Skladany: We've got quite a bit of returners, which is encouraging. We lost Matt Word, Jeremy Loyd and Atif Austin, and those guys played a lot of quality snaps over the years and were productive. We have some big shoes to fill at those spots, but some young players are eager, and with the success we've had the last three years are motivated and want to show what they can do when it's their turn.
I'm looking forward to spring ball to get a look at some of the new faces and see how some of the old faces have matured over the winter. It should be a real productive spring for us.
CN: In what areas are you hoping to see improvement, both in the off-season and in workouts the next three weeks?
Skladany: We want to make sure that we get some more size and put on some weight in the front seven. Sometimes, the bigger and more physical teams were able to run the ball on us. Although, teams like Nebraska could not. But at times I hope we can be a little firmer at the point of attack. It's an area people took a lot of notice of.
The red-zone defense is an area where we need to force some more turnovers and negative-yardage plays on the early down. That way we can get them off schedule and dictate what's going to happen.
In today's game, it's hard to field a lot of depth at a lot of schools. You see some teams having a backup or two, and the teams that usually stay healthy are the ones that are successful. It's really important that we stay healthy. If you start losing guys and your depth is gone, then those guys out there play a lot of snaps and get worn down. We're keeping our fingers crossed.
CN: Down the stretch when the team lost six of seven games to close out the year, what dramatic changes did you see in your defense?
Skladany: The biggest thing is some of our better players weren't as productive as it wore down. We have watched the tape in the winter team. We weren't the same outfit out there, with our speed, quickness and aggressiveness. We've got some thoughts on it, but I don't know that there's any one answer.
If you're going to be a contender in this league, you have to be mentally and physically tough in those long seasons. Teams have some ups and downs, even Oklahoma. But they had so many athletes out there that they were able to overcome that at times.
CN: Name a few positives that the unit can build on from last season.
Skladany: We moved up to sixth in the Big 12 last year and fifth in the Big 12 this year in total defense. We knocked more balls loose and had more sacks this year. Those are some things we really want to emphasize.
Being able to play as well as we did in the run game against a team like Nebraska – we haven't done that against a real power team. Look back on the game at Texas. We had a long play, but were leading at half against a mammoth offensive line. There are a lot of positives to build on.
CN: Obviously you're not at liberty to discuss specific schematic changes for the spring, but in general terms could fans expect a few changes this spring?
Skladany: One of the fronts that we run, we're going to do it a little bit more next season. We're going to incorporate that. We used it sparingly, but it will add another look for the offense to prepare for. Obviously, you have to review your pressure and third-down packages each year. Whether you man it with a dime team or nickel team. You want to make sure that your third-and-long pass defense, whether it be pressure, coverage or zone blitz, is what you need. We're studying that hard.
CN: Let's get your thoughts on all of the positions on the defense, starting with your line and its outlook.
Skladany: Tyson (Smith) has played a lot of football and had a good year. He needs to add a little bit of weight and can better, but he's improved each year that he's been at the position. We're looking for big things from him in his senior year.
(Jordan) Carstens is our legitimate first-team, all-conference potential guy. He's a good football player and we're looking to lead on and off the field. He's going to be tough to block every week. Nick Leaders did a nice job as a freshman and you've got to take your hat off to. For a freshman to do what he did, we were all very impressed. He gives you hope that you've got an outstanding nose guard in the future.
The other end could be either Tim Tebrink, Shaheed Richardson, Beau Klaffke, Korey Smith or Cephus Johnson. Inside we've got Brent Nelson, who didn't get a lot of play last year because of a knee injury. It never really responded where he could go all the way, but he's had a nice off-season. Those guys are going to develop our depth and enable us to do some things.
CN: Even though Beau Coleman gave you all-out effort every week, he was simply overpowered by mammoth offensive lines. How much size are you looking for at that defensive end position this season?
Skladany: We liked Robert Brannon and Nigel Tharpe at that spot a few years ago, and we'd like to have a pretty big guy. Tim Tebrink is over 280 and Beau Klaffke is a young guy that's up to around 260. Shaheed Richardson is 270, so we'd like to have somebody in that range.
The bigger and more physical we get, the better we're going to be able to hold up. Those kids have done a nice job this winter getting bigger and stronger. It's the whole defense, really. The emphasis that we have made this winter is to get more weight on guys, so that we can become more physical.
CN: Give us an update on the progress of Klaffke and Smith, a pair of redshirts you had high hopes for when they signed in 2002.
Skladany: Klaffke got a lot of work in the bowl practices and we were impressed with what he did. He's got toughness and looks like he's played defensive line before. He's got a clue for leverage and uses his hands well. I'm real anxious to see Korey Smith, but he still needs to gain some more weight. He plays hard. Whether he's big enough right now or has the wherewithall, we're going to see. He's going to be a real big kid."
