A Visit With Joe Cauthen

The Arkansas State Red Wolves are back on the field and ready to get better this spring. Continuity is finally a strength for the team as they start these practices with a year under their belt with the same coaching staff and a year under their belt in these systems.

While everybody likes to focus on the Red Wolves’ high-powered offense, the improvements made on defense from a personnel standpoint and how that translates to success on the field next fall might be the most important factor in determining whether or not the Red Wolves reach their goals in 2015 and bring home the conference championship.

Defensive Coordinator Joe Cauthen sat down to talk about his first season in Jonesboro, what he wants from his defense in 2015 and what his staff is concentrating on heading into these spring practices.

What’s the pressure like during a game when all eyes are on you to call the plays?
“I don’t really see it as pressure.  I see it as motivation.  Motivation to make sure I prepare my guys to be in a position to make a play and make the stops we need.  No doubt, it gets hectic during the game, but I know if we have prepared our guys in the right way that we will have a chance to succeed.  I don’t want let down the guys that depend on me and all of that just serves as my motivation when I wake up every morning and go to work.”

This profession can be a wild ride.  Where did it all start for you?
– “Actually, I didn’t start out coaching.  I grew up on a farm, helped raise cattle and helped my family.  Then I got an associate’s degree in petroleum technology in the early 80’s.  I rough-necked for a couple of years on an oil rig and learned after that time that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.  I really missed being involved in athletics at that point too and wanted to get into coaching.  I got my first job from John Outlaw [Former Arkadelphia head coach and member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame] at Sherman High School in Texas.  I taught biology and 9th grade football.  Then I moved on to basketball and baseball as well.  The basketball coach soon realized I didn’t need to be coaching on the court, which was a good thing because I was able to focus on football for the next 4 years.  After that I really started to reach out to different folks trying to get a GA position.  I spoke with guys like Tommy Tuberville, Les Miles, and Larry Fedora.  I got to know Larry because he started out coaching in high school as well and had some good advice on how to navigate this road.  It was bumpy and it was hard to find that opening.  Then Scottie Conley brought me to Trinity Valley Community College to coach his defensive line.  That’s where I met Blake.  Before I left there he told me he was going to be a head coach one day and said that when it happened he was going to hire me.  That was 18 years ago.  A lot of guys tell you that, but it never happens.  I went on to have good years and worked with great coaches coaching at Stephen F Austin, being the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M-Commerce and Valdosta State, where we won a national championship, before landing at Middle Tennessee State.  That’s where, after 18 years, I got the call from Blake to come with him here to Arkansas State.  I didn’t even ask any questions.  He said, “I want you here,” and I said, ‘When do we start?’”

You said it’s a hard profession to break into, but once in, you’ve been able to keep building a successful career.  What have been the keys for you? –
“I don’t claim to know it all.  But I follow my Dad’s words of wisdom from long ago.  He said, “Work hard, protect your name, and don’t ever give somebody a reason to fire you.”  So I relied on my work ethic and my dependability to get me to this point.”

Your staff seems to be a tight-knit crew.  A collection of different personalities that all seem to fit together.  How would you describe that dynamic? –
“First of all, I am a teacher first and I’ve always considered myself a teacher first.  So I wanted a staff that were great teachers first.  And Blake wanted guys with high energy.  All of the guys in my staff room know football.  Brian Early was a coordinator and he has brought his expertise to the table.  He understands the bigger picture because he’s had to know what every position on the field needs to do to make a successful unit.  Trooper has coached on the offensive side of the ball for a long time in coaching.  So we rely on him to help diagnose what the offense is thinking and trying to do against our scheme.  Plus, he played cornerback and knows that angle as well.  Allen Johnson has vast experience as well.  He was actually one of my GAs back in 1999 so we go way back.  He’s been a coordinator as well and has worked in a number of different defensive schemes that helps add a different perspective to stopping an offense in different ways.  Then you add in my base knowledge.  I coached under Gene Chizik and our defenses have some definite similarities from what I learned from him.  You add all of our experience together and you get a room full of guys prepared to bring ideas to the game plan each week.  I’m an open-minded guy.  I want everybody talking and adding input into what we are going to do.  We may say different things and come from different angles, but when we walk out of that room we are on the same page.  It can get animated and loud at times.  In fact, Blake has come by before to make sure we weren’t at each other’s throats.  But we weren’t, we were just throwing around ideas and strategies and getting passionate about what we do.  That’s what we want the defense at Arkansas State to be about; passion, confidence, and teamwork.”

Do you watch a lot of football outside of your own games? –
“With the way the game has evolved, I watch a lot of people to see what they do against teams like Oregon.  I watch what people do against our offense.  Mostly I watch teams and coaches that run what we run.  So I’ve watched every Michigan State game, Ohio State, Penn State, Auburn, and a number of other teams.  I don’t watch a lot of NFL film, but I do try to watch what the great teams do.  I look to learn anything I can, no matter how big or how small.  I want to learn.  And when I leave the office, I don’t watch football.  I need a little release and I want time for my family.  Plus, it keeps me craving that moment when I get back to the office to turn the tape back on.  It’s all about that learning process and motivation I mentioned earlier.  We just got back from visiting TCU and Baylor and getting a chance to pick up a few things here and there from Coach Patterson and Coach Briles’ staffs.  Our learning is never over.”

