This is the first of a TWO PART exclusive interview with Vandal football head coach ROBB AKEY. GVN sat down with Robb the day spring drills began and discussed all aspects of the 2008 Vandal football team. In this interview Coach Akey provides his perspective on each position on the football team - what positions will be strong, and which will need added focus this spring and fall.

Larry Johnson: First off, what's going to be new for Vandal football for the 2008 season?

Robb Akey: "Winning, that's going to be new. We're going to put those plays in… the plays that win [chuckle] … scoring points, tackling guys, keeping points from being scored. We're going to put those plays in this spring and polish ‘em up and see if we can get ‘em to work this fall."

LJ: Let's talk about the defense first… a lot of 3-4 last year. Now you've got new D-linemen coming in and new personnel. What kind of changes do we expect to see on defense?

RA: "Well, we're going into it [Spring practice] installing the base 4-3 stuff and going about it that way. We go two-deep in bodies. We have eight defensive linemen coming to spring practice. We've got to be careful with how much we let Sataraka run around anyway. Obviously ones and twos – if everybody stays healthy – great. If not, then that could inhibit that a little bit and may enable the opportunity to work on some three-man stuff later in the spring. We'd like to get the 40-package put back together again, and you know, honestly, we did a lot of that with just different personnel last fall."

LJ: How would you describe the D line depth chart right now?

RA: "Thin."

LJ. Thin?

RA: "It's just not real deep. You've got Taylor Rust and Josh Shaw there at ends, and Derek Wieting. We're going to let those guys go and see what they can do. Rust, I think did a nice job for us last year and he's got a great motor. He got stronger over the course of the winter, and that will let us find out how that helps him with his game on the field. Shaw, I've liked very much what I've seen from Josh in the off-season in regards to getting his motor running. He's working his tail off. Now I want to see that carry over onto the football field. With Weiting we saw a tremendous amount of explosiveness. What he did in the weight room on that competition [the annual Night of Champions]; a great vertical jump; great cleans; with that you've got explosive power. How does that translate onto the field? We need to find someplace that he can help us use that explosiveness. We're going to take a look at Andre Ferguson as a defensive end. He redshirted last year as a linebacker. We'll see what happens with him with his hand down – how does that help?

The big guys inside, we need to get them going. Let Fono [Fonomau Sekona] have an opportunity to get himself a bunch of reps, and we've got [Jonah] Sataraka. Marcus Pedro won't get the opportunity to go through Spring ball as he is getting himself healthy. He's injured. He won't get his practice; so we've got to get him out there in the fall, get him healthy – number one – and get him out there in the fall and see what he can do."

LJ: Okay, at D tackle you've got Sataraka and Sekona, and redshirt freshman Michael Cosgrove.

RA: "Aaron Lavarias is my fourth one. Those are guys, they've done good things. They've worked in the weight room. Do we have four guys that can go? Do we have three guys that can go? What do we have there? Give everybody the opportunity to be able to fit… get their run fix in the 4-3. Get everything in that package put back together again. We played these fronts before; so it's not like it's brand new. We played these fronts all season long, just with the personnel being a little bit different."

LJ: Now that you're in the 4-3, let's talk about linebackers. Who do you see stepping up this spring, and whom do you see as the linebacker corps right now?

RA: "Jumping into it, you see at the outside spots Joseph Dickson and Justin Allen with a great opportunity there, with Jonathan Faraimo. Faraimo may be in the middle, and then Shamion, Senescal, Blevins… those guys being able to fight for spots in there. Where are those spots going to be? What's their contribution going to be? They've done good things. I mean, Blevins came in, did a great job all last year for us. Senescal… we moved Senescal around a ton trying to find a place to get him on the field. How can he help us? And then he's helped us in special teams too, and I expect more of that and him being able to settle in at one of those linebacker positions."

LJ: Let's move on to the backfield. Stanley Franks graduating, a big hole to fill.

RS: "Yes it is."

LJ: A lot of people didn't throw at him; so who's stepping up to be his replacement?

