John Mackovic: "First of all, I like the five-day acclimation period because it allowed us to work with our players and get a lot of good meeting time so that we could install things, and we could talk with the players about everything. We have been able to watch practice and move along. At the same time, we had players going to summer school, we had rookies at orientation, and this is the only way we could have balanced it. There is no way we could have brought our rookies in and tried to practice twice a day and have guys go to school at the same time.
"I like it because it gave the players five days of only one practice where they could get their feet under them and get a feel for the game and what's going on. When the season is over, although I doubt anyone will ask, I think it will have been successful.
"We also chose to put our freshmen right with our upper-classmen. Some coaches have preferred to separate the freshmen in hopes that they could teach them more and that they would learn faster. I think that I could not disagree with that more. I think our guys have learned more by practicing and being put into the place where they have had to learn something by getting on the field and doing it. I think our freshmen are further ahead after eight or nine days than they used to be, so we will continue to do it that way."
On the freshmen who have stood out in camp thus far:
Mackovic: "Speaking of the freshmen, there are several who have caught our eye and who are pushing into the depth chart. Hopefully, we will get a chance to see if they are ready to play in the next couple of weeks. Certainly, we have a big scrimmage on Saturday night, and then from Saturday, we are two weeks away (from the season opener). Our last scrimmage will be next week.
"On the offense, Chris Henry, a running back, is strong. He really shows his speed when he gets on the corner. He was a 100-meter champion in California. He's getting a lot of work there.
"At wide receiver, Syndric Steptoe is getting a lot of play right now. He didn't play a lot of receiver in high school. He played all kinds of positions, and he is a terrific return man. He has great speed and quickness, so we are working with him a great deal. He is working his way up into the lineup as well.
"Anthony Johnson is a little bit behind him (Steptoe), but he's doing fine. I'm not sure if he will play this year, but he's going to come along very well.
"Marcus Hollingsworth, a safety, has shown us that he has real quickness and speed. He can really run, and he's a good hitter. He hasn't played any real man-to-man coverage, so he's still learning in that area.
"As a cornerback, Wilrey Fontenot is someone with a lot of speed, and we are working with him as kick-off return man.
"Dane Krogstad is a linebacker. One day, it looks like he is going to bust right into the lineup, and the next day he is a little bit back like a freshman. He's up and down there quite a bit.
"On the defensive line, Clifton Stanford has moved up probably more because of attrition than anything else. He definitely is in the two-deep at this time. He likely will play right from the beginning.
"Lionel Dotson is close to the two-deep. He's still learning. The position that he is playing is a little different from what he played in high school, and we're just kind of working with him to see what he's doing there. We think he could be a terrific pass-rusher.
How is the quarterback battle?
Mackovic: "At quarterback, Nic and Ryan continue to battle each other. Ryan will have a good day, and then Nic will have a good day. It goes back and forth. We can chart everything and give you a statistical analysis. But, it has to be more than just the numbers. It has to be a feel for the game, their leadership qualities and their ability to move the team. The scrimmage will be really important in order to see how they react under pressure with people getting in there. They have to be able to move the chains and get down field.
"Looking back on last year, we had a dearth of plays in the scoring zone. We need to get there more and in order to get there, we have to be able to move the ball down the field. The other team just doesn't give you the ball on its own 25-yard line. With the quarterbacks, they have so much to do with throwing the ball and going for the short receiver or the big one. So, our emphasis, especially with the quarterbacks, is on ball control and getting into position and doing the things we need to do to get into the end zone. I look forward to Saturday scrimmage because it will be a good chance to see if we can put some drives together. We will start with some eight to 10-play drives and see how they move the ball.
"We are practicing as if we have a veteran quarterback. We may or may not play as if we have a veteran quarterback, but you will not hear me say that all the quarterback has to do is keep us from getting beat."
How are the freshmen quarterbacks progressing?
Mackovic: "Everyone wants to know about the quarterbacks. Richard (Kovalcheck) and Kris (Heavner) both continue to show that they are learning what we're doing, and they are getting better at it. We can afford to give them some time over the next four or five days. But somewhere around 10 days before the opener, we have to give more time to Ryan (O'Hara) and Nic (Costa) and make sure that they are ready to go. Then, it will be a limited amount of time for the other two. They (Kovalcheck and Heavner) have distinguished themselves in what they've been able to do albeit with less than as many opportunities to play.
"We are a little bit like the first spring I was here when we had three and four quarterbacks, and we didn't know who would play. We were trying to give everyone some opportunities to participate in practice and be evaluated. Eventually, we had to say here is what we are going to do. We will have to do that with those fellows. We will still coach them and give them opportunities, but I don't think we'll give them game-rep practice time just yet. They are not ready for that, but the other two (Costa and O'Hara) need plenty of repetitions. They need all the time they can get in order to get ready for the season opener."
