Well, they're better. Maybe just experience. We'vre played some pretty good people. When you play good people, like Miami, like Notre Dame, now we see how good Maryland is, and how good Iowa State is. I think maybe when you play good people like that, as the season goes, you have a chance to get better. Whereas if you're playing inferior people, you're fooling yourself the whole time. You can fool yourself the whole time. That might be one reason. Plus, they've stayed pretty healthy.
Offense -- we took a chance. We didn't really have much of a choice. We did have one choice. You start a new center -- really it was about Thursday, we began to realize (Antoine) Mirambeau might not be able to play. We thought if we held him out all week he'd be ready by the end of the week. Thursday he went home to have a medical check from his doctor, I think. He told him when he got through examining, he said 'go play.' We had a choice there to make. We still felt like it would be best to go with (David) Castillo at center. Then you had an inexperienced guard next to him. You had no choice. Montrae (Holland) might have a chance to get back next week. We've kind of lost the middle of our offensive line, which was really one of our strengths. The good news is, those guys are getting experience. They'll be the guys next year that you'll be looking to.
Then of course at tailback, we could have started Nick (Maddox), and he would have loved it. I don't know if it would have been best. We thought it would have been best to start these other guys, and then if they couldn't do it, bringing him in would be a bigger lift than to start him and he get hurt and then bring in inexperience and question marks. That's the way we approached it, and we got by with it. We got by. We survived it. I'm sure we had some busted assignments inside, and some busted executions, where people are stepping on each other's feet in there. I saw some quarterbacks getting tripped down, and stuff like that. We didn't pick up blitzes as we should have at times, things like that. Anyway, we got by with it.
About the defense, it seems like a different unit since the middle of the Wake Forest game. Are they playing with more enthusiasm, more confidence?
It really is. I don't know the answers either. It's the same boys, the same coaches. What did happen? Something, you just wonder what it is. Something made them turn it on. You say 'well. maybe you quit playing all those subs.' No, we're still playing as as many people as we've always played. It couldn't come at a better time. It's so importsant. Defense is just so important.
Stanford Samuels has had as big an individual turnaround as any player on your team. How impressive is his play of late?
Isn't that the truth? Here's a guy -- the one thing you didn't want Notre Dame to have is the lead. That's the one thing you didn't want them to have. Because they were not a come-from-behind football team. They were, but they came from behind defensively. They'd intercept a pass and run it for a touchdown, pick up a fumble and run for a touchdown. You sure didn't want them in the lead, where they could protect a lead. And then on the very first play of the game, you give up a touchdown. Not all of that was his fault, by the way. He was supposed to get some help back in the middle there. It puts him kind of on the list. Then, after that, he missed the next game. Then he comes back. Last night, I thought he covered pretty doggone good again.
Can you remember a player turning it around like he has?
I can't put my finger on anything special. If I did a lot of thinking I might could. I imagine it's pretty prevalent in football. It happens somewhere along -- a guy turns it around and gets the feel of it, learns the importance of not letting somebody have a deep one. I guess it comes through experience.
Are you surprised to see N.C. State lose their last three games?
Yes. Of course, the good sign for them is they probably could have won all three of them. It's like us against Miami. We could have won that as easily as we lost it. Louisville we could have won as easily as we lost. Maryland, then yesterday to Virginia, and Tech -- they're all games they could have won as easily. There is no doubt in my mind the conference is getting better. There is simply no doubt in my mind. I think it shows when the conference plays out of conference.
Last year, N.C. State had a great gameplan, moving the ball downfield with short passes. Defensively, how do you stop that kind of attack?
