Q&A with Coach Tom Osborne

Freshman phenom Zach Miller and the underrated steadiness of Lee Burghgraef, have made ASU's new two tight end scheme a phenomenal success in 2004. On the other hand, special teams had its ups and downs, but its overall performance last season holds much promise for the upcoming season. Those topics and others were discussed in this exclusive DevilsDigest interview with the Sun Devils' tight ends and special teams coach.

DevilsDigest: Coach, let's start with the tight end who signed in the 2005 class – Jovon Williams. What kind of player is he?

Tom Osborne: "He's a real athletic player that has good size. He was a defensive end and a tight end in high school. From a media standpoint, he was kind of under the radar. He went to high school in Mississippi during his junior year, as he did his freshman year. Because of his split home he has gone back and forth (between Mississippi and California). He's a tough kid and I think he'll be a good developmental guy for us."

"He's a combination of a guy that can run, but also play at the line of scrimmage. It's hard to find guys that can do both. He's not a great big guy, he's probably 6-3 235. He was 225 during recruiting because he plays basketball. We'll see how he develops in the passing game."

DD: Even though you're still in the process of evaluating the tight end position in 2004, what are some your initial thoughts on this topic?

TO: "Having the two tight ends worked out good for us because we have two really smart guys in Zach Miller and Lee Burghgraef. All the guys that played for us, including Brent Miller and Jamaal Lewis, bring a different level of skill to the table that allow us to use multiple looks in a game. Those two guys (Z.Miller and Burghgraef) are very physical players at the line of scrimmage and don't make too many mental mistakes."

DD: What makes the tow tight end scheme so successful?

TO: "The whole advantage of the two tight ends, is that the second tight end in the game, may be in the backfield as a fullback on first down, the second down he may be lined up on the opposite side of the other tight end, and on third down he may be lined up side by side. So it creates huge problems for defenses, because defenses defend offenses based on personnel groups and their tendencies within those groups. Well, we don't have tendencies because we do all our stuff out of all those groups."

"At the end of the year, when we lost all of our running backs and it was 3rd and 10, Lee was in the backfield in an obvious passing situation because we didn't have a fullback. Both guys played fullback, line of scrimmage tight end, movement tight end, motion guys…they're playing many roles. That's why they have to be very smart; because there's a lot they have to learn every single week because the game plan changes. They both did an excellent job."

DD: Zach Miller obviously had a phenomenal year. Can you expound on what he did so well, and what areas he still needs to improve on?

TO: "I think that the most surprising thing with Zach was how fast he learned. I've never in my 23 years of coaching ever coached a guy that learns that fast. He's one of the guys where you teach it one time and he's got it. You can walk up to him in the middle of a game, make an adjustment, and he's got it. Every guy takes a different amount of time to develop. Most guys take three years to get to that point, where you're playing at a level like Terrell Suggs, Shaun McDonald or Andrew Walter. But Zach learned so fast from a technique standpoint. I joked with him that back in August that he couldn't pass protect me, but by the time we got to the Iowa game he did a great job. We knew right then that we had a special guy on our hands."

"He has a very unique ability to play at the line of scrimmage, he's a good pass protector, and he's very good in the passing game. That showed up the first day of fall camp. The plays he made day in and day out were absolutely unbelievable. The fact he can do all three things so well and play like a fifth-year senior, enables him to perform as he did. For a true freshman to walk in and play as he did physically is hard enough. Then to learn everything he had to learn, and perform they way he did is just rare. The fact hat he was voted the freshman of the year by the opposing coaches in the conference - that tells you something right there."

"He does need to come into camp in better shape. Any true freshman – you don't expect them to understand what it takes to be in shape. There are three things we're trying to work with him on: One, when he gets his shoulder healthy, to come into camp in shape which will allow him to be able to play at a higher level during the season. What happened during the season is that his legs ‘died' and then he got them back before the bowl game because we weren't playing any games. That's very common for young guys like him."

