DevilsDigest: Let's start with the quarterback who just signed with the team –Derek Shaw. What can you tell us about him?
Mark Helfrich: "Derek is obviously a highly decorated high school player. Great background. Coach Carroll (Shaw's high school coach) always does a great job offensively. His grandpa has coached extensively. So he has a good knowledge base that way. We're very excited to get him, and he adds to an already exciting crew."
DD: What kind of skills does he bring to the table?
MH: "When you evaluate a quarterback, sometimes it's hard to see them do what you do. At Oceanside they do similar things to what we do offensively, so you actually can see him doing it, rather than saying ‘I think he'll be able to do this.' So being able to see what he does on film, taking to him, I think he's a good fit."
DD: When it comes to recruiting quarterbacks, you must be thanking your lucky stars again. Just like Sam Keller two years ago, Shaw was a quarterback whom you thought was going elsewhere, and then you get a call out of nowhere saying he wants to come here…
MH: "Derek was one of the first guys we offered last year. He's a guy that we wanted for a long time. We were in good shape no matter what happened, but we're very excited to have him here."
DD: How would you evaluate Andrew Walter in 2004 season?
MH: "Better than the pervious year, which we all wanted. He really improved a lot off the field with his leadership skills, which obviously translate onto the field. That's something that will benefit him greatly in the future. I really think you saw the value in the things that he did better or differently. He finished out great."
DD: Did he have any one skill that you saw a great improvement from the beginning of last season until the end?
MH: "I think the most significant thing that he really worked on to change was his leadership skill. He was more consistent mechanically, but he really did a great job leading the team."
DD: How is Andrew's health going into the private workouts and the NFL draft?
MH: "He's ahead of schedule, so that's good. Horrible timing obviously for his injury, but everything is on track. He won't be in the combine, but a lot of those quarterbacks don't even work out in the combine anymore. The private workouts are the more important aspect. If he didn't have to miss out all the comparative head-to-head situations like the senior bowl, I think Andrew would fair a lot better than people think. So, that did hurt him a little bit but I think it will all work out."
DD: How important was it for Sam Keller to have his first game as a starter in the Sun Bowl, versus let's say, the 2005 opener against Temple?
MH: "There's no question that among the team and the program, it gave him a lot of validity, and a lot of excitement for what he accomplished in that game. Now, what he and everybody else has to realize that it was just one game. He did play tremendously and did a great job in a leadership type role getting us in the right play in a lot of situations. Sam's personality really came out."
"The momentum that it will create in the off-season both for him and the offense, that's big. But I also think that Rudy Carpenter is in a great position to challenge him in a big way. It can do nothing but help in that respect."
DD: Were you a bit surprised at the way he preformed in the Sun Bowl?
MH: "I really wasn't. We had talked among the coaches, and everybody kept worrying about Sam. I said ‘Sam will be fine. Let's just make sure that everybody else isn't worrying about Sam.' Sam is a very savvy type of player. He has a good concept of everything, and he took advantage of his shot. I think the thing that he did better than probably anybody expected was handling everything mentally and emotionally. It was a high-pressure situation, and we faced a great and tremendously diverse defense. He did a tremendous job that way."
DD: Some talk about Keller's delivery not being the classic delivery you'd like to have as a quarterback. Can you talk about that skill and others that Sam has to improve on?
MH: "That's definitely one of them, and that's something that he has improved upon. The thing people have to remember about the Purdue game and all those batted balls – the way that they would blitz, sometimes they would have two guys unblocked coming off the edge, in schemes that are just luck of the draw. There's a couple of times where there's a 6-3 safety jumping and we're trying to throw a flat route. Paul Bunyan couldn't throw that ball without it getting tipped (smile). So, part of that is blown out of proportion. But there's no question that Sam, like everybody else, has to be more consistent mechanically. That game was a great spring board for him proving that he's the guy."
DD: You mentioned Rudy and the stiff competition he can provide for Keller. Can you talk about his progression in his redshirt year?
MH: "Rudy did a great job for the defense as the scout team quarterback. It was a great learning experience for him trying to be a leader, trying to be the guy that puts together a ragtag group…sometimes you don't have 11 guys playing their position. You just have 11 guys. He did a good job that way. He's a guy that people would like to see play. He's a competitive guy, he's tough, he runs around a lot…he's a playmaker. Rudy's best situation is 11 on 11, and that's what you want. You do want a guy that's great when it's just you and the receivers or seven on seven. You want a guy to perform well when it's 11 on 11."
DD: Can you project the percentage of snaps between the two in spring practice? Will it be 60%-40% in favor of Sam?
MH: "It would be more even. We'll give those guys an opportunity to make their case, so to speak. Chad Christensen will still be mixed in there. Sam and Rudy have probably separated themselves a little bit, but there will be definitely open competition."
DD: When you talk about Chad Christensen, he probably like Walter, if not more, makes a big impact off the field…
MH: "Chad is stud in every way. He graduated almost at the top of his class. He was the best male scholar athlete in the whole athletic department. He's a great person. He does nothing but good things for our program."
DD: In your role as passing game coordinator, how would you evaluate that offensive aspect in 2004?
MH: "That's what we're doing right now, reviewing all of last season. There were many problems - that's for sure. We need to be more consistent, like in our ball control passing game, and be able to complete the high completion percentage pass when the defense is loading the box or when the running game had its difficulties last year. But I know that will be much improved. We have to continue to find ways to throw down the field, play action, and make big plays."
DD: The team is returning all the wide receivers from last year, and you obviously throw Zach Miller in that mix too. Can you talk about the positive impact it will have on the team, and on Sam Keller in his first season a full-time starter?
MH: "It makes sense that it would have a positive impact. We're gonna have a lot of guys that are going to miss extensive action in spring practice: Moey Mutz, Terry Richardson, Zach Miller, maybe Matt Miller…we might have some position changes. So all that thrown in there, the positive and the negative, we're gonna have some guys that are gonna have a chance to prove themselves. But we probably never gonna have a realistic picture of the 11 guys for 15 practices. We practice 15 times, and then the next time you practice is at fall camp. It's tough to get that mojo going in spring practice, especially when you take out Zach Miller – that's a pretty big cog we'll be missing. It's just gonna have to be a combination of trying to get Sam better, but they'll be some growing pains with other guys too."
DD: From a passing game coordinator perspective, how did you feel about the two tight end set and its incorporation in the passing game?
MH: "Zach Miller is just a special guy, and we're always gonna try to find ways to get him the ball, to get Rudy Burgess the ball, to get Derek Hagan the ball. That's one thing that you think about every week, and that's where you want to be if you got a situation where you have a guy that can move around, and two other guys that aren't stagnant and can be moved around to other positions. That's a good situation, because then you can be more multiple by both formation and what you do down field."
DD: When you compare spring practice in 2004 to this year's, you're not necessarily starting over at quarterback, but is there maybe less certainty in that position compared to last year at this time?
MH: "Probably. There's no question that Sam has to momentum just coming off last season. But between the two other guys, and you have Derek coming in the fall, there's gonna be competition and that's good."
Q&A with Coach Mark Helfrich
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