On The Side: Coach Ferentz Illini Pregame

The latest edition of a standard Tuesday feature, exclusive to Hawkeyenation subscribers, that we call: On the Side. After fielding questions in an open forum, Kirk Ferentz meets with reporters on the podium side. Questions get deeper and the coach gives out some of his best information. This week, he discusses his the plans for true freshmen Drew Tate and Champ Davis, the status of Richard Kittrell, the rotation at LG and much more.

Have you heard from the Clearinghouse on Richard Kittrell?

Yeah. His appeal has been denied. But he's going to remain in school. He's going to have a chance to get eligible. Hopefully that will occur and he'll be with us. The thing it does, really, is knock him out of spring practice.

When can he be eligible?

Next August. It knocks him out of spring practice. He's allowed to rehab. He's allowed to train individually. He can't train with the team. He is allowed to have academic supervision like everybody else.

Is this a redshirt, a medical redshirt? How does that work?

It ends up being like Randle El. He's a non-qualifier this year. So, he'll have a chance to earn it back, which is great.

What's Champ Davis' situation?

He's full-speed ahead. Eric, our intentions right now, are to redshirt him just because he can't practice. He really hasn't practiced in three weeks full speed. That's not getting us anywhere. The other two guys (Tate and Champ Davis) we're full speed ahead. It's just been more situation. Champ was hurting up until Ohio State. That's really the first time we felt he was really ready to go. He was pronounced healthy, but again, that confidence and all of that. Our intentions are to play him. Drew, I can't tell you if he's going to play, but we're full speed ahead. I think every rep he's getting in practice is imperative and it's helping him. We'll continue to work him as the guy that's going to go in. Champ, we probably could have got a redshirt because of his injury, but Drew has been healthy all the way through. Maybe if we put him in as a receiver, we could could have one. (laughter) I think that's what happened to Eric. It was just such a tramatic change running backwards versus running forwards. But we're not planning to do that to Drew. We're going to try to keep him healthy.

Who are people going to remember most from this defense? In '81, it's Tippett.

You've got to start with Bob. You have to start with Bob Sanders. Not only with the way he's playing this year, but with what he's done over the four years. He's been our guy. He's been the guy that's really rallied the guys, and to me has given it a personality. It's been infectious. And fortunately we've got some other guys now that adhere to that. But I think everybody's followed his lead. If I had to pick one name, that would be the guy.

Some members of that '81 defense say this defense is better. You were here then. Right now, is that accurate?

I think time will tell. You've got to play the whole season. We came into the season feeling that we've been good on defense, but we haven't been great. We felt like we had a chance to be great. And now we have five games left to prove it. It's a great challenge for our guys to have out there. I can say they're quicker. This is a quicker defense. We didn't have great speed on that '81 defense. And those guys would tell you that. But boy were they tough. They were an ornery group.

Is this group ornery?

They've got a little temperment. And that's where it starts.

Do you anticipate continuing your rotation at left guard?

Yeah. I think that worked out real nicely Saturday. I think both those guys...I was going to say played their best football. But it's hardly like either of them has played a bunch. But Mike made major strides, and I thought David, boy, he looked good. He's been kind of up and down, but he looked good the other day. So, that's really encouraging. That puts me in a good mood thinking about those two guys being able to play at a good rate for us. That's going to help us a bunch if we can keep that going.

How about the offensive line in total?

Eric improved. He made some more mistakes, but again, we expect that. I'm not going to mention the one area because I don't want to jinx us, but I thought he made some real strides. If we can keep the guys healthy, we'll make strides rapidly. The trick has been trying to get some cohesion in there. If we can keep Eric in the middle and get the rotation going with the guards, that's a positive sign for us.

Is there coaching going on when Mike comes back to the sideline and David is in there?

A little bit. And then also he gets a chance to watch. The big thing is that he had big eyes at Ohio State like you'd expect. But he was into it. He came off the field the other day and was able to give us some really good information. I talked to him (Monday) in the weight room, and he was able to size up his performance real well. He's seeing it pretty clearly. When guys can see what they're not doing well, they improve a lot quicker.

Everyone says that this defense doesn't do anything flashy. Is that an extension of Norm?

It is. I'm only smirking here a little bit because as I went through the sheets that we give our players last week and we had all of these blitzes and stuff diagramed. I was thinking, "Norm's thinking about getting after them a little bit." Then, at the end of the day, I think we came once. That's kind of the way we think about football. We're not real fancy or flashy. We just try to do things and do them well. We're not real smart, so we just try to get good at what we're doing. Norm is smart, but he's smart enough to know, too, that if your guys can do a good job with what you're doing, why screw it up? I think that's kind of our attitude right now.