It is very tough. I didn't get to see the last drive that North Carolina State made on Virginia yesterday. When we went out to work out, Virginia had just fumbled on North Carolina State's 15 or 20-yard line. If they could have got that one, they would have had it wrapped. But they fumbled, and I had to leave. They drove the rest of the game -- eight minutes or seven minutes -- down to the goal line. That's the thing that scares you the most. That's the thing that hurt us last year against N.C. State. We played N.C. State last year, and they couldn't stop us and we couldn't stop them. It was kind of who had it last. Although we had it last, we didn't run out of downs, we ran out of time. We had just gone ahead of them with maybe nine or ten minutes to go, and they took an eight minute drive, and we couldn't get the ball. They got in there, and you ain't got much time to come back. That's what scares me about them. This quarterback is about as fine a possession passer as you'll find. I've noticed this about him ever since he started playing -- I've never seen a quarterback that is more aware of what's going on around him. If I've ever seen a player being like a coach on the field, it's him. All you do is watch him play and watch him place guys. If somebody gets lined up wrong, he gets over there and get him. 'Get over here.' He's sees what's happening. He's a coach on the doggone field right there. He's very accurate. He's got a real quick delivery. It's an odd type of delivery. I'll bet it scares some pros off. I say that -- it might not. It wouldn't scare me all that much. He is so accurate and quick on his decisions. They'll flood areas, put three guys out there, and then kind of slide through an opening. This guy will find the right guy and put the ball on him.
Is the key to put pressure on him?
It sure would be nice. There's nothing that helps pass coverage better than pressure. It sure would be nice if you could get some pressure on him. They've got a good package. That little tailback they've got, the freshman back that's 225 pounds or more, he is really the real deal. They're able to use him with draws to kind of keep pressure off of him. They must have hit him about ten times yesterday with passes -- I'm not sure, just from what I saw in the game.
Is there any chance that the defensive play is linked to the quarterback change? Those guys seemed to really want that change to be made, and since it happened, they've stepped it up a little since it happened.
Well, the timing looks it, doesn't it. The timing looks it. I wouldn't dare say how much bearing it would have on it.
How about your defensive line? You're starting to be more consistent with pressure.
They're playing better. They've been fairly successful at stopping the run. That's what everybody's defense is built that way, to stop the run and make you throw. What everybody's trying to do is first down, to stop your run and get second and ten, second and nine -- second and long. You can put that fifth defensive back in there and play pass defense, knowing that you've got to throw the doggone ball. We've been doing a pretty good job on that, and that is a key to our defense, as well as most defenses.
Your young defenders have been playing an awful lot. Are they pushing the starters?
I don't know if they're pushing. All you want out of them is no dropoff when they go in. That's what you'd like. You can rest the other guys and get no dropoff. Are they pushing them for the starting job? I don't think so. It'd be nice if they were. It'd be a good sign if they were. You look at the film and you see those freshman making plays all across the field. It's a very good sign.
How different is that from last year, when Mickey was limited in his ability to sub younger guys in there?
We did not sub as much. We were not able to sub as much last year. We're able to sub more, stay more fresh, and that helps you in the fourth quarter.
How important is it for the program that you're in a position to reclaim the ACC title?
Very important that we got back into the fight, because I don't think our team or staff ever accepted the fact that its very important to win your conference. If you don't win the conference -- if beat Florida and Miami, and don't win your conference, you don't go BCS bowl. I'm not saying I'd rather lose those two and win the conference -- I'd still rather beat those two than anybody out there, because they're usually top-10 teams. But it sure shows you the importance of winning your conference. I think what we went through last year, and the threat of this year -- I think we learned that that's very important.
Are you saying that you don't think everybody had the same focus on the ACC?
I don't think there's a guy in garnet and gold in the United States that felt it was that important. It's Florida and Miami. It's the state championship. When we set our goals every year, winning the conference was not number one. It was nearly winning the state championship's number one, because if you win that, youre going to win everything. That's the way we looked at it. It's still probably pretty true. If you're good enough to beat Miami and Florida, you're going to be good enough to beat anybody else you play. Again, I think the conference championship means more. Let's put it this way. Six years ago, if we won the conference championship, the attitude of the alumni and fans would have been 'well, so what?' I don't think that's true any more. It used to be 'so what?' Now, it's 'thank goodness.'