CN: The biggest off-season shuffling came at linebacker. Go into the position moves and how they could benefit your defense.
Skladany: We're going to try some things. I'm going to move Brandon Brown to MIKE linebacker and let Joey Woodley stay at WILL. Behind him, I'm going to try Matt Robertson and Jimmy Morris at WILL. I've got Kyle Smith right behind Brandon Brown at MIKE linebacker. We don't have much experience out there.
We moved Chris Whitaker to SAM. We're going to do a little more nickel against certain personnel sets, where the SAM would come off the field. We didn't have to do that last year, because Jeremy Loyd was so fast and athletic. Now we need another linebacker to play over a tight end, who's a sturdy guy, and Chris Whitaker is certainly that. We think Chris can hold up against a two-back/one tight end or two-back/two tight end.
Then we're going to fool with Nik Moser against certain personnel sets, the one-back sets particularly. We'll be able to cover him, blitz him and use an athlete out there in space a bit more.
CN: Did you envision Brown as a future MIKE linebacker all along?
Skladany: I did. He naturally goes to the ball, is productive and has got a knack to play. That will enable him to make more plays. The better you are in the middle, the better you are as the team, and that's nose guard to linebacker to safety. You get those guys playing well in the heart of your defense, you have the chance to do some things.
CN: Go into more detail on the progress of redshirt freshmen Robertson, Morris and Kyle Smith.
Skladany: They've all done what we've asked them to do. They've all gained some good weight, which is what they needed to do. They needed to get to at least where they are right now, and from here on we'll see.
All three of those guys are in the same boat. They all have good work habits and are coach-able. They're all pretty physical and have talent and the potential to help us and get into the two-deep. Now it's a matter of who's going to do it. We have some good numbers.
CN: We heard a lot about Morris figuring in as a freshman last fall, and he appeared in the non-conference slate. What led to him taking a medical redshirt?
Skladany: He had some knee, ankle, hip and back injuries. When he could practice, he practiced. When he had to rehab, he rehabbed. He didn't have any surgeries. It was just keeping him out. We figured his body just wasn't ready for the show yet. He's progressed well and done a nice job this winter getting stronger.
CN: Moving on to the secondary, which players are you looking for some big-time seasons from?
Skladany: Ellis Hobbs, JaMaine Billups and Anthony Forrest, who really played extensively last year, have gained a lot of experience. We're looking for a good year from them. Marc Timmons has been in and out of the lineup at times and has been a productive football player in his time here.
CN: You've also decided to switch Forrest from safety to cornerback. Go into that decision.
Skladany: We're going to fool with Anthony Forrest at corner this year. He's good-sized kid that's tall. We've had some problems getting out-manned on the outside. Anthony has good range, and is fast and good with his hands. I think he's a kid that can turn and run. He's played a lot of nickel and dime stuff before where he's had to cover guys, blitz off the corner and do some things.
CN: Your two-deep at safety still appears to be loaded with talent, as Billups, Paris, Timmons and Moser make up a strong group. How does the depth look at cornerback behind Hobbs and Forrest?
Skladany: Johnny Smith came in off the bench a few times last season and did a good job. As we looked at the tape this winter, he was probably even better than initially thought. At times Harold Clewis has been very good and at other times he hasn't been quite as productive. He has a lot of talent and needs to focus. If he can bring a consistent level to his game, that gives us a quality guy.
Henry Poullard and Bryan Ollie have been able to get in the two-deep and be special teams guys before, so we'll see how they do in the spring. We've also got DeAndre Jackson, a really fast guy coming in, along with two really good safeties in (Caleb) Berg and (Dominique) Flower.
CN: What are some positives that will come from your safeties battling for playing time this spring?
Skladany: Competition for that safety spot is going to be pretty good. I'd like to keep JaMaine at safety. We've seen what he can do when he's near the line of scrimmage. Marc Timmons and Stevie Paris can do both. They have to be interchangeable at times, but we'd like to keep JaMaine in the mix as much as possible.
Paris will really hit you and is another big, physical guy with a lot of range out there. He surprised me last year with what he did. He held up great in the bowl game. Two days before the bowl game he didn't know he was going to be playing much. He was only on the BUFF team, but went in there and got it done. He didn't have any fear in his eyes right off the bat. He played the game, didn't get rattled and was assignment-sound throughout the day.
CN: Name the biggest improvement you'd like to see made in the secondary.
Skladany: We'd like to get more interceptions. We didn't have as many last year as we did the year before, so we'd like to get our production up. We had a lot of them in our hands that we didn't hang on to. In the Nebraska game there were two or three, and against Troy State and Tennessee Tech there were a couple. We just didn't make the play on the ball.