Dirk Koetter Believes Best is Yet To Come

Was 2002 a great or a successful season? How will the team handle the higher expectations placed on them this year? Should fans be concerned with the lack of wide receivers in this year's recruiting class? What is the outlook for spring practice? Find out the answers to those questions and many more in this exclusive DevilsDigest interview of the ASU head coach.

DevilsDigest: How would you recap the 2002 season?

Dirk Koetter: "A lot of people congratulate me on a great season. My standing line on that is, that it was not a great season but a successful season. It was successful in that we exceeded people's expectations of ourselves. When you're picked ninth and finish third - that says a lot. We do want to have a team that's known to overachieve and we had that last year. Great teams play in the Rose Bowl or like in last year's case the Fiesta Bowl, and that's the next step. That started on Jan. 19th when the players got back from winter vacation. That's squarely where our sights are set for next year."

DD: What do you see as the major factors for the turnaround between the 2001 and the 2002 seasons?

DK: "I think a few things. The chemistry of our team was better. If a team was gonna beat us, and we did lose some games, you had to beat us on the field. We weren't beating ourselves. The Kansas State game is a good example. We weren't beating ourselves from the inside with stuff that was going on off the field. That's one of the first things we had to change around here, and I feel very good with where we are and where we headed with that."

"We did go from last in the Pac-10 in takeaways to second. I give our defensive coaches and defensive players a lot of credit for that. That was a major emphasis. We actually turned it over more this year, than the previous one. But the takeaways were a big part of our season. From there you have to go to a solid quarterback play the last two thirds of the season in Andrew Walter. That was a big reason we were able to be competitive in every game, and I believe we'll continue to be as long as he's playing at that level."

DD: When you talk about expectations, doesn't it seem that in a quirky way Walter threw a ‘monkey wrench' into those pre-season predictions? At the beginning of the season, you started a redshirt quarterback, which probably tempered the level of expectations. It seems like Walter came from nowhere and his play elevated those expectations. Do you agree with that theory?

DK: "The thing I tell people who ask me that question, is that if Andrew Walter were playing that good in spring football and fall camp, he would be our starter in game one. He wasn't. He always told me that he had that in him, but I hear that from almost every player. My answer to that is that you have to do that in practice. How you do in practice is usually how well you'll do in the game. Chad (Christensen) practiced better than Andrew in the spring. Starting in camp Tontozona, Andrew made progress everyday, until he was practicing with the second team. That's why even in the opener against Nebraska; he went in the second quarter. Then, you got to see the players rally around him and make more plays. But you also saw him demonstrate the things that it takes to be successful at quarterback."

"Chad played more like a redshirt freshman. He did a good job with his athleticism, toughness and competitiveness, but his lack of experience showed. So, I wouldn't say that Andrew came out of nowhere. I just think that one thing it shows that the best players are always going to play. You have to do it on a consistent basis, and you have to do it in practice, and we're not afraid to make a change if one player is playing better than another."

DD: You talk about the low expectations that people put on the team in 2002. Needless to say that a third place finish will change those perceptions quite a bit going into this season. How will you handle that change?

DK: "That's a good problem to have, because our players have high expectations too. It's one thing if you're talking about a conference championship, but it's another thing to back it up. Our players believe we can back it up, and I too believe we can be in the hunt. Last year when we found out that we were playing Nebraska, that served as motivation to carry you through the tough summer workouts. Now, we're building towards a run at the conference championship. I don't mind having those expectations. Even though we finished third last year we only had two all Pac-10 players and both of them are gone now (Shaun McDonald and Terrell Suggs). Even though we'll get picked higher this year, I saw a publication that picks only one of our players and he's not here yet (Chijoke Onyenegcha). I can use those examples to show the players that our strength is our team, and we still have to do the little things right in order to win the conference."

DD: Let's talk about recruiting philosophy. It seems that in your recruiting classes you recruit several players that have speed and good frames with the thought that once they added weight and improved their speed you may move them to a different position. Is that theory a big part of your philosophy?

DK: "Sure, that is part of it for some players. (incoming freshman) Daniel Varvel is a good example of that. They're other guys that you watch and just know that they're born for this or that (position). In Varvel's case, one thing that we look in the bigger safeties or faster linebackers, we love to take big high school tailbacks. It's hard to get good evaluation of defensive backs because the high school tapes usually don't show them. But when I watched Varvel's tape I watch him lining up seven yards back in the I-formation, hitting the hole hard, running between tackles, and with no fear. When I meet him I see his frame, his demeanor, our coaches get to know him, and you just have to project. He wasn't going to get recruited at tailback at this level. But we projected him as a free safety in the mold of Jason Shivers. Dependent on that frame, if he grew to 215 or 220 pounds he may turn into a (linebacker) Josh Amobi type of player. So, definitely we do those position moves at times and sometimes we don't do them at all."

DD: What would you the say the differences are between recruiting high school players and junior college ones? It seems like in recruiting the junior college circuit a college coach becomes more involved with the JC coach, and with high school prospects there's much more interaction with the player's parents?

