Visit With Walt Bell

Warmer weather has arrived meaning it must finally be spring. The Red Wolves are deep into their spring practice schedule and are quickly approaching the finish of that with their spring game. Before that comes we caught up with the Red Wolves’ Offensive Coordinator, Walt Bell, and got his perspective on past, present, and future.

How has the spring gone so far? – “Well, you set your goals in the spring.  You try to block out the fact that regardless of how good you are on offense, you can’t see it in the spring.  During the season you have statistics to gauge that, but in the spring you’re playing guys in different positions, you’re running plays into bad looks; all in the effort to really teach a play, not scheme against a defense.  The goal is just different because you’re trying to teach, not win.  So it’s tough because you feel like you’re awful in the spring.  It’s hard to judge what success is during the spring.  Which brings you back to your original goals of finding out what your depth chart will look like heading into the offseason, are you playing better from a technique perspective, and are guys showing improvements in their development.”

How would you describe your first season at Arkansas State? – “First and foremost, we missed our goal of being the best we can be.  Is that something that isn’t attainable in your first season?  Maybe, but that doesn’t make it feel better.  If you’re second best, then you didn’t reach your goal.  We put up great statistics but at the end of the day, the statistics that matter most are wins and losses and 7-6 did not make us happy.  We need more games where we are at least one point better than the other team, period.  We accomplished a lot in the face of a lot of adversity with depth and injuries, so that can’t be discounted by any means.  However, we have higher goals and aspirations for this program and we haven’t reached those yet.”

How would you assess your first season as an offensive coordinator? – “That’s a question where there isn’t a real finite answer.  But I’ll say this, I better be better next year, and better the year after that, and so on.  Was it my first year in that position?  Yes.  What’s the only way to get good at something?  Fail continuously until you cease to fail.  We did some great things offensively but there’s room for improvement.  We can improve the plan, teaching the plan, and executing the plan.  After knowing the guys for a year now I can improve the things outside the white lines like motivational tactics, knowing how to work with the personalities on the team and just having a greater knowledge of the intangibles around the guys on the offensive side of the ball.  That’s what is tough about spring.  I won’t know if I’ve done a better job until we start playing games next season and the wins start piling up.”

Coaches give players specific things to work on in the offseason.  What did you give yourself to work on in the offseason? – “From a schematic standpoint, I want to refine the things that we do.  I wanted to analyze everything and eliminate what we don’t need in order to make us more succinct in everything we run.  This year is different from last spring because last year was all about just finding who could do what and where our players fit into the system.  We were installing what our effort level needed to be.  We were installing what our mindset needed to be.  The culture had to be created first.  Now it’s about refining the system because you know what you’re working with and what those pieces look like.  We know who does what well and what they can handle.  It’s our job to put them in positions to succeed by putting them in situations to do what they do well.  Fredi is a great example.  In those first couple of games I probably asked him to do things that he didn’t do well.  He and I really had to grow together early on in the season; and then in those last 7-8 games of the season, he was the best quarterback in the league.  A lot of that was me having to grow too in figuring out what he did really well and what he didn’t do well.  So my focus has been on becoming succinct in what our guys do well.  And you know I’m a ball nerd, so there isn’t a team in this country that moves the ball well that I haven’t been studying every day in watching film.  Learning never stops.  Refining your scheme and finding different ways to do what you do well never stops.”

What did the offense do last year that you were most proud of in your eyes? – “I was proud of our effort level.  I was proud of how physical we were on the perimeter in how hard our wide-outs blocked.  I was proud with how we tackled adversity in terms of injuries and depth.  Guys stepped up when that adversity hit.  Then, by the end of the year, I was proud of how well we were playing at the quarterback position.”

What frustrated you most about the offense last season? – “Execution was frustrating in certain areas.  Our throw-catch execution was poor.  What I mean by that is getting the ball delivered in better spots with the receiver, but it also means catching those balls too and running the route correctly.  Some of that is needing to get more reps.  Some of that is the fact that our quarterback position was developing throughout the season so it got better as the year went on.  In our offense we need to have a higher completion percentage than what we turned in.  We were in the low 60% range and we need to be about 70%.  It was decent, but decent isn’t good enough in order to reach our potential and intent with our system.  The other frustrating factor was being able to run the ball effectively when we needed it most.  We have put a lot of focus on that this spring and having the bodies we have now on the line and having guys healthy should facilitate that in the fall.  It’s developing the mentality and physicality to do better in that area so that we are able to run the ball when we’re put in those positions.”