How much better is this year's team than last year's?
We're better. There's no doubt about it. I thought we should be better -- we had nearly everybody back. We had the offensive line returning. That was, I thought, nearly the biggest plus we had coming into this year -- those five offensive linemen. You lost one of them before the season even started. Milford Brown was ruled ineligible. You lose him, and so then you stretch yourself. You put in another guy, who does a real good job. Then you lose your center and your guard, and all of sudden that power, that strength that you had, some of that's gone. But because of that, we are better than we were a year ago.
Can you talk about your early memories of Chuck Amato? How did you come to the decision to hire him?
I remember Chuck when he was playing football at N.C. State. The first Amato I ran into was his older brother, who was playing at North Carolina State. I was coaching here at Florida State as an assistant coach. Back in those days, assistant coaches scouted. We used to go scout -- when I came here as an assistant, each coach had two teams. Mine were N.C. State and Virginia Tech. Those were the two teams I had to scout. So I became very familiar with N.C. State. I think Chuck's older brother was playing at that time. I think I can remember Chuck when he was about a freshman, from Eastern Pennsylvania. I recruited up there, up in Bethlehem, Allentown. Eastern's about 30 miles north of Allentown. I recruited up there, so I heard of the Amatos, knew of the Amatos. That's the first time I knew Chuck.
Then I go to West Virginia for 10 years. We didn't play N.C. State. But I would run into him recruiting. After he graduated, he came back to N.C. State as a graduate assistant. When I would get over to Eastern Pennsylvania recruiting -- of course you could go out all the time back in those days -- when I would get over around Allentown, Bethlehem, Philadelphia, in the Saucon Valley, up through there, Chuck was always there. That's where he was raised. He was a good recruiter, getting kids out of there. I come to Florida State. Mickey came in '84, so Chuck might have come the year before him (actually 1982). Chuck was a good friend of Jack Stanton, who was our defensive coordinator. Jack was another North Carolina State guy, so he and Chuck had been pretty close. Chuck, when he was in Arizona, used to come over to Florida State and watch us, like we do. We send coaches out in the spring to watch other schools practice, and see what they're doing. You can't go to schools you play -- they won't let you. But schools you don't play. Just like when Oklahoma beat us, we went out and visited with the Oklahoma coaches the next year to try to learn what they're doing. Chuck would come over and visit, and I got to spend some time with him when he was visiting. We lost a coach (defensive line coach Bill Shaw). Usually, if I lose a defensive coach, I will consult with the defensive staff, especially the coordinator, to see if he has anybody that he feels like he can work real good with that will fit in real good. I'm sure Jack recommended Chuck, and I had met Chuck and liked him. I figured, he's living out there in the West, he was raised in the East, he'd probably be happy to come back home. We offered him a job and he came in here.
What was your read on the John Mackovic situation in Arizona?
I don't know what happened out there. It's a sign of the times, nowadays. You'd better be careful what you say to these boys. I don't know what all he said. I don't know what was said. I heard 'verbal abuse.' Thirty years ago, we didn't know what that was. You just did it anyway. You say what you want to say. It's so politically correct nowadays, you'd better be politically correct what you say, or you'll get yourself embarassed. I didn't hear any details of what was said.
Back to Amato, last year he seemed to know the moves you were going to make. Is that right?
He should. He's been here 18 years, with our system, with our defensive coordinator. He should know everything Mickey's thinking.
Is there a danger that that could still be a problem?
I'm sure they'll try to take advantage of everything that they can that they know about him. Remember, we know what they did last year, too. We know a little bit more, too. He's going to try -- he'll recall things that he knows he can count on. You hope that we learn some things. We know how he's going to attack us.
Do you talk to him during the season?
About once a week. Chuck's just been very close to us. Close to the kids. He knows he's well-respected.
What's the conversation like?
Congratulations, whatever's happening.
Do you feel better prepared to face that type of offense, because you've seen so many teams adopt the same formula they used last season?