RA: "That's what we're going to find out. Isaac Butts and Eric Hunter both did some things for us there in the fall and I have high expectations for both of those young men. Breyon Williams obviously comes back. He did some good things. I look for more consistent play from him and some leadership ability from him. T.J. Taylor… we get him coming off a red-shirt, find out what he's able to do. There's a pretty good three-way competition there along with Dewey Hale. That's a pretty good crew of guys, right there. I think we've got a chance to be competitive and come up with - hopefully - some depth there also.

Then at safety we've got to replace Chris Smith. We've got Shiloh Keo coming back. The guy that's got a great opportunity - we signed a junior college guy for a reason – to find out what Virdell Larkins is capable of doing, and then how does that fit with Kenneth Patten? Kenny Patten's going to start out at safety back there, coming off the grey-shirt year. Cary Jensen-Madison is back there – we moved him over there last year. He had a good off-season, and we'll find out how that translates into playing football. How does that situate itself? Those are kind of the leaders for those spots."

LJ: O-line is pretty much going to have a lot of the same.

RA: "O-line's got a lot of experience; so with all those guys coming back that played the great role for us and then some of the guys that didn't play quite as much looking for their role to possibly expand… because they're a little closer to being ready for that now. That should be a good thing for us. Hopefully that makes things a little bit more competitive, maybe creates a little more depth and a few more answers. With the absolute young-young guys, how close are they to being ready to play for us? How close is Tyrone Novikoff to being able to play for us? The same with Matt ClevelandBilal Liggins coming off of the grey-shirt – this is the first chance for him to play football since a year ago. There's a lot to be found out there, and I think some good numbers there and what I hope will translate to some good depth."

LJ: Quarterback. You have two guys going for the number one spot starting tonight. Would you think that one has an advantage over the other right now other than Nathan Enderle's experience?

RA: "No. I think Nate [Enderle] started and played more; so that may work to his advantage a little bit, but I'm challenging both of them to come in and see what they can do. I think we'll find out. We'll know a whole lot more obviously in four weeks where those two sit. I look at it this way – the competition is going to make each of them a better player. We're going to be closer to finding out who our starters are going to be. When we get done with spring ball are we going to know who our starter is, or are we going to be looking at, ‘Hey, this is the scenario we're at now and this is what Nate you would need to do to finish winning the job as we go into fall camp, and Quin this is what you would need to do to finish winning the job as we go into fall camp.' Which scenario does that create for us? I'm really excited about that. I think we've got a chance to have two great quarterbacks right there, but obviously we need one very good quarterback. That's what I want to see.

There's an old saying out there: If you've got two starting quarterbacks, you probably don't have one. You know what I mean? I'm anxious to see where we are. But, both those guys come in with an open opportunity, both possessing different strengths, but both with the ability to run this offense and both being able to take this offense in different directions potentially as well. I'm real excited about that."

LJ: We're returning a lot of players from last year on offense; are you going to open up the playbook more this fall?

RA: "Well, you know, there's a lot to be said for being good at what you own. So, let's go back and start at square one and let's get good at our fundamentals. Let's get good at the things we do. We have gone through and evaluated some things, and we're going to add pieces to what we think the best part of what we did last year and build off of it. You know, we have a number of tight ends coming back. How can we utilize those guys? You're going to see a lot of multiple tight end sets. We've got some receivers coming back. But, you know, I've said this before and I'm going to say it again: Who's going to step up? Do we have three or four receivers that enable us to get into spread stuff, or do we have one or two receivers that enable us to be stronger with more tight ends out there? I want to see it happen. They're going to think I'm from Missouri by the end of spring ball when I'm saying, "Show me." I would like to see some receivers step up and show me that, "Hey, I want the ball. I can be counted on to be where I'm supposed to be, when I'm supposed to be there, and come down with the ball." I think we've got some guys to work with there. I do believe that. We need some consistency to come from that group

A lot of new stuff? Not necessarily. Some tweaks on some established things that I would like to think are the base of what we do here, and then be able to continue to grow. And people talk to me – those are two very different quarterbacks. Well, maybe they are and maybe they're not."

