VV.com Exclusive: Nick Holt

He's been rebuilding the Vandal football team from ground zero. For the first time in his tenure, with what is shaping up to be another solid recruiting class, his young team is filling out the depth chart. Idaho Head Football Coach Nick Holt took a few minutes to sit down with Larry Johnson and discuss what went right in 2005, and what didn't, and what he plans to do to continue the rebuilding effort.

The following interview was actually conducted shortly before the Christmas holidays. The staff of VandalVenue.com would like to take this opportunity to thank Coach Holt for spending a few minutes with Larry Johnson to discuss his assessment of last year's team, and what needs to be done to keep the rebuilding process going.

LJ: Thanks for taking the time…Question No. 1: In general terms, what do you feel most pleased about the 2005 season?

NH: "I thought we played, for the most part, hard in every game, and that we competed and played with great effort. I think we're just still a recruiting class or two away from being very competitive in our conference. There were a couple of games that we should have definitely won…UNLV [among others]. I thought Louisiana Tech was a game we could have played better in spots and made it a better game even though we came close at the end…even Boise State. I think that score is not indicative of how close that game really was. It just got out of hand at the end there. There was really only one game that I thought we didn't play with the kind of effort we need...it was just kind of a weird game, and that was Nevada Reno… where we just weren't on all cylinders. I think the best thing [is that] we were a lot more competitive this year than we were last year, and it was no doubt a harder schedule than our first year; so I feel good about some things. We had just tons of injuries, a lot of setbacks, and we just kept battling and battling. We didn't complain as a staff, and the kids didn't complain. We just kept moving forward, and we continued to get better in a lot of places. We had no running game to speak of, and we had to find ways to move the ball, and we did a decent a job with that…moving Tracy Ford to running back and doing some nice things at the end of the year. It's something we can build on. I think we learned how to practice now. Our kids know our system, how we do things, and we've just got to keep plugging in more talent, and I think we were fortunate. We red shirted a bunch of guys who probably could have played for us and helped us out, but we didn't… especially some good young offensive linemen…and I think we're going to be better for it in the long run. I think I'm most pleased about how we competed and how we played … our physicalness. We battled and competed for four quarters even when we were down a couple of times…and came back to make games close…and I think we're just a couple of players away."

LJ: What were you most frustrated with about the season?

NH: "Lack of a running game. There were times when I thought we blocked pretty well and had holes and had openings, and I just was sometimes frustrated with not getting the yardage we needed in short yardage situations…at times…and just overall our run game…because we spent an enormous amount of time on it and we're committed to it. It just was disappointing that we didn't run the ball better. I know exactly why, but it was still disappointing. I was disappointed in a couple of big plays on defense, a couple of the long balls…Louisiana Tech: I was disappointed…because that game should not have been what it was: the outcome…and we just had some balls go over our heads. That shouldn't happen. Maybe that was just being "out-athleted" at those spots. But to answer your question…just disappointed with the injuries at positions where we could not afford to be decimated, and that was offensive line and our tight end…just a lack of a running game."

LJ: How would you assess your defense in general terms?

NH: I thought at times we played really good defense, and I thought our kids played with confidence. I thought they ran to the ball pretty well, played hard. I'm really enthused about a lot of things. I didn't think we rushed the passer as well as we needed to from our front four. We blitzed and we had some production out of some of our blitz packages and things like that. For the most part, except for that Nevada game, I thought our defense played really hard and tenaciously and flew around to the ball. We got a lot of guys to the ball and gang tackled for the most part. I think we'll just keep getting better and better. The more we stay within the system, which we will. We will get [there] with our recruiting. We've got to keep on recruiting defensive linemen. We have some good defensive linemen. I thought Charles Campbell played well, his first year after junior college. Ben Alexander did some really good things. Josh Shaw, a true freshman played, I think, outstanding football for a true freshman in our conference. Those three guys we can build upon. Ryan Davis came in here and played really well as a junior college transfer. He was probably our best defensive lineman all around. We've just got to get more production in the sack category with our guys. There were a lot of times we were around the quarterback and had him scrambling. We've got to finish. We need some help there. We need to do a good job recruiting a couple more kids to fill in that spot. That's where it all starts…your defensive front…and I thought they played a lot better than a year ago. The stats really don't tell the story. We're better in almost every category but not by a large margin from our first year, but we're playing a lot better people. At times I thought we played really, really good defense. We'll be more consistent and even better with some new people, plugging in some new guys. I like how they played for the most part."

