Erickson Striving to Build Upon Success

Even before Dennis Erickson coached his first game at Arizona State, his hiring by the Sun Devils created a ripple effect through out all of college football. Consequently, he delivered a 10-3 record and a share of the Pac-10 crown in his inaugural campaign. Devils Digest sat down with the ASU Head Coach who reflected on 2007 and talked about the present and future of a program on the rise.

Devils Digest: The proposed one year extension to your contract, must not only be flattering but also serve as a validation of your accomplishments after just one year in Tempe…

Dennis Erickson: "I'm excited about having that opportunity and as I said I plan to be here until I'm finished coaching. What the extension does is tell recruits out there that we're gonna be here through our career and that's the most important thing about it as far as I'm concerned – the stability of this coaching staff and the stability of this program."

DD: You've been at ASU for nearly 15 months. You're probably pleased with your golf handicap progress and even prouder of what was accomplished with the football program in such a short amount of time…

"The golf handicap hasn't gone down. I haven't played as much as I thought I would play. Handicap publicly will never go down, it will always go up."

"I always expected any game we have to be competitive. The coaches and the players did a great job adjusting to the coaching change. People don't realize how hard it is for players when there's a change. As I said many times they bought into what we were teaching, they know we had an idea of what we were talking about and they took it upon themselves to do what we asked."

"It will be a lot easier now that we know the players and they know what we want. The off-season has been really good and I look forward to spring football and evaluating what we're trying to do. Every team is different every year."

DD: When you talk about the buy-in factor by the players, is it really just the resume of the coaching staff that causes that to happen or are there other factors that some people may overlook?

"I believe that the players looked at the coaching staff and saw that we had success everywhere we've been around and that had a lot to do with that. Obviously players understand when they're being coached and when they're not. They understand the X's and O's of what is going on and felt comfortable with what we were teaching and picked that stuff up. Talk is cheap. We had some success earlier in the season and that helped too."

DD: With all the personal success you had at your various college head coaching jobs, it's probably fair to say that your accomplishments couldn't have been possible without your long-time assistants, which many of them are on this ASU staff?

"No question about at. We've been together for a long time. We know our philosophy and that has never changed as far as what we teach and what we demand of our players. We know how we want to practice, the intensity level that we want in practice. Obviously X's and O's change all the time, because football changes all the time and we're always on top of that. If there's something we can improve on football wise, we study it. But it really helps that we all understand each other pretty well."

DD: When you compare your perceptions of the ASU program prior to your arrival, to what you know now about the school, what strikes as most surprising?

"I've always said that this is a place where you could be successful. The university itself, the stadium, the population, the weather…all the different pluses that are here – it's what I expected. The biggest thing I did learn since I've been here is the great support from the administration: Dr. Crow, Lisa Love, the other coaches – they all have been nothing but supportive."

"Now as we move forward people are stepping up financially out in the community as far as the indoor facility, what we're trying to do in the locker room – all that important stuff cannot get done unless you have help from boosters and fans. The crowds were great this year and probably the biggest thing is our students and how boisterous they were, how they turned out, we have a great band…that's what college football is all about and that was a pleasant surprise to me."

DD: Can you talk about the differences of recruiting nowadays versus let's say your days at Oregon State at the beginning of this decade?

"Recruiting in the Pac-10 is hard. You have to do a good job of evaluating talent, stay on top of it and the coaching staff has done a good job with that. They are a lot of good teams in this league out there recruiting. Competition is tough both recruiting wise and on the field. The parity of football in the Pac-10 is unbelievable and we obviously know that the coaching is great and it's getting better. You add Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow at UCLA and that will obviously make them better. USC is at a point where they can get anybody they want."

"We just have to continue to grind and grind and make sure we do a good job of evaluating talent and don't get carried away with star rankings and just do what we've done for years. Every place we've been we just evaluated and didn't worry about any of that other stuff. When we were at Washington State and Oregon State we weren't rated in the top 5000 in the country, but we were able to win."

DD: When you arrived in Tempe, you had less than two months to assemble a recruiting class. After the 2007 recruiting class was completed, you had the benefit of a full recruiting cycle, which culminated in 27 players signing a letter of intent last month. As a result of the last two classes, which position(s) do you see being a real strength in the program over the next couple of seasons?

"Obviously success breeds success. We had success as far as the season was concerned, we were on TV a lot and people knew more about Arizona State and the success we had. We were able to get into homes that we weren't able to get into before and get players that we haven't been able to get in a long time. People know about Arizona State, there's interest out there and once you get them here (on a visit) there's a pretty good chance that you will get them (to sign with ASU)."