"Second, to get his speed increased. Third, his overall route mechanics. How to create separation in the passing game so he doesn't have to make all those miraculous catches with guys draping all over him. Another thing I caution him is that when underclassmen have success, they kind of let it get to their head a little bit. With all the pats on the back from the media and fans, you see underclassmen's success level off. I don't think it will ever happen to Zach in a million years, but it's something we have to be cautious about."

DD: Lee Burghgraef was steady as always this past season. How old you evaluate his performance?

TO: "The value that Lee has for our team - we can't describe it. The things that he does for our football team, and the fact that he was awarded the Pat Tillman award for being the best team player, is a perfect example of what he does. Lee does all the things that you don't see in the newspaper, in the stat sheet…but he does all the stuff that helps our team win and be productive offensively. He continues to get better, which is very encouraging. The thing that Lee did this year, that really helped the position, was that he was the leader of the tight end group. We started off camp with nine tight ends, and everyone in the group looked up to him because of his work ethic and how tough he his. He was Zach's mentor, and his mentorship really helped Zach from being a high school star to play as well as he did in the Pac-10. Our challenge to Lee now is to be a leader amongst our team. The players that watch the film on Sundays, they know how important he's to our team, and what a valuable role he plays. Everybody respects him because he knows his role, and he takes pride in what he does. Not too many players do that."

DD: Some of the fans are very excited for the prospects of Andrew Pettes. Granted, he saw very limited time in 2004, but what do you expect from him this season?

TO: "Andrew is going to be one of the guys that's going to compete to get into the mix and play. To play, meaning be in the top 3 or 4 tight ends that will play in every game. 20% of the time we have three tight ends in the game. Andrew's strength right now is a line of scrimmage player. Besides Zach and Lee, he might be the third best line of scrimmage player on our team right now. So that's a niche he's trying to find so he can earn one of those three or four positions. He can also really catch the ball. He has really good natural hands. During spring ball, we'll see how much more he can develop and get better. Again, different guys develop at different stages, but he has a great work ethic, has great character and we expect him to get into the mix and compete, and may the best man win."

DD: How would you evaluate the performance of the other tight ends on the depth chart?

TO: "Jamaal Lewis is probably the best speed down the field pass receiver tight end we have. That's his strength, and when he was asked to fulfill those roles he did a great job. Brent Miller didn't play for a year, and never really played tight end or with one hand on the ground. By the end of the season he was getting better and better, and for that third tight end spot, he played quite a bit. Like the rest of the guys he's trying to find his niche on the team."

"Tyrice Thompson, his role was the wedge buster on the kickoff team. He started out as the leaper on the field goal block team, until he got a couple of penalties and we had to make a change. He did a great job as a wedge buster. The media doesn't talk about it but our kickoff coverage was #1 in the Pac-10, and 16th in the country. Guys like Tyrice Thompson are the reason for that. He did an awesome job. He's not big enough to be a tight end in the line of scrimmage, and he's not really a wide receiver, so he's somewhere in between."

DD: Shifting gears to special teams, how would the job kicker Jesse Ainsworth did?

TO: "Jesse as a kickoff guy was awesome. Roughly 60% of his kickoffs were touchbacks, and the league average was 30%. Again, our kickoff team was #1 in the Pac-10 and that doesn't count touchbacks – only the kicks that are caught and return. Because Jesse does kick with a good hang time, it allows us to get a chance to cover it. We kick the ball deep almost every time. We may have two squib kicks and one pooch kick the entire season. So, the trade-off is that when you're kicking the ball that deep, you're playing with fire because people will return the ball on you. So for him to kick the ball that deep and that consistent was a huge thing."

"In the field goals, he started off really well, and then in mid-season he had a mental slump. When guys don't have the success they want to have they turn into what I call ‘mental robots.' You start looking at your plant foot, right shoulder, left shoulder…it's like a golfer analyzing his swing. When we finished the season against Arizona, he was kicking the ball two and half feet off the ground and hitting our lineman in the rear end. So, in the bowl practices I told him ‘I don't want you to do anything else but kick the ball – just haul off and swing at it.' We did that for two weeks, and it got him back in the groove. He was nailing them at the bowl game. He missed three field goals from fifty yards or longer that he could have made from 60 yards, and they probably missed by a combined total of six feet. He missed them, but he was nailing them and getting the ball up better than he was in the previous four or five weeks."