What are the biggest misconceptions fans have about calling the defense on game day? –
“I don’t think fans understand all of the different things that a defensive player has to read and know to make a play.  Yes, they need to get off a block and make a tackle, but with all of the changes to the rules in recent years, a defensive player has to know not only what the offense is showing him, but then when he analyzes that and gets to the point of contact, he has to make the tackle within the rules of contact.  It’s a lot to process in a matter of seconds.  From a defensive coaching perspective you have to prepare for everything the other team is capable of running.  For the most part an offense just prepares to run what they always run, with tweaks being made to adjust to the defense, but essentially they’re going to run their core plays.  However, we had games this past season where the team added plays and formations into their game plan that they’ve never shown before.  So we have to adjust in the moment of the game.  I think that’s why the scores are so high these days.  I mean, take Alabama for instance.  Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are outstanding defensive minds, and they have the best athletes in football.  Yet, they’ve been giving up big numbers in recent years too.  There’s a difference between calling an offense and calling a defense.  Most people just look at the scoreboard.  It’s just how we’re raised.  Everybody, regardless of the sport, wants to be the one who scores to win.  Of course, somewhere along the line there you have to keep somebody from scoring in order to win.”

How has the pace you mentioned at which offenses operate today changed what you do on defense? –
“I think defenses are having to become simpler.  We’re having to simplify what we scheme and what we get our guys to key on.  They’re seeing different schemes every week so you need simplify and streamline your strategies.  We try to watch every game we can get on the opponents, but you can’t run every play they run in practice.  So you have to really prioritize and break it down to what they can and can’t do against our scheme.  Then you have to be ready for the unexpected.”

What are the challenges in complimenting a fast-paced offense where they can score in one play, but they can also go 3-and-out in less than a minute? –
“It can be feast or famine.  The days of being concerned with yards given up may be over.  It’s about limiting the score in relation to what your offense can score.  I mean, we played 100 more plays than any other defense in our league last season.  That’s another whole game worth of plays that we were on the field.  Arkansas averaged about 50-something plays a game on defense.  We’re practically playing two games for every game they play.  And when you have depth problems, and a lot of your guys are on special teams as well, it can be tough.  So our goal moving forward needs to be focused on keeping teams out of the red zone and when they reach the red zone, holding them to field goals.  We’re confident in our offense’s ability to score touchdowns.  So if we’re scoring 6, we need to be holding them to 3 to win.  That’s the key in this fast-paced brand of football.”

Looking back at year one in Jonesboro, how would you assess the challenges and the successes that your defense experienced? –
“From a challenge perspective, we lacked personnel which meant we had very little depth.  We were very young and we couldn’t stay healthy which was critical down the stretch.  I felt we were able to do some great things as well.  We were in the Top 30 in the nation on 3rd downs.  We led the league in defensive touchdowns, sacks and takeaways.  What hurt us were explosive plays.  That’s an area we need to focus on moving forward.  As a whole we made progress in some areas during the season, but we are not satisfied.”

How many games were you actually able to field the starting line-up you had on the board coming out of last year’s spring practices? –
“There were only two weeks where we were actually able to field the same 11 guys in consecutive weeks.  That’s not ideal.”

This recruiting cycle really seemed to focus on defense, particularly with the early enrollees.  What are your early evaluations on those guys? –
“I think every one of our junior college guys are hits.  There’s not a single miss with them.  The high school guys will prove their worth in the fall camp.  But I think these early guys will make a dramatic impact on game day.  We look so much different as a unit than we did when we arrived in Jonesboro.  We look so much different as a unit than we did after the bowl game.  Each signing period has improved our situation.  I think we’ve addressed some of our personnel needs.  We have addressed a major need on the defensive line.  We’ve added some secondary guys that will help us out this year at safety.  We need some more depth at linebacker and in the secondary.  The goal is to get to the point where there isn’t much of a difference between our 1’s and our 2’s.  We’re building towards that in recruiting and we will keep doing that with each class.”

What are your goals heading into spring practice? –
“Player development.  We need to get better every day.  We need to improve our discipline and become a very disciplined defense.  When I say discipline, I mean eliminating penalties, having better stances, better communication, better alignments, just a whole host of things.  So I’m using that word discipline in a broad way.  That’s where our focus has been since January 5th as we head into these practices.”

You guys open up with two huge games next season against USC and Missouri.  When does the game prep start for those opponents? –
“We will a little bit this spring.  But right now I’m focused on working on Arkansas State and getting this team better on the field.  I want the best prepared unit when we board that plane to LA.  So right now, it’s all about focusing on what we can do to get better every day.”

Do those type of games excite you? –
“They’re exciting no doubt, but to me it’s just another game.  It just is to me.  I’ve been in games we weren’t supposed to win and we won.  So I think it’s very exciting for fans and the players.  Our job is to keep the players ready and also to keep their emotions in check.  It truly is a game by game approach.  Focus on what’s in front of you that day.”

Who are the players on defense you’re counting on to step up and lead this defense next season? –
“That’s a great question.  There are guys we think have the capability to do that.  It hasn’t happened yet, but we’ve challenged the guys we have in mind.  But you can’t make them take over that role.  They have to want that role and take it.  I hope we see it in spring ball and those guys emerge in order to lead this defense in practice and heading into summer workouts.  It will be crucial to our goals and our success.”

What do you want from an attitude perspective from this defense in 2015? –
“I want a group that expects to win.  I want them to get on the bus or the plane and expect to win.  That means you have confidence in everything you’re doing.  That means you arrive to the field with a swagger.  We want to get that swagger this spring and play hard-nosed Arkansas State football this fall.”