"The key for our success is keeping as many local players as we can. Football in the state of Arizona is getting better and better because of the population. The coaching here is extremely good. You had about 26 local players sign with Division I schools and that just goes to show you how much talent you have out there. We have to do a good job recruiting in Southern California and do a good job branching out from there."

"Any time you deal with recruiting you want to get players with speed. Not only speed at skill positions, but also up front, with linebackers, secondary. You take the front guys on both sides and it was an awfully good group and if you're not good there you don't have a chance. That's my philosophy recruiting wise – you have to get good players on the front on offense and defense."

DD: Has your offensive philosophy allowed ASU's passing offense to experience a 180 degree turnaround from 2006 to last season?

"Rudy (Carpenter) did a good job and our receivers made a lot of plays, but the passing offense now isn't a lot different than it has been before with Coach Koetter. Because we were able to run the football with some degree of success, we were able to get more success with our play action passing and getting the ball deep. We have playmakers like Chris (McGaha) and Mike (Jones) that made a lot of plays for us…we had a number of guys making plays. But the philosophy wasn't really that different from when Coach Koetter was here."

DD: Can you talk about the growth of Rudy Carpenter since you've been here and what would you like him to improve on?

"He just has to continue to improve and understand what we want offensively, his reads, where to go with the football…he's a warrior that understands the game and is very competitive and all those are things we talked about for a long time. He'll get better because he understands what we're doing a lot more – he'll get rid of the football quicker because of that. All that stuff will make a difference. Being more comfortable with the receivers and what we're trying to do offensively will make him better."

DD: When you look at his performance starting in spring practice last year until the end of the season, was his rate of progression and improvement about what you expected?

"No question about it, he got better and better all the time. He made big plays for us when we needed him. You look at the beginning of the year and we were behind a lot of games and he made some huge plays for us to get back in the game and win it. There was great improvement and I expect to see even more improvement. He played a lot of games at the end of the season with an injured thumb and that hurt his performance without a question. We'll expand the offense and do other things and that will help him too."

DD: Sacks were obviously a sore subject concerning the offense in 2007. Does it still surprise you how much of a problem it was last year and what plans are in place to address it?

"As I mentioned before, when we gave up sacks it was for many different reasons – not just the offensive line. We obviously have to protect better, get rid of the football better, we have to protect better at running back. We have to get better at our screen game and that's something we're going to spend a lot of time on it in the spring to try and keep people from blitzing us a lot."

"So we're investigating what we're gonna as far as receiver screens and all those things that I have done through out my career. We sit down and look at why all this is happening to us and obviously it isn't our first barbeque – we've been around so we're gonna evaluate what we need to do to get the pressure off of our quarterback and our offense."

"We'll also spread them (wide receivers) out more than we have. As I said, every team each year is a little bit different and in this offense we might throw it a little more compared to last year."

DD: The running backs are such an experienced group on the team. Do you have high expectations from this unit as you enter spring practice and the new season?

"With our running backs coming back we have Keegan (Herring) and Dimitri (Nance) and I'm excited to see Shaun (DeWitty) play. Jarrell (Woods) did some good things when he was healthy and played in that bowl game. So we do have some depth there and I'm excited to see those guys in the spring and see where we are at."

DD: The team's defense showed improvement in 2007, but how close is it to being the dominant defense you said is needed to win a championship?

"We are a ways away. We need to get better up front. Our (defensive) ends – I feel very good about where we are at. James Brooks I think can really help us. Our defensive tackle situation is something that we continue to improve. Jonathan English lost some weight and he's gonna help us. We're gonna have to have some guys step up at defensive tackle. We obviously have some junior college players coming in with (Eugene) Germany and Spencer (Gasu). We also have some young guys that can help us and that is an area where we have to become better and better all the time. That's why in our recruiting philosophy you got to have those guys and that's how you win."

"We lost Robert James at linebacker but we have everyone else coming back there and I think Ryan McFoy can really help us. We have two young guys there that can help us (Derrall) Anderson and Oliver Aaron. We have a pretty good group coming back."

"In the secondary we lost J.T. (Justin Tryon) who I think is one of the better corners in the country. Terrell Carr is a new guy there and we have guys like Omar Bolden, Travis Smith, Grant Crunkleton coming back and some of those guys obviously have to step up. At safety we have some guys that played a lot like (Rodney) Cox because Josh Barrett was hurt. Troy Nolan to me is as good as a football player that we have on our team. We have a junior college player, Max Tabach, coming in. We can be every bit as good as we were a year ago on defense."

DD: You were in the ASU dugout when the Sun Devil baseball team began the season, you've attended many basketball games; can you talk about the camaraderie that exists between the coaches of the different ASU sports?