LJ: What are three areas where you felt Idaho made good progress during the course of 2005?

NH: "Our passing game. Our kicking game…even though at times it broke down. I think our kickers did a great job, especially Michael Barrow obviously being all conference. I thought he did really a nice job. T.J. Conley was doing really solid until he got hurt, and that really hurt our punt team, because Mike (Barrow) then had to do all the chores, and that's hard on a guy. I was really happy with our kicking game up until the Fresno State game, and then we just had some breakdowns and things like that. Then we lost our long snapper Joel Jones, in the Fresno State game, to a broken finger. Our passing game was improved, our kicking game for the most part was vastly improved, and I think our run defense was vastly improved. Statistically some of those things don't jump out at you as being vastly improved, but if you go back and watch the film…the people we were playing against…we were a lot better in that department."

LJ: Similarly, what are three of your biggest areas to improve in 2006?

NH: "We need to definitely improve our running game…I think we will, and a lot of that is getting some guys healthy. No question. I think we need to improve our kicking game, and that comes with having better athletes out there, or more athletes out there, and I think, hopefully, we'll get that done."

LJ: Are you referring to special teams?

NH: "Special teams, yes. So our running game, the play of our special teams, and the continued improvement of our rush defense."

LJ: Against BSU, Idaho gave up 70 points; against Nevada 65; against Fresno 49. What needs to change defensively to keep from giving up this many points?

NH: "First of all, we can't turn over the ball. Against Boise and Nevada we threw some interceptions…we fumbled the ball…and a couple of interceptions led to touchdowns, so that drives the score up. We fumbled the ball going in for a score against Nevada and they returned it for a touchdown; so that's why that game got out of hand. What happened was we turned the ball over too much in those games, and that drove the score up. By the same token, we gave up too many big plays. Boise State: a couple of times just outran us, got on the edge on a couple of their sweeps and outran us. We can't have that. A lot of short fields in those games…meaning 3-and-outs on offense…then having to punt. Those three teams probably, if you look at the drive charts, had just tremendous field position the whole game. That's due to poor special teams play, not moving the ball very effectively on offense at time, and giving up the big play on defense. It comes down, really, to turnovers…turnovers, and some special teams play. We've got to work on that stuff."

LJ: Obviously a lot can change between now and the start of next season, but at the moment who are your top six linebackers heading into spring camp?

NH: "Well, stating the obvious we lose a very productive player in Cole Snyder, okay? So we've got to find a middle linebacker. Who is that going to be? I don't know. We're hoping Adam Shamion call fill in that spot or Robert DavisJaron Williams. Of those three, we've got to find a good middle linebacker. The other two spots I think we're going to be okay. David Vobora is back and he played half the time with Mike Anderson at the Will linebacker spot. Our Sam was Josh Bousman. In two of the three positions guys are back who played a lot of football for us. Basically two starters are back. We've got to fill in that void left by Cole, and it's got to be made up from among Jaron Williams and Robert Davis and Adam Shamion, and, obviously some new recruits in the fall. Right now we have five kids who are going to have to get it done in spring…have great winter conditioning and play great spring ball."

LJ: Do you think a JC linebacker is a must this recruiting class, or do you have the depth now to draw from within?

NH: I think if we find the right JC linebacker that's a possibility. I think we have some definite other needs that we'll get from the junior college ranks, and that's defensive backs and defensive linemen and possibly a running back before we take a linebacker. We have some guys who are going to have step up and get it done, especially Adam Shamion. He's kind of our junior college linebacker having gray shirted, and he'll be ready to go come January. We'll see how that plays out. We might end up taking a junior college linebacker if we can find one we like."