LJ: Nobody's seen enough of Quin Ashley throwing the ball to really know what kind of quarterback he is. Would that be a safe statement?

RA: "That's a true statement. That's a very true statement. You've got to remember we signed him in February of last year and told him he's going to play defensive back. He prepared all the way till he got up here in the summertime to play defensive back. When he got up here in the summertime he learned how to run our defense. He was out there running around with the defense playing safety. That was what he did during fall camp until he got hurt, right before USC. Then he spends five weeks getting healthy again. Like I said, he was on his way to a defensive back meeting, and that was the first chance we got to alert him, ‘Hey, let's go to the quarterback meeting young fella.'"

LJ: In Division I football, that's got to be a big adjustment.

RA: "Well, it is. I promise you it is. So here's a guy, and people are saying ‘Wow, are you going to work on his throwing?' Well, yeah. But, you know, he's got a chance now to work on his throwing ability. He throws the ball very well. He didn't have an opportunity to work some of the touch stuff, and he's learning the whole offense. He'd been learning our defense. I think you're going to see a lot of good things from him. I think you're going to see from Nate [Enderlee] that we didn't get to see as much of in the fall because he missed games with the injury. He had to come back off of that thing. Both of them have got more coming to the table than anybody in the outside world can imagine right now, and that's what's got me really excited. This offense fits both of them very well. Here's where we find out which one's the leader? Which one can do these things? Which one can create points? And, when it gets right down to it, which one can be the general and which one can move the ball? Which one are they [the team] going to jump behind and follow? I think those are two great candidates. I think the world of both those young men."

LJ: What about running back? Deonte Jackson – star of the Vandal team – is coming back. He's healthy. He's ready to go. Corey White is somebody who can represent a lot of potential on the table for the upcoming season.

RA: "I think so. We give them an opportunity this spring to find out what Corey White brings to the table. We saw him in the scout team role last fall. His body looks different now thanks to the weight room, which is a great thing. How does that translate out here? Now, he gets the opportunity to execute our offense and run the ball. Deonte [Jackson] did some good things. There's a lot that he can continue to do better. That's what he's going to focus on cleaning up this spring… expanding what he did… helping with his blocking. Corey [White] showing us what he's capable of doing with the ball in his hands, and he's got to block and do those things also. Then, Devon Sturdivant… what role will he take on in the offensive package for us? Because there's a kid who put up great numbers in the weight room. He busted his tail this winter. He's a first class kid. Finding a role that will fit for him to help us be a successful football team."

LJ: Special teams?

RA: "I think we've got in the special teams… on one hand I think we've got two kickers… a punter and a long snapper that we can trust… each of whom have things that they can continue to work on a little bit. Tino Amancio, I thought was pretty damn consistent, did a pretty good job. He was great with his onside kicks. I want to see him polish those things and keep working. I felt very comfortable with him from long range. I want to continue to feel comfortable – automatic. If we're crossing the 40 yard line and we feel like we can put a minimum of three points of the board, that's damn good, especially when you're playing at home in the dome. Then can his role as a kickoff guy grow more for us? Well, that something he gets a chance to work on this spring.

Vicente Rico – with a strong leg – can he consistently kick the ball through the endzone so people can't return the football against us? That's something he can work on for this spring. Then they both had an opportunity to work in the weight room over the winter because strength always helps. With T.J. Conley, our punter, being able to fine tune his pooch punts and make those be something that we can count on… maybe be able to kick directional punts so that he knows he can put that ball where he wants to put it and be more consistent. When he's got the whole field to work with, great. When it needs to be shorter and we're putting that ball where we want, not ‘Hey look, my driver is going out of bounds.' And "JJ" [Joel Jones] does a great job as a long snapper… continue to make that automatic. Being a long snapper you also have the opportunity to block and cover and go make plays, and he takes pride in that, and works at it.

They each have things that they can work on also, and we will be working the fundamentals of the kicking game. We're going to be working on protection in the punt game [throughout fall camp]. You know that's not the glorious part of it, but if you can keep that punt from getting blocked, certainly that's the most important team on the field."

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