DevilsDigest: Let's start with the tight end position. As a group, how are they looking going into the season opener?
Tom Osborne: "A little different than last year, because we have experienced guys that were involved in the two-tight end system last year. The learning curve isn't as steep as it was a year ago. Zach Miller has been very limited, but the trade-off is that Brent Miller has been able to get more reps. Brent has really improved and made huge strides and is one of the most improved players on the entire football team. Jamaal Lewis has been great in the passing game, which is his forte. He'll be great in our passing game. Andrew Pettes is still learning, and Jovon Williams is fresh out of high school so he's just trying to figure out right now how do you line up in the huddle (smile)."
DD: As you mentioned with Jamaal, catching the ball was never the problem. His blocking game was the aspect that needed improvement. Do you feel that he has made adequate strides in this area going into the 2005 season?
TO: "Not to be an every down player – no. Jamaal's role is to be a pass receiver and we try to mix him in the running game the as best as we can. But he's not an every down player – not at this point."
DD: Dane Guthrie is sitting out this year, but are you excited about having him next season?
TO: "He's very athletic and very fast. For a guy that weighs 255 pounds to run like that…I've seen guys like that run before and they usually play basketball. The thing with Dane is that he will have a learning curve as well because he redshirted with Florida on their scout team last year. He didn't have the opportunity to be coached everyday being on the scout team, so he's in the same category as Andrew Pettes. When you're on the scout team you're not getting fully developed. He has a ways to go in that regard. He's very athletic, and has natural hands. He can be an every down player at the line of scrimmage, as well as a guy that can run down the field, just like Zach Miller."
DD: Lee Burghgraef has always been the unsung hero that has been solid in his performance. What do you expect from him going into his senior year?
TO: "The thing that Lee has done differently is that he has taken on a leadership role. I said this time and time again, that one of the reasons Zach was able to have the year he had last year was because Lee was acting as a mentor and had him under his wing. Lee is one of six players on the team that was voted captain. He's a very reserved person that has become more vocal this year, not only among the tight ends but also around the team as a whole. He does all those little things that fans and media don't see, but help you win. He served a very important role on our team, just like Zach did catching 56 passes last year."
DD: The introduction of the two-tight end system was definitely not baptism by fire and was an integral part of a successful offense in 2004. Do you expect not only a smoother sailing this year, but also adding some wrinkles to that scheme?
TO: "We have more depth because we have more guys that know what they're doing right now. Even Zach Miller – it took him a while to learn to play at this level and learn things he has never learned in high school. The depth gives us more multiplicity to play guys in different positions and get more things accomplished. If we can get Jamaal, Zach, Lee, and Brent all involved in their particular roles that will really help our football team."
DD: What are your goals for the group as a whole between now and the season opener?
TO: "Everyone get healthy. Get Zach back because he's really the only guy that can play at the line of scrimmage every down and get involved in the passing game. The other guys are very good at what they do, but they are role players. The most important thing for the whole group is that when we get to game time, they need to play efficiently enough where we're not making any technique errors. We want to play as well as we did in game 12 last year, when we play game 1 of this year. We want to start where we finished last year."
DD: Let's shift gears and talk about special teams. Kicker Jesse Ainsworth started the season on a higher note than he ended it in terms of his field goals. What have you seen in the pre-season that would lead you to believe that Jesse will have a more consistent season?
TO: "He did start out well, he had a couple of glitches in the middle and towards the end of the season. It comes down to confidence. He did change his stepping pattern a little bit and fine tune his mechanics. Jesse is in his third year, so he knows what to expect, knows the pressure…his character and work ethic will help him. I really can't see anyway that he won't have a successful year."
"His ability to kickoff really helps us. We always want to try and kick out of the end zone, and if it was that easy everybody would do it. The Pac-10 average for touchbacks is roughly 32%, and Jesse last year had 63% of his kicks go for touchbacks and the kid after him didn't even come close to that percentage. His ability to kickoff helps our kickoff coverage team, and putting the ball on the 20-yard line helps our defense tremendously."