LJ: How would you assess your offense in general terms?

NH: "Despite all the injuries, despite not having a legitimate running game at times due to the injuries and due to the absence of Luke Smith Anderson, a great blocking tight end, and some of the offensive linemen that were hurt throughout the season, I thought we were a lot more explosive on offense. I thought our play action game and our down-the-field passing was vastly improved from our first year. Our quarterback gave us a chance. He's very accurate. He can throw, has a ton of arm. He made a lot of mistakes mentally, but we'll clean that up with another spring and his last season for us. I think he'll improve tremendously. I think our quarterback play was improved. Our receiver play was improved. We were more of a threat on offense than we were our first year in the passing game, and having more big plays offensively against tougher competition. That's how I see it. We've just got to keep working on our running game. Our running game will automatically be better once Jayson Bird gets healthy. Then we'll recruit some guys to help him out."

LJ: What are three areas where you feel Idaho made good progress during the course of 2005?

NH: "I believe we improved in our special teams play, for the most part, at times. We improved in our passing game. We improved in our rush defense."

LJ: Concerning depth issues along the offensive line throughout 2005…what's your outlook for the offensive line in 2006?

NH: "We have everybody back, except for John Neddo who started a couple of games for us, and he was a non-scholarship player but did a tremendous job for us. So we don't lose anybody. We have a lot of guys back. We're as deep as we've been since we've been here. We're as deep as we have been in three years, and we have some good young players who are strong…who are physical…who will push some of these older guys. We've got good young kids I'm really excited about."

LJ: Do you believe you have the horses within the system now to address the depth issue next fall, or does Idaho need to hit the JC ranks to build up depth up front immediately?

NH: "Offensively…no. We're not going to take any offensive linemen from the JC ranks. We gray shirted a couple of kids who will come in here and help us out, and they'll be fine, but on the offensive side: no. Defensive line…we're going to have to take a couple of JC guys to come in here and help us out. We've got some good defensive linemen coming back in the program who are going to be a lot better than they were a year ago, but we're still thin in numbers. Bryan Braman, a highly touted young man, has to come off shoulder surgery. He had a shoulder surgically repaired during his freshman year; so hopefully he can come back, but we're going to sign at least two mid-year junior college transfers hopefully -- an inside guy, D-tackle type and a defensive end to help out those numbers, and then we're going to take four to five high school kids."

LJ: Idaho lost tight end Luke Smith-Anderson just before the season started and running back Jayson Bird after the first week of the season. What did their loss mean to the offense this season, and what is your outlook with them back and healthy for 2006?

NH: "Well, [losing] those two guys hurt our run game. If you are going to be a good running team…especially to have a one back offense…your tight end has to be a really good football player in his run blocking, and Luke was that. He could block a defensive end by himself and could knock those guys off the ball…so obviously that hurt us. We'll be improved in that area…just having Luke back. Jayson Bird was an 800-yard rusher as a true freshman…and a second-team all-conference guy as a true freshman. You lose him it's going to take a little wind out of your sails…and that's exactly what happened. You know, Rolly (Lumbala) did a nice job coming in, stepping up, but he wasn't Jayson Byrd. If we had Jayson Byrd, we would like to think it would have been a lot different…having him healthy the whole year. There's no question we would have run the ball a lot better. Both those guys will be back. Luke will get his sixth year of eligibility back and Jayson Bird gets a red shirt year out of it, which is good. So he'll only be a sophomore for us eligibility-wise. I think in the long run it's going to work out really well. Jayson had some knee issues and some shoulder issues and things like that even before his injury, and now this gave him a little more time to heal up and get fresh and get strong again. It might be a blessing in disguise."

LJ: The passing game last year at times was amazing, especially considering it's the first year in the program for Steve Wichman, D.J. Smith, Matt Askew, and a host of others. In what aspects of the passing game do you feel the group showed the most development during the course of the season?