"Jesse definitely has the potential to be a threat for us because he can kick long field goals. Nobody is going to make 100% of their field goals, but the question is what is your kicker going to do after he misses one? If a kicker kicks a low ball how does he respond after that? Being another year older will really help him."

DD: And how about the job punter Chris MacDonald did?

TO: "He was a freshman All-American and I think he finished 15th in the country. That's saying something considering his red zone or pooch kicks in the short end of the field. He was 13-16 kicking the ball inside the 20-yard line. We haven't had a punter, since I've been here, with that high of a percentage. A lot of guys that kick the ball in the end zone obviously hurt their team, but their average is longer. So, to be so efficient with his pooch kicking, and still be 15th in the country with his average, says a lot for a freshman."

"There are some things he can get better at like his get-off time, stepping patterns…like any freshman he has things to work on. But he can sure kick the hec out of that ball…if he was senior and finished 15th in the country we'd be very happy. So for a true freshman to do that…we're very excited."

DD: When you talk about steady players like Burghgraef, another one that comes to mind is long snapper Jason Burke….

TO: "How about Jason Burke? We had one bad snap the last four years. One bad snap out of maybe 300 snaps and it was in a bowl game. I felt so bad for him…but he got a lot better this year. His snaps have always been very good and very consistent. But he got better as a protector. We had issues the year before. It wasn't anything that caused balls to be blocked, but guys were running free. But he was a freshman then, and he got better at that. He realizes that this is his role and this what he can do best to help our team and our team recognizes that. Teams that don't have a good long snapper can lose some games because of that. It happened to one of the teams in our league. It's just one of those things that you take for granted until a guy snaps a bad ball. Jason has been steady for us and works his tail off."

DD: How would you evaluate the kick and punt return guys on the team?

TO: "Rudy Burgess as a returner started out very well. He did let the ball on the ground a few times early, and at a certain time we had to say ‘that's enough.' Then Terry Richardson started returning, and he did a great job. So, those two guys enabled us to have the best chance to get a win. Terry in the bowl game had two balls that he should have been fair caught and he didn't. But he had a great game against Arizona. So, they were different times during the season when those guys had good returns for us. Now, we're trying to score touchdowns each time we return. But there have been two kickoffs returned for touchdowns in the Pac-10 the last two years and both were in non-league games. So, it doesn't happen often but that's still our goal. Those guys have the ability to do it."

"Nathan Kimbrough is a guy that will also return for us next year. He's a freshman, but he has got some natural skills in fielding the ball, which amazes me. Not a lot of guys have those skills. We're interested to see how he will fit in the mix next year."

DD: Out of the four special teams units: kickoff, punt, kick coverage, and punt coverage, which unit in your opinion needs to improve the most in 2005?

TO: "Obviously, our punt team – they were horrible. Our kickoff team was first in the Pac-10 this year, and 3rd last year and the year before that. Our punt team was 16th in the country last year, and this year we were horrible. There were about 7-8 horrendous plays that we can't have any of those at all. Our tolerance is zero. We've definitely have to improve that. In punt protection we had some unfortunate situations where our players got beat. We have to make sure that our guys do it right every single time or it will cost us. That unit alone has to be focal point to improve."

"We gotta get more guys to play on the perimeter. We couldn't find a guy all year long that can play on the outside. It's not due to a lack of effort – guys were busting their tails. We just didn't make any plays there. We said before the season that Jason Shivers isn't here anymore, because he was making all those plays."

"At the same time, we have to build upon on what we did good. Our guys take great pride in what we do on the kickoff team, and they have been doing that for the last three years. So, you have to emphasize what's right and get better at it, just like you point out what's wrong and work on correcting it."

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