DD: Punter Chris MacDonald played well for a true freshman last season. How is he looking going into the 2005 campaign?
TO: "He only played one year of high school football, walked-on here and played as a freshman which not too many players do, and in his first year was 15th in the country. He was an excellent red zone punter – probably the best one we ever had here."
"The biggest thing we have worked on with Chris is his get-off time – the time that he catches the ball and makes contact with his foot. To his credit, again because of work ethic and character, he's worked his tail off. It's night and day from a year ago this time from that slow and methodical get-off, which young kids usually have. It takes a while to change that, and it usually doesn't take just a year. But Chris has drastically changed that from last season, and that will definitely help our team."
DD: When you look at the return game, you have a lot of weapons in your disposal. However, it looks like Nate Kimbrough has separated himself a little form the pack. Would you agree with that assessment?
TO: "He definitely made huge improvements. The thing we're excited about with Nate is that he's making good decisions. He's fielding the ball with correct mechanics, correct technique…but the biggest improvement is that when he catches the ball, he's doesn't jitter bug and dance. He's able to make something happen from a return standpoint and you can never have enough of those guys."
"Last year we started out great on punt returns the first 5-6 games on the year, and we had a 3-4 game loll there where Rudy Burgess, Terry Richardson, and Josh Golden were hurt and we just didn't have a lot going for us. Then the last two games against Washington State and Arizona the punt return game was phenomenal. We had five returns in those games over 25 yards. In the Sun Bowl Terry didn't make very good decisions in the red zone, Rudy was beat up playing tailback, Golden was hurt, and you're back to the same thing….so again, you can't have enough of those guys that get you through from game one to the bowl game."
DD: Aside from those four players mentioned, is there anyone else you expect to be in the mix for a returner, like a Keno Walter-White perhaps?
TO: "I think those are our top four guys if we played today. Keno isn't to the point where he's making good decisions and fielding the ball. Those four guys provide enough depth, to where if we get dinged up, we will hopefully get some returns that will give us good field position and some touchdowns."
DD: Improving the punt coverage was probably the biggest goal on special teams in this pre-season. How do you feel that area has improved thus far?
TO: "We haven't played a game yet, and with the lights on you don't know how guys are going to respond. Every year, you have a weakness and it can't get any worse than our punt coverage was last year. We had ten plays where our punt coverage was as pathetic as you would ever see. We spent a lot of time on it like we always do. We emphasized it like we always do, and maybe a little bit more because that was our Achilles heal last year. We did change things here and there, put in a lot of different personnel – last year we ran out of personnel."
"We had two returns (against UTEP and Iowa) where the games were totally over with in regards to the outcome of the game. Guys lost confidence and it kinda snowballed from there, and it didn't help that we played USC a couple of weeks later – the best punt return team in the country. No question we have to improve on that. Like anything else on the special teams, where do you put all your fingers in the holes of the dike? For our first three years, our punt team was in the top 25 in the country three years in a row. If we don't cover punts well, we're not gonna win a lot of games. It's a huge priority and we did change a few things."
DD: Any unsung heroes on any of the special teams that you're expecting big things out of? Stephen Bisnett, Zach Catanese seem to have played well on some of those units in fall camp…
TO: "Great question. You're right, Zach would probably be one of our top two or three guys on our team if he played on all the special teams, but he's starting on defense so we have to limit how much he has to play. Bisnett starts on two of our teams and is doing a great job. Nick Clapp, Littrele Jones, Randy Hill all do a great job. Randy does a lot of dirty work, like block for us on kickoff and punt returns. When he got injured that really hurt us on punt coverage. Josh Barrett does a heck of a job, so does Chad Greed…those guys realize that what they does make a difference in a game. What we're trying to do is take what we do well on some teams, like kickoff coverage, and carry that to other teams like punt coverage, so all teams are playing well."
Q&A with Coach Tom Osborne
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