NH: "We got better and more in synch as the year went, but we still had too many mistakes. We need to clean that up. All those guys are all first year guys playing Division I football, playing against good guys, and it takes time for them to get all on the same page. I think for their first year they did a good job, and what's exciting is with another winter, another spring ball, they're going be that much better. So, our passing game will be even more explosive than it was this year."

Editor's Note: D.J. Smith declared himself eligible for the NFL draft approximately one month after this interview.

LJ: Likewise, what do feel the group needs to do to improve the most before the '06 season?

NH: "They need to spend more time with each other, which they will, in the off-season conditioning program and during spring ball. They just have to keep on working with each other. That just comes by playing and having more reps. Also, all the kids – not only the receivers and the quarterbacks, but the whole program…need great winter conditioning…especially those junior college guys…because, until they got here, they didn't know how to work. They didn't work hard. They weren't in a regimented lifting program and now they have been. They haven't even been here a year yet and they made tremendous strides in the six or seven months that they have been here. They learned how to practice. They're practice habits weren't great. Now they've learned our system; so they'll just keep on getting better with us."

LJ: This is a recruiting blackout date. How would you rate your recruiting progress to date?

NH: "I think we're on better kids, no question. It's still a little early. A lot of our kids are getting recruited by other people and they have to finish their visits up. After New Year's it will really shake out a lot better, but we're starting it off…as of right now I think it's going really well."

LJ: Are there any plays that you'd like to run that you could not run last year?

NH: "We tried it all last year. We tinkered with everything with the personnel we had available. We like what we're doing. We just have to keep getting better at it and get better players."

LJ: How does the team feel about opening on the road at Michigan State next season?

NH: "I think they're excited about it. I haven't really talked to them, but I think if you ask our kids they'd rather play really good people than…some of the other schools…that people schedule. I know that they like playing in big stadiums and they like playing against the best. That's how we're going to do it here."

LJ: Is 2004 tight end recruit Folau Tuione back from his mission, and do you expect him to join your team for spring or fall drills?

NH: "No, he's not back yet, and we don't expect him to be with us until maybe fall."

LJ: We heard defensive tackle recruit Marvin Jones, who is currently red shirting, will get a look at O-line this spring and that DL recruit Justin Wills, who is currently gray shirting, did not make the academic cut. Are there any other freshmen interior defensive linemen we should look for in spring or next fall?

NH: "We'll hopefully get some help at those positions, some mid-year guys, and we'll find out here in another couple of days on that; so it's a little early for me to comment on that. We've got some commitments on a couple of the guys that will be official on Wednesday (Dec. 21st). We might not have the luxury yet to get Marvin Jones on offense. He might have to stay on defense for another year until we get more depth there. He's a big kid. Marvin's a good 6-2, and he's 300-plus. He needs to get into a little better shape, but he's extremely strong, he's extremely physical, and we might not have the luxury to move him over there to offensive line, which is probably in his future...probably his best position. But we might keep him in the spring on defensive line."

LJ: In recruiting, how many scholarships do you have to award this year?

NH: "We've got 22, and some of those 22 we gray shirted [last fall]...four or five guys; so out of that 22 we really have 17, because those five gray shirts come out of the 22."

LJ: We've heard word of a big lineman who is gray shirting right now, Mike Iupati, from Western High School in California. Is that true, and do you see him on the O-line or the D-line?

NH: "Mike is sitting out this year because of academic rules. He's doing really well in school. He's a big, big kid...a big, strong kid, and he will definitely help us out on the offensive line in the fall. He's been here all semester working out and going to class. He's done really well in school his first semester; so he should be here. He should be okay, and he will definitely help us eventually."

LJ: Last question. Have you offered any scholarships to any of the walk-ons from last year that we can announce on Vandal Venue?

NH: "Not yet. I will be able to do that at the end of the spring semester; so it's a little too early to do that. I won't announce that until the end of spring ball."

LJ: Thank you.

NH: "You bet."

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