The thing he's done better this year is added a better running game with it. It tries to keep your mind off of those other little things he does. He's running the ball better. The offensive line is better. And those receivers are just catching the ball excellent.
What was Chuck's primary characteristic? What sticks out about Chuck in your mind?
I thought his analytical mind was excellent. He could take film and analyze it and see a mistake and be able to capitalize on it. He was very good at that. He was very thorough. A hard worker, that you couldn't assign him enough duties to suit him. He wanted more.
He's running his program entirely differently from the way you run yours, especially as it comes to media access. Does that surprise you? Did you think he would be more influenced by what you do here?
I don't know that much about what he's doing. You say he's different, but I don't know what that is. I know this -- he's his own man. Chuck's going to do what he thinks has to be done. Chuck's going to coach with me, and he's going to pick up some things he likes -- not all. He's going to coach with Lou Holtz, he's going to pick up some things he likes. He's going to coach with Larry Smith out at Arizona, pick up some things he likes. Then he's going to form his opinions, and that's what he's going to do.
His opinions tend to be pretty strong, right?
Yes. Pretty strong. We always knew him as the devil's advocate. We'd be sitting around a staff meeting, all the coaches. We'd reach a plan, and ol' Chuck says, 'Let me be the devil's advocate. What if this happens, and that happens?' And everybody would say, 'Ooh -- I hadn't thought about that!' You need one of those on your staff to double-check yourself to be sure you're doing what everybody thinks you ought to be doing. I'll always remember him for that.
Who has that role now?
Probably Joe Kines. Probably more like that. It seems like there's always somebody that'll give you the other side of it. Even if everybody agrees, it's nice to know what if. If I had a trivia question for my coaches, and I asked 'who is known as the devil's advocate?' They'd know the answer to that. It'd be Chuck -- unanimously. I tell you, he had a lot of compassion, too. I'll never forget, back it must have been ten years ago, eight years ago -- Mickey Andrews' daddy died. I remember when Chuck lost his dad, lost his mother. You know how close those Italians are, boy -- they're family close. That just killed Chuck. When Mickey Andrews lost his daddy, we had a staff meeting and I remember Chuck sitting down at that table and crying. Just crying. That showed me what he's got here (pointing to his chest).
Do you think you have the kind of talent in the program where the national title is a possibility in the next few years?
You know, we're close. It's amazing. Sometimes you're only one player away. And we're probably that close. Also, you'd have to say there's probably 15 teams in the country same way, that are that close. The team that has been able to dominate is dadgum Miami. They've got a lot of replacing to do next year. In 2000, we were pretty doggone good. Then we lost everybody. In 2001, we dropped off. We're a little bit better this year, although our record has not shown it. It's going to be interesting how much Miami can do, losing that quarterback, losing those defensive linemen they lose. They might have some other guys waiting to fill right in. Still, they'll be inexperienced.
Did (Orange Bowl representative) Les Pantin congratulate you and tell you he's not inviting you to the Orange Bowl?
You know, Les Pantin is one of the first alumni boosters that I met when I came to Florida State. Les Pantin is Cuban, graduated from Florida State. When I came here in 1976, we were after two players down in Miami. When I came here, I'll bet you I hadn't been here two weeks, I went down to Miami to visit those two prospects, and somebody had told me about Les Pantin. He'll help you. Les was single at the time, and so I called him. I must have spent two weeks at least in Miami, and I stayed with Les at his apartment. He's always been my favorite.
Did you get those two guys you were recruiting?
No. One of them went to Oklahoma, and the other one went to Illinois.
Are you concerned by Xavier Beitia's struggles?
He doesn't show lack of confidence. That's the thing I like about him.
Why did you go for two late in the game?