DK: "That's an interesting question there. It wasn't that many years ago that we thought that the key for high school kids was always the high school coach. I don't think that's true at all anymore. I think high school coaches have less and less influence on where their players go. I do think that it is true that in most cases, JC players are influenced by their coach. The reason is that a lot of them are away from their parents, so the coach assumes somewhat of a parental role. You take Chris McKenzie (an incoming JC transfer) for example; he's very close to Mickey Bell the defensive backs coach at Glendale Community College. But most of those coaches will still say that they'll only give advice, and that it's the player's decision."

"JC guys will always want to go to a program where they can see themselves in the starting lineup. A player knows he has only two years to make it happen. JC guys that come in the middle of the year are up and running after just a few days. They're already somewhat adjusted to college life, they've been on their own, and you're not teaching them about going to class and seeing tutors. I think that they're a lot of pluses recruiting junior college players, but the big minus is that you have them for only two years. You look at a guy like Brett Hudson. He's just skyrocketing right now in the off-season program, and has a chance to have an awesome season. But it's gonna be his last, and it seems like he just got here."

DD: Some Sun Devil fans were concerned with the fact that this current recruiting class only has one wide receiver, and as a result are raising some concerns about this position going into the 2003 season. What can you say to those folks on this issue, and do you believe that ASU will able to recruit more wide receivers in next year's class?

DK: "You can't just take a player to fill a slot. If we brought a wide receiver that nobody heard of, would that make people feel better? We can't add numbers just to add numbers. We have to add guys that will contribute to the team. We're looking for players that can take us to the Rose Bowl. The perception out there is that even after we lost Shaun (McDonald) that we're loaded at wide receiver. So receivers that we were recruiting are afraid to come out here because they don't think they can beat out our guys. Other guys we were recruiting were great players and we were up against stiff competition. Even though they were some high profile wide receiver recruits out there, some of them don't have grades nor will make grades. The ones we targeted - we just came up short. If we don't recruit a wide receiver, now you created distance between the classes and when you go into next year's recruiting class that becomes a positive. You can tell players: ‘we signed just one wide receiver last year - look at the opportunity you have here when you come in.' We'll have to make due with what we have this year, and when I say make due we have quality we just don't have great depth. Next year we'll target the best of the best."

DD: You mention the great chemistry that this team has, and that chemistry, good or bad, can't be faked. What do you attribute the turnaround in this team aspect? Do you believe that this attribute is sometimes overrated?

DK: "My experience is that chemistry can never be overstated. I just know that schools I've been with, during the first recruiting season, when it came down to the wire between you and another school, if a player said he's going elsewhere by far the #1 reason would be the player saying ‘I just had a better feel for the players (at the other school).' When we sat down two years ago we said if that's the answer we're getting, then we better figure out a way for players not to use that as an excuse. So we came up with activities that ensure that recruits are around our players, and if you're gonna have them around your players you want to make sure that they have a good feel for your players. That's where we get into the whole unity building that we spent a lot of money, time, and effort to make that become a reality. Chemistry makes our recruiting that much easier, and I want to compliment our players that do a great job in the 48 hours when a recruit visits us."

DD: Going into spring practice next month, which positions you anticipate having the fiercest competition?

DK: "I think tailback is one. We have one extremely proven player in Mike Williams. You have a guy like Cornell Canidate that did beat out Mike at one time, but couldn't shake off a series of ankle injuries. You have two unknowns coming off a redshirt season in Randy Hill and Loren Wade. We liked a lot of the things they did on the scout team."

"Tight end is another. You have two banger type players returning in Lee Burhgraef and Frank Maddox. Then you have two prototype guys in Jamal Lewis and Aaron Austin. How we're able to use all those four guys we'll be interesting to see."

"Linebacker position has a lot of candidates and we improved out depth there. You have Jamar Williams coming back, Bart Hammit has been great in winter conditioning, Jordan Hill is coming off a great year on the scout team, All-American Justin Burks…all of the sudden we have numbers at linebacker. Ishmael Thrower is kinda of a wild card there, whether he plays linebacker, defensive end or both."

"The secondary has two solid guys playing safety (Jason Shivers and Riccardo Stewart), and you also have Hudson, Lamar Baker, Matt Fawley, and Joey Smith. Brett Hudson is gonna be in the mix somewhere. It will be tough to keep him out. So I think linebacker, tailback, and tight end will be the positions to watch."

DD: The decision to lower the prices on ASU Football tickets was largely applauded through out the valley. Did you have any hand in that decision?

DK: "I didn't know until the day before. It just shows what kind of Athletic Director Gene Smith is, and what kind of vision he has to have to the common sense to see what kind marketplace and competition we're in. He figured out a way to get back fans into Sun Devil stadium. It was just great work by him."

DD: Do you see 2003 as the season where everything comes together for ASU Football and it turns the corner so to speak?

DK: "I think we turned the corner. I just don't think we arrived at the bus stop yet. Make no mistake; our goal is the Rose Bowl. But you have to get some breaks along the way, some players have to develop, losing players like Terrell and Shaun – players will have to step up to those roles. They'll be other guys who will step up to the plate more than we think. Anytime you have a quarterback like Andrew Walter in the game, you have a chance to be really good. We're definitely past turning the corner, and I think most of our opponents will agree and that's what really counts."

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