a carry, that's a tribute to everyone who's blocking for that running back. I know fans and media want to know why the tight ends didn't catch any balls. But to me, a tight end that catches 50 balls in a season and doesn't block, isn't doing his job as well as he can. So, I do think they did a good job blocking, but the passing just wasn't strength of theirs, and our wide receivers just gave us a better chance making plays in the passing game.

DD: In light of the deficiencies the tight ends have showed in the passing game, do you think they have held back the offense through the season, or had no effect whatsoever?

TO: When you have a guy that you know we'll catch any ball that's thrown to him, it does give you more advantages. A tight end does usually have an advantage when he singled up on a linebacker or safety down the field. So a tight end that can routinely beat the coverage to catch the ball, will give you another good option on offense. Does it hold back anything from your offense? You can pinpoint a lot of things that we need to get better at. Our third down efficiency wasn't very good this year. We think we know some of the reasons, but until we analyze all the films after recruiting season, we won't know all the reasons. I've seen a lot of bad offenses, which have tight ends that catch the ball well. It's kind of a double-edged sword – you get a good tight end that blocks well and can't catch the ball consistently and vice versa. If a tight end can't block, people ask why can't you run the ball? When he can't catch, people ask why isn't he involved in the offense? It's just a vicious circle.

DD: Mike Pinkard was your leading tight end. How would you rate his performance this season?

TO: I think he played better than a lot of people thought he would. That's a credit to him. He did tail off the last few games, so he'll have to work hard in the off-season. Those who don't do prepare well in the off-season, pay for it during the season when the legs get tired. He rotated with Frank Maddox as a starter, and they both played equally in all games. We were waiting for one guy to jump out a grab the starting job, but that didn't happen.

DD: Do you think Frank Maddox could become the starter in 2002?

TO: Football is important to him, and he takes a lot of pride is what he does. Guys with that attitude do have the intangibles to succeed. He knows what he's doing, and knows he just has to get better. There's no question in my mind that him and all the tight ends have to get better at their position to succeed. If the players we have don't get better, we have to find someone that can do the job. Wallowing around in mediocrity thinking we may get better won't cut it. We have to take steps to improve our performance.

DD: Lee Burghgef was thought not to be redshirted this past season, but ended up doing so. How much of an impact of a player will he be for next season?

TO: He has a lot of intangibles going for him. He's a smart, tough guy. He has good technique, which will make him a better player. He's probably one of most improved freshman from the day he came to fall camp until now. He'll be in the mix with Pinkard and Maddox. He just wasn't ready after Tontozona. He had a lot to learn at his position. A tight end has to know just as much as the quarterback. This position has to know all the blocking schemes like the offensive linemen, and all of the passing plays like the wide receivers and quarterbacks.

So, it's hard for a new guy to grasp all that. When a quarterback gets sacked, a tight end or a back can be blamed most of the time. If your tight end just made a 30-yard catch on one play, and let your quarterback get sacked and out for the season the next play, you can't justify playing him playing just because he can catch and forget about his blocking. So, I do expect Lee to compete for a starting position. He just needs to get a better understanding of what we're trying to do, but he's not far away from getting there.

DD: Let's move on to the other unit you coach – the special teams. Your expertise in this area is the probably the biggest reason you were brought here. After a shaky start, it seems like this group really finished the season strong. Is that your view too?

TO: I agree with that. The first 3-4 games, we were pathetic with a capital "P", especially in our coverage teams. The last 7-8 games, they did an awesome job. I want every play on special teams to be a touchdown, and so do our players. So, when it doesn't happen you get frustrated. But this a bottom-line oriented business, and we finished 9th in the nation in kick-off returns. That's pretty good. Our punting team was second the Pac-10 and 26th in the nation. We didn't have a bad snap all year. Not one blocked punt all year. No one returned a punt for a touchdown against us. If we screwed up on any of these tasks, people would be yelling and screaming. But when it goes unnoticed, that's when you know you're doing your job well. Our punt return team was a little frustrating, because we didn't get as many big plays as we wanted to. On the other hand, we have very good punters in this league, so big plays are hard to come by. We need to develop depth and experience on special teams. A lot of our breakdowns on special teams happen because of inexperience at the beginning of the year. So, overall we did well but we want to improve. We didn't cost our team any games, and we out played our opponents in that area.

DD: There seems to be a debate over the issue of playing offensive and defensive starters on special teams. What are your thoughts on this topic?

TO: My thoughts are that you play the best players on the field. I know ASU's philosophy in the past, was not to play the best players on the field on special teams. But when you look across the board at the Pac-10, all the teams are having their best players play on special teams. On the other hand, in most cases a starter on offense or defense isn't playing on more than two special teams. It's just too much wear and tear on the body.

One of the only starters on our team that played on more than two special teams was Jason Shivers. The guy amazes me. Now, either he's young and doesn't know any better, or he's not very smart (smile). He plays every down on defense. He plays one of the most high intensity positions on the field, the gunner on the punt team; if he misses his assignment that punt can go back for a touchdown. He also plays on our kickoff return team, and on our punt return team. He's an unusual guy. So, we do try and not play our starters on more than two special teams. But we will play some starters on some of the special teams. That's how you win ball games - you play your best players.

DD: You mentioned that they're a lot of good punters in this league, and ASU's Nick Murphy is definitely one of those. What's your take on the season he had, and the task of replacing him?

TO: It will be very hard to replace him. Nick, just like our entire punt coverage team, wasn't that good the first few games. The punt coverage team and the punter tie in together. So, when that group was playing better, so did Nick. We have a couple of guys we'll try to work in to replace him next season. But make no mistake about, we're also worried about who will replace some of our blockers and cover guys on special teams.

DD: You mentioned all throughout this interview the desire to get better with the tight end position, as well as special teams. What steps in specific, do you plan to take?

TO: With our tight ends, they just have to work harder on catching the ball better. And they have to be more consistent with that. They also have to be more physical blocking at the line of scrimmage. We're gonna work hard practicing all that, and time will tell if we succeeded. On special teams - that's a two hour conversation right there (smile). We lost some good players, and we're excited about some of the young guys replacing them. On special teams, all it takes is just one big play to make it or break it. Just look at the punt in the Stanford game. Five of our six punts were fair caught by Stanford. The sixth one was kicked flat in the middle of the field, with no hang time, and they take it back 60 yards. So now, we're a team that can't cover punts, just because of that one returned punt. But, we needed six out of six punts to be fair caught to be successful.

Our young guys are starting to realize that special teams can have a big part in the outcome of a game. When those guys understand and buy into that, we would like to start playing like we finished this year. We can't go back to playing like we did the first few games of the year. If we do I'll have a stroke (smile). We're not gonna win games like that. But give them credit; they played much better after that.

DD: Last question, how trying was this season for you personally? It seems that trying to implement new schemes on a veteran team, and having a losing record in the process, is pretty taxing to say the least.

TO: I don't think that the scheme has to do with anything. Scheme is way overrated, whether it's executed correctly or not. Players make plays, not the coaches. It's frustrating because I'm not used to losing. I'm used to having guys who no matter what the score is, will play their tail off until it's over. We didn't have that this year, and I saw that already in spring ball. But, overall I saw some good things about our team. With improvement in some areas, I know we'll be better next season.

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