I wish I hadn't. I've had that brought to my attention so much lately that when we met with our staff Friday to go over the game plan, I said, 'who's got that dadgum two-point chart.?' It's a chart that says go for it or don't go for it. It's got the score. But that chart's wrong a lot of times, you know? Well, they've got it upstairs. I said, 'Don't let that thing slip up. I've been getting questions about that every week!' When they decided to go for two, I'd still rather go for one. I'd rather have the score 27-7, the possibility of 26. Late in the ballgame, you can see where it could be important, because you can lose 'em going for two just as easy as you can go for one and get it. That did come up.
Thomas Clayton has had trouble with fumbling. How much does that trouble you?
That was the thing that concerned us the most going into that game, was would he hold onto the ball. He had fumbled some in practice. He fumbled some in the Virginia game, where he was fixing to score and fumbled. We were concerned about that. We worked on it and worked on it and worked on it. I gave him a long speech before the game about fumbling. Sometimes that don't work. That plants the seed up there. I told him the story of how Sammie Smith, the first year he came in here, fumbled the football, and we ended up redshirting that great back. I was hoping that'd get the message out there. A freshman -- you nearly expect him to fumble. It's a different intensity than there was in high school. Different pressure. He's got to work his way out of that. You cannot play a fumbler. You simply cannot play nobody that fumbles the ball, pro football or college football.
You did put him back in the game after his fumble, and he played pretty well, right?
That's the great learning experience that you get in football. I hope that he really learned something from that. It'd be good if he did.
Do you expect everyone to blitz you for the rest of the year?
We got a lot of blitzes yesterday. Yesterday, they would not blitz until we got down there close. Then they'd blitz with the corners, and dadgummit, we could not -- I messed our folks up more than anybody. I get these letters all the time, 'why don't you call plays, why don't you do this.' It really messes these guys up. I must have called two or three things yesterday that just got smeared. They kept corner blitzing, and I called a couple of plays that ran right into the corner blitz. I would think, if people are successful against you doing something, the next team will copy it. Didn't I see North Carolina run an option the other night?
How good does it feel when your second-string quarterback comes in and hits a 52-yarder on his first play?
I'm just so glad to see that. That's just so good for him. He needed a boost. I was sure glad to see that. He's got to be ready all the time. You never know when a guy's going to go down in front of you.
How has Chris dealt with it?
He's handled it good, except that you never know what's going on inside their head. Outside, he's handled it darned good. Around me he's handled it good. It's very difficult. Of course, I try to tell him. I tried to set him up for this. One of the first lessons I told 'em, back in August, was (Drew) Bledsoe and (Tom) Brady. Bledsoe, the highest-paid quarterback in professional football, goes down, they put the fourth-stringer in, and they can't get him out of there. You've got the highest-paid quarterback in the country sitting on the bench, and never griped, never complained. I tried to use that as an example to our players before the season even started. It always can happen.
You had mentioned that you were recruiting in Eastern Pennsylvania. I would think most of those kids wouldn't be used to a Southern accent and everything else. How do you think you went over?
I went over about like Sherman did when he went through Atlanta. Same deal. We got to Kendra -- Danny Kendra is from Allentown, played quarterback at West Virginia for me. His son played down here -- the other Kendra. I recruited quite a few kids out of Eastern Pennsylvania. I spoke at a lot of banquets up there, and they'd laugh at me for the way I talked. That gets your foot in the door too, when people laugh at you.
It must be sort of the same thing Southern kids had to adjust to with Chuck Amato, right?
That's not a problem. Joe Paterno comes down here and gets players. The coach at Notre Dame comes down here and gets players. The coach at Michigan comes down here and gets players. It's just kids adapt pretty good.
How intrigued would you be with a bowl matchup against Mark Richt and Georgia?
I really don't care. You hate to say one over the other, because you don't know who you're going to catch. If that occurs, I hope we can win enough games to deserve to be there. I know what the bowls would be afraid of -- an 11-1 team going against somebody that's lost four or five games. Whatever we do, I hope we can win enough games to deserve to be there. Number one, I wish we could win the conference, where you could get a BCS bowl. But gee, it sure would be nice to get there with a good record.