Q&A with Coach Tom Osborne

The Sun Devils' tight end and special teams are two of the more accomplished groups of players on the 2006 squad. Devils Digest sat down with their position coach to get an assessment of these units going into Thursday's season opener.

DevilsDigest: Coach, how do the tight ends as a group look right now going into the new season?

Tom Osborne: "Zach Miller is playing better than he ever has. He's healthy, and he didn't have that luxury the last two years. Last year, it was absolutely amazing the injuries he played with and the way he played. He's improved on some stuff we talked to him about – his route running, breaks, mechanics…he's gotten much much better in that regard and that really helped him separate himself from people in the passing game, which he didn't have that in the past."

"Brent Miller is playing great. He was hurt and missed over a week of practice, and he did come back the last couple of days. When Brent is healthy he can really help us. He's able to do a mixture of things – play at the line of scrimmage, be involved in the passing game. It's hard to find guys that can do both."

"Brady Conrad is the surprise player for us. He's a guy that cares, tries to do the right things; and he's a tough guy. He's been hurt the last week and a half. But he's in the mix to help us. Dane Guthrie has had only two practices. He has an unbelievable amount of talent, but now the thing is: is that talent gonna play? There's a big difference between potential and performance. But he's been hurt and that's not his fault."

"Andrew Pettes and Jovon Williams are still learning. Lance Evbuomwan will redshirt – he's a big kid that can really catch the ball. But he played football for only two years and it was as a wide receiver, so he's learning."

"Jamaal Lewis is going to be listed as a receiver in the media guide, but when we start playing games and get to the meat of our schedule, there's a lot of times where he'll be out in that H/Tight End spot. Our opponents think he's the receiver and that's great, but we'll get him involved in other things too. I tell him all the time: ‘don't get too far away from me…' (smile)."

DD: In regards to the two-tight end scheme, has it become less and less of a challenge to implement because of the experience of players like the Miller brothers?

TO: "Tight end is a really hard position to play. They have to learn so much. Coach Wittke told me the other day that in order for a tight end to play in this offense he has to be really smart, and we're lucky because we have so many very smart guys. It is a huge learning curve for the younger guys. It isn't an offense with easy formations. A guy will play fullback one play, on the line of scrimmage on another, wide receiver the next play, knowing the blocking schemes in the running plays, pass protections in the passing game…so for some guys that learning curve is bigger than others."

"We're so lucky that Zach is so smart it's ridiculous. You teach him something and the first time he goes out and does it perfect. Whenever you can coach a guy to do a thing one time and he does it right, you really appreciate that. It takes some guys three years to learn."

DD: Let's talk about special teams. 2005 was an exceptional year for three out of the four groups. How are all these units coming along right now?

TO: "Our goal is to get all four (units) playing well – that's the key. We can't have one breakdown anytime – that's unacceptable. Our return unit, they have so much confidence it's ridiculous. Those guys think that every time they go out, they'll score a touchdown and that's what you want. The long touchdowns runs are hard to get, especially in conference play. But giving good field position for the offense is very important too."

"The thing we've been the most excited about are the guys are on our punt team. They've done a great job being conscious of what they're doing – one guy can't make a mistake and get beat in terms of protection. The scary part is that we have so many new guys. Five of our eight starters in the box, the protectors on our punt team, have never played in a college football game. So there's some anxiety but those guys have practiced great. They've done awesome all of fall camp."

DD: Can you talk about punter Jonathan Johnson? It seemed like just a couple of weeks he may have been headed to a redshirt year and now he's the starter…

TO: "When Jonathan got here, just like a lot of other guys that are new to the team, he was all wound up trying to please and fit in. So you have that transition for a new player, and then we ask him to do some things that are different than stuff you would do at a kicking camp. After the first scrimmage, Jesse Ainsworth was clearly the number one guy. Then, in that week between the first scrimmage and the second scrimmage, Jonathan has made some unbelievable strides. In that second scrimmage he did awesome. Seven of his eight punts had a hang time of 4.7 seconds or higher, which is astronomical. His get-off is very fast too. He separated himself form Jesse because he's so confident in what he's doing. He's done a really good job, but he hasn't done it in a game yet."

"Jesse is so much improved than last year, because he spent the off-season practicing. Last year he didn't prepare for it because we made the change in the middle of the year and he did fine."

DD: Will the one-inch tee affect Jesse's kickoffs which usually end up as touchbacks?

TO: "Jesse is a different breed because he has such a strong leg. Jesse and the kicker for Arizona are the two best in our league. For most kickers in the country, that tee will make a big difference. Instead of guys catching a ball four yards deep, they'll catch it at the one-yard line. Hang time may be shorter which will impact the return team."

"The interesting thing we watch our film, is the number of times our opponents take the ball deep in the end zone and return it. It is absolutely mind boggling. Reggie Bush catches one seven yards deep, going back over his head like Willie Mays to catch the ball, took it out and was tackled at the 16-yard line. Guys get so frustrated with Jesse's touchbacks…As a return team; we're fired up about the shorter tee."

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