What game did you feel you came as close to perfection as possible, and then what game has been hard to forget this offseason? – “The Georgia State game was very close to what we want to see.  Schematically the plan was solid and the execution was great.  We were one dropped ball and a turnover away from scoring on every possession we had, which to me would have been perfection.  And then the Appalachian State game was as miserable as I’ve ever been.  We had the ball, up 13-0, with a 3rd-and-1.  We get that first down and finish out the drive we’re looking at being up 20-0 and possibly bruising the morale of the other team.  Instead, we didn’t get the 1st down and now they go and score and it’s a ball game.”

This spring has been different than last year in that guys have been in the system for a year now.  Has that allowed you to run the practices differently than you did last year?  – “Yes it has, specifically in the meeting room.  Last year you were working hard on just making sure the guys knew where to line up and where they needed run on each play.  Now you spend more time on details in how to refine what we’re doing and become more succinct as I mentioned earlier.  It’s going from teaching the A, B, C’s to being able to teach them the X, Y, Z’s.  You can be a better teacher because the guys know more now so you can get deeper in instruction.”

How would you compare Fredi last spring to Fredi today? – “Not even close.  Completely different player.  Completely different understanding of our system.  Our focus with him now is to sharpen the tools that aren’t so sharp, improving his deficiencies, and maintaining the things he does well.  He already had great tools but now we’re more into expanding his toolbox.”

What have you challenged him to do in sharpening those tools? – “We’ve pushed him to perfect his craft.  Last year it was just hoping to find completions.  It was working on getting his eyes and decision-making skills right.  Well now we don’t have to worry about where his eyes are and where he’s throwing the ball.  What we’re working on now is making the completions more efficient.  Turning small gains into 8-10yd gains.  Turning 10yd gains into touchdowns, all by putting the ball in a better position for the receiver to make a play with the ball.  We want him to make those decisions that much quicker, throw the ball that much better, and lead this offense even higher.”

With him going down late with an injury now, the focus turns to Birse and Tabary.  Where are they in their development? – “Those guys have both made a lot of improvement but have a long way to go.  They know it too and have competed well.  I’m proud of the progress James has made mentally and moving along fast in his learning.  And with Cam, he’s done a fantastic job developing his body and his movement.  All 3 guys understand what we’re trying to do and that’s been important this spring.  Now it’s trying to get those guys enough reps to put them in a better position to succeed.”

Where are those two in their development compared to where Fredi was last spring? – “They are both better than Fredi was last spring but Fredi is also exponentially better than he was last spring.  The biggest thing with those two will be figuring out who minimizes the risk the best.  It’s not all about getting the most completions, but more about making the least amount of mistakes and protecting the ball.  That’s where we start in determining who becomes the number two.”

The team looks healthy this spring.  How has that helped the offense make progress this spring? – “Having enough linemen to practice has been huge.  That has allowed us to be able to work on the run game I discussed before with more physicality to our reps.  We have more guys from a depth perspective which has created more competition and that translates to getting better reps and effort.”

The defense was helped with some immediate impact guys arriving on campus this spring.  Has the offense gotten some help as well? – “Absolutely.  Brandon Berg and Joe Bacchus are competing for starting roles and at the very least they will provide, not just depth, but outstanding depth for our team.”

Who has surprised you the most this spring? – “Having a healthy Daniel Keith has been huge.  He is going to be as good as we thought he was before he went down with an injury last season against Tennessee.  The continued maturation of the guys on the line has been awesome to see.  Warren Leaphart is going to be an outstanding player in the future.  His physical gifts are ridiculous.  Now he understands the system and the confidence level has improved his execution level.  So to watch him improve has been great.”

What player we haven’t heard from before is set to have a break-out season this fall? – “I think Colton Jackson can really be one of the best linemen in the league.  He is the one I think will be really special this year.  The other factor is health.  If some of our playmakers you know well are actually healthy this year, then they can do great things.”

What does a successful season in the fall look like to you? – “A bunch of wins.”

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