On the new defensive scheme:
Mackovic: "Defensively, I like what we are doing with the 3-4. I've liked it all the time. We give a lot of different looks to the offense. We have different kinds of movement up front. Our pass-coverage is such that we can overlap each other if we don't have the holes for opposing quarterbacks to throw into. That part of it has worked great."
On junior linebacker Pat Howard:
Mackovic: "We miss Pat Howard from our linebacker corps. He had such a great spring going that there wasn't anyone that was really rivaling him at that time. We elected to fix his shoulder, so that hopefully he would be back for the first game. We expect that the week of the first game, he will be allowed full contact. I don't think he will be ready to start and do everything, but he will be a real factor for us."
On junior linebacker Marquell Stinson:
Mackovic: "Marquell Stinson is a junior college player who came in. He's done well and learned, but he still doesn't know the whole system. He has had 10 practices, so you can judge for yourself. The linebacker corps is still a little bit questionable about who will play."
On the defensive line:
Mackovic: "Up front, we are just like the Johnson and Johnson boys. We have to continue to move people, and double-teach some people and cross-train them in hopes that we can get enough players to give us some lineup changes and some differences. With Brad Brittain gone and Vince Feula not here... those were two guys we were counting on heavily. So, we have to look at what the alternatives are like drafting someone from another position. Not that there is someone to draft at this point. If there were someone whom we felt could go there and make a difference we would do that, so hopefully we can get by with what we have as we go along."
On the offensive line:
Mackovic: "Offensively, we've had a couple offensive linemen down. We hope to get John Abramo back within the next four or five days. We hope to get Tanner Bell back within the next couple of weeks. So, if we can get that, then we can get back up to speed with where we are. I don't expect John Parada to be back for an extended period of time. But, we are definitely coming along there with our blocking schemes. The players are getting a better understanding, and our pass-protection up front is similar to what we had in the spring. We are solid in the middle, and our quarterbacks have some room to move around and step up if they so desire."
On the tight ends:
Mackovic: "With our tight ends, we have had a much better look at what our tight ends position is like with Steve Fleming, Matt Padron and Clarence McRae. Clarence McRae is learning, and it is very likely that he will contribute and be a part of what we are doing as we go through the season."
On the wide receivers:
Mackovic: "We are going to have to depend heavily on guys like Lance Relford and Ricky Williams for leadership. Biren Ealy and Michael Jefferson are both good, young talents. Biren has played quite a bit, so he understands the game speed and everything. Michael has not played at all, so he is going to have to learn. Andrae Thurman's status is still very much in doubt and likely will be for some time because the professors still have to post the grades. If Andrae's back, then that obviously will ease some of the workload. But if he's not, we are prepared to go on and continue with what we are doing. We've already made some provisions in our formations and personnel."
On the running backs:
Mackovic: "Mike Bell looks really good. He has worked hard and got ready to go, and he has been making some great cuts. He is providing some leadership for the other players. Clarence Farmer has good days and bad days with his knee, which was surgically repaired last year. I held him out today in the scrimmage and the tough stuff because he did come in this morning and was sore. I do expect him to participate Saturday night in the scrimmage unless something else happens between now and then."
Are you still pleased with the chemistry of the assistant coaches?
Mackovic: "I like the way they coach, and I like the way they are teaching and the way they stress and emphasize certain things. I've seen the players make improvements in areas that the position coaches have emphasized. They say the teacher hasn't taught if the student hasn't learned. I think our team feels like we've made improvement. I know the coaches feel as if we have made improvement. At this stage, that is important to us. We need to focus on improving collectively and individually."
Is it possible that the team could be improved but due to the schedule not have any more wins to show for it?
Mackovic: "Improvement will have to be measured. Everyone, including ourselves, will measure our improvement against our win-loss record because it's something easy to measure against. There will be other improvements that we will measure too, and we will make sure that you know about them. We know if we play really well and are prepared, we know we can win a lot of games. We don't know what will happen because other teams have the same focus in what they are doing.
"I think that as we finish the season and look at what we've done in reference to where we started, and if we see that our trends are positive, I think our team will be able to say that we set out to be better than we were, and that's the way we finished. We haven't tried to sit down and chisel out goals because right now our focus is more upon improvement and what we need to do as players and coaches. We are setting out to play and be a hard-playing football team. We will make mistakes like everyone does. Our focus is that we need to go out on that field and give it a go every time we play. If we don't, then we will be disappointed in ourselves."
This team is finally your team, with mostly your recruits. Will that help with the team's chemistry:
Mackovic: "We just come out to coach. We treat everyone the same way. We work them hard. We are going to play the guys who play their positions the best and contribute to the team the most. I think the camaraderie among the players is different and better this year. I see fewer groups of people who just cling together. They spread around and talk to each other more, and that is always healthy for a team."
The media picked you 10th, do you use that as motivation?
Mackovic: "We don't even mention the media polls. We haven't even talked about it. It is not a rallying cry that we are promoting. We don't just shrug that off. We know we want to prove something. If I were a player, I wouldn't shrug it off either, but you can't go around talking about it. You have to go out there and do something about it. That is our focus."
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