"I'm a sports fan so I don't go there just to support ASU; I go there because I like the entertainment. I love basketball and I love what Herb (Sendek) is doing. I watched the women's basketball team a few times and I love what Charli is doing. I go to a lot of baseball games because I love baseball and Murph (Coach Pat Murphy) does a great job."

"It is important that we all support each other. We're all in this thing together and I try to get to as many events as I can possibly can regardless of the sport. Football is obviously the one that is out there the most because of the nature of the sport, but you look at the successes we had here in the athletic program in track, baseball, women's basketball…it's fun to see that. Anytime we're successful in any sport and the name Arizona State is out there it helps everybody else."

DD: An old football saying claims that players are a reflection of their coach's personality. Do you believe that your traits have helped the team show so much emotion and resiliency which led to their success last year?

"I don't know. I think resiliency and competing comes from how you coach, it comes from your assistants too and the leadership on your football team. We work hard, we demand our players to compete, we demand discipline on the field and the biggest thing is that I want my players to play hard. We're gonna make mistakes, have penalties and I can deal with anything as long as they play hard."

"I preach that if you give good effort all the time good things are gonna happen to you. That's kind of what happened to us. We fought every game and we have to continue to do that. One year doing that doesn't mean anything, we have to continue that."

DD: You mentioned earlier the indoor practice facility. What are the chances that this facility will eliminate Camp Tontozona as part of fall practice?

"That has to be discussed. To me it is a financial thing going up there and now having the indoor facility…those are different things that we need to look at. I enjoyed it when we were up there but we have to look at that facility and see where that is at compared to what the productivity of us getting ready for the season and that's most the important thing. Camp T has great tradition – no question about that. We need to do what's best for Arizona State to be ready to play that first football game of the season. That's what we have to evaluate and look at."

DD: What is your philosophy on scheduling future out of conference opponents? Do you try to schedule one marquee program, one middle-tier program, and one game against a clearly inferior program?

"Anybody can beat anyone and you see that all the time, so I don't know if there's anything as scheduling someone you can beat. I lost some of those games and I won some being on the other side. I would like to play one game a year against a really good program in another area of a country, just like Georgia this year, teams in the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big East." "We have Georgia, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, teams like that on our schedule. I'd like to play teams like that and I think our players like to have that opportunity too. If you want to be the best, if we want this program to be a national program, we need to play a team that's already there. That's my philosophy."

DD: with the advent of the 12-game schedule now, other leagues have chosen to add an extra out-of-conference game. Do you think the extra conference game helps or hurts the Pac-10 in the long run?

"Playing nine games in our league is tough but I like that we play everybody in the Pac-10. When I was at Oregon State we didn't play all the teams. Sometimes that was good because you didn't have to play USC. I'd be for not playing all the teams in the Pac-10 if we didn't have to play USC period (smile). But now to win it or to tie for it, everybody has to play everybody and to me that's how you get a true champion."

"Playing nine conference games allows you to play three non-conference games, and winning the conference championship is the bottom line. If your goal is just to get to a bowl game, then you can play five conference games and seven non-conference teams you can beat. You can go to a bowl game every year playing that schedule."

DD: When you look back at your career, what is the most important lesson you've learned that makes you a better coach now than when you started?

"I think the biggest is just that – you learn all the time. You never so closed minded that you think that you can't get better as a coach. There's always something you can learn, and you always have to listen as a coach. It's like the old saying – treat people like you want to be treated. You always have to have your ears open whether it's X's and O's or treating people, to become a better coach. You just have to have an open mind and if you do that you have a chance to be pretty successful."

DD: Overall, do you think the 2007 team overachieved/surprised or did they meet expectations?

"I think we probably won more than we thought. I'm the first to admit that I liked the (2007) schedule and I wish we had it this year. We won some games early against teams that as the season went on were pretty good wins for us. Colorado was a better team than people first thought. I thought Oregon State was one of the two or three best teams in our league – we were fortunate to win that game. We came back to beat teams and got some confidence. I always expect to win every game – that's just how I am."

DD: You mentioned that every year a team is different, but are you expecting the 2008 team to take it to the next level, which would be a national championship or a BCS game?

"We want to be competitive in the league, but that doesn't mean necessarily that we're gonna win every game or win the Pac-10 championship. This program is a work in progress and to get where we want to will take some time. Will we win ten games next year? I don't know. That's hard to do and our schedule is very difficult. But we want to be competitive and win the championship. That's our goal every year."

Many thanks to Eric Menkhus and Stacey Price for helping out with interview questions for this article.

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