Q&A with Dirk Koetter Part I

DevilsDigest recently interviewed the Sun Devils head football coach on several topics concerning the team. Among the issues covered in the first part of this exclusive feature, A review of the highs and lows of the 2004 campaign, the effects the team's leadership group had on the success of last season, and the performance of quarterback Sam Keller in spring practice.

DevilsDigest: Coach, the 2004 season was your most successful one in your ASU's tenure. What factors can you point to making that season more successful than the others?

Dirk Koetter: "In no particular order, Andrew Walter returning for his senior year when he could have entered the draft. The ability of our players, especially our leadership group, to unite our team in a way that has to come from our players. The guys believing they can find ways to win close games. I think it's a combination of those (factors)."

DD: Can you expand on the contributions of the leadership group, and do you expect that group to continue this year in this format?

DK: "It's probably hard to specifically pinpoint exactly what it did, because you're dealing in some things that aren't necessarily black or white, or concrete. We took a group of 25 guys representing all positions and all classes. It wasn't only our seniors, although our seniors did a nice job. It was a group of 25 that we thought could relate to the entire team, and teach them about teamwork and striving for the same goal. Ultimately the goal of that leadership group was to come up with a team mission statement that the players could rally behind. It wasn't some fancy words, it was their words – that's where the whole ‘answer the scratch' originated from."

"We tried to expand from that in the fall, and did some ethics and character (exercises). This spring we took it to the level that the players were creating a personal mission statement. So the leadership training will continue. The thing you're always wrestling with is if you include everybody, just the group of 25, limit it to captains…there's no really one set right way. We're always trying to improve on what we're doing, and reach as many players as you can."

DD: When you look at the overall depth of the team, and compare it to last year, would you say that this is the deepest squad you had since you've been at ASU?

DK: "It would be easy to yes on that if we were 100% healthy. The day of the final spring scrimmage I counted 19 players that weren't participating that day, and the following Monday when we were looking at our possible depth chart going into the fall we had as many as nine starters that didn't play in the scrimmage. I would like to say that our depth is the best it's ever been, but until we get those 15-20 guys back and know that they're healthy, I think we have to be somewhat cautious about that."

DD: What were the most pleasant and unpleasant surprises of last year?

DK: "If you're talking about events, the most unpleasant is easy – that was the U of A game. That was as unpleasant as it gets. As a coach, you remember the low points more than the high ones. That's just how you are. We had three losses, and we didn't play well in any of the three. You can always look back at a loss, and if you feel like you played the best you could have played and still lost, that's one thing. But in our three losses we had a ton of turnovers and didn't play well in those games."

"The high points – there were many. You have to think about them to remember them, because again you have the tendency to focus on the negative. Starting off, and again in no particular order, beating Northwestern on the road – plenty of people didn't think we could do that. Coming back home and having a great all-around game against Iowa. I was watching ESPN last night, and they were doing an inside look at spring football at Iowa. You see where they finished last year in the rankings, where they're picked this year, the type of program that they have…and you think back to that night at Sun Devil stadium – we got after them. It was a lot of fun."

"From there when you get down to conference play - win on the road at Autzen stadium is always hard to do and a big thrill. For someone like me who coached at Oregon, that's always something I'll remember. Redemption against Oregon State from the year before, thrilling last second wins against UCLA and Stanford, Washington State – the start we got off to was almost too easy and that's a team that we never have beaten since I've been here. We scored almost at will and the defense was holding them."

"After the lowest of lows, having a month to live with it and having the Sun Bowl under the situation where we didn't have Andrew (Walter), Coach Guy getting ready to leave for Utah State, and have the players in all phases play like they did with the effort and the passion they showed in El Paso, that was a lot of fun as well."

DD: In light of all the numerous injuries you talked about, was spring practice as productive as it could be under the circumstances?

DK: "Definitely not. That (injuries) was one of the reasons. I told the players that we couldn't use that as an excuse. There is a silver lining in that, and that is some guys got more reps that they would have normally gotten. There were players that rose up in spring practice, and now we're sitting here saying those guys have a chance to help us."

DD: That leads me to the next question, will Camp Tontozona be very unique in the sense that players that have contributed heavily in the spring will just not get the reps in the fall because of the players returning from injuries, as well as some recruited players stepping in right away?

DK: "Camp T will be different, but you have to classify what you said position by position. There are some positions that could take on a totally different look in the fall, just by sheer numbers. Cornerback would be a good example. The corners that we had in the spring played fine and did what was asked from them. But we have three returning corners coming back. People forget that R.J. Oliver started 30 games in his career; Josh Golden started 21 games in his career. You have Chad Green who is very talented; you have two junior college players and two incoming freshmen. Adding seven guys to the mix is unheard of. The cream will still always rise to the top, it will just be a different starting point."

DD: Sam Keller had a great Sun Bowl, and by his own admission as well as your words had a C+ performance in the spring. Where do you see Keller right now heading into camp?

DK: "When I say that (C+) that's above average based on the expectations that we have for Sam and that he set for himself based how he played in the Sun Bowl. If Sam hadn't started in the Sun Bowl and played like he did, we may not have had the same expectations for him in the spring. We might be sitting here and saying that it was a tremendous production by Sam in the spring. Based on what he did in the Sun Bowl he raised the bar for himself. Mark Helfrich (ASU's QB coach) and myself always thought that Sam had that in him, but with Andrew here he just never had a chance to show it."

DD: Without getting into specifics, do you expect the playbook to change much so it can better suit Sam's skills?

DK: "I don't see a whole lot of change. It's not like those two (Walter and Keller) are a lot different type of players. They're both traditional pocket passers who can stand there and throw it down the field."

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