What kind of a coach is he? Is he real tough?

He's an excellent football coach. He's a veteran guy. The key to his success in my opinion, and he has an excellent defensive mind, but he understands people and how to communicate. He can be a little demanding and stern. He also can bring a little levity to the situation. He's got a great feel.

You credited Ron last week for the way that your defensive line has played. How is he in that regard?

Ron is just a tremendous person, first and foremost. He puts us to shame. It's embarrassing sometimes. He's just such a great guy. But he's a great teacher also. I'm an old line coach too. So, I guess, I really admire guys that...boy, he's just an excellent teacher and fundamentalist. It's amazing to me the degree of proficiency he gets those guys to play with. A close friend of mine, before I hired Ron, had worked with Ron. This guy has good experience, but he told me "Ron Aiken is the best defensive line coach I've ever worked with." I would concur with my friend's opinion. He was right.

Do you anticipate using Jermelle a little more?

I'm hoping so. But I told you that he strained it a little bit on Wednesday. He couldn't finish his running on Sunday. So, it's still fatiguing a little bit. It's like we were talking about earlier - when do you put a guy back? We're going to make sure that he's really ready to go before he gets in there.

The injuries to all the receivers, how has that helped Nate out?

It's hurt him. I think that's been a major impediment to our progress offensively. Between the offensive line shuffle that we've done and then the receivers, it's been totally disruptive. There's probably been some crticism floating out there, at least I've been told there is, about Nate. But, you know, it's hard? A good analogy I'll give you, in 1996 we had a real good line in Baltimore. We had a pretty good second line. We ended up cleaning house for financial reasons and all of that stuff. So, in '97, I thought we'd have a good starting line. We had nothing behind them.

Well, we got about three guys hurt after we cleared out and after the draft. So, our first line was really shaky. Our second...I walked over to coach one day. Ted had been around the game for about 50 years. I said "Is this the worst second-team line you've ever seen?" (laughter) He said "Yeah. It is." My point is, you could not evaluate any skill guy out there in practice because as soon as the ball was snapped, it was chaos. You couldn't really assess the quarterback or running back. When things aren't as least somewhat in slow motion, it's really hard to evaluate anybody. We fought that a little bit. So, the report I gave you ain't great, but at least the arrow is starting to tilt up a little bit. We have a chance maybe here in the next couple of weeks to pull it together a little bit.

How much have you had to pull back on what you do offensively?

We went in with more stuff last year obviously. We were such a veteran group last year. That's part of the fun of football when you've got guys that have been out there and done things. It's a lot easier to change things around. So, we try to be very careful about what we're doing.

Is this a better overall coaching job by your staff?

I think our staff is doing a great job. I think they're doing a phenominal job. My motto with those guys is - There aren't a lot of routine ground balls this year. I don't know if we've had any. That's really how the season has gone for us. That was back from August on. I know I'm going to jinx us, but the off the field stuff has been very, you know? (laughter) I don't want to open my big mouth. I know I'll pay for it. But on the field and injuries and all of that, it's been a real challenge. Our staff has done a great job.

And you're 6-2 despite all of that.

And if we could have eliminated a couple of turnovers, we might even be better. So, our players have given their dead-level best. And the staff has really done a phenominal job.

You said that you weren't one of those Top 5 BCS teams. But you're number 10 or 11.

I don't know how many really good teams there are in the country. There's probably like six or eight. Then there's a bunch of us that are all kind of muddled in there together. The only thing I'm curious about right now is if we can keep everybody healthy, we'll have a chance to start improving. And we can't give up any more ground on defense. With two guys out, it's not good. Hopefully we can stay healthy there. And if we can start getting some guys on offense, maybe we can start inching forward a little bit.

Why is this defense so good against the rush?

It starts up front. It's a challenge to block our guys consistently. We found that out first-hand in practice. Even our line last year, it was a challenge to block those guys. They're good players. Our linebackers are pretty salty against that run. They're playing strong enough right now where we don't have to get that quick safety support.

Obviously pass coverage is much better this year. Is that part the corners being one year better?

They're more experienced. Bob, we don't have to have him down inside the box all of the time. It's been a real team thing here. Things have just kind of pulled together for us.

After your first year here, is this where you thought you'd be?

What we are right now is bowl eligible. That's about all we are right now, which is good.

But last year you were BCS, and you're there every year now.

That was great. Our hopes are to finish strong and be a team that people respect across the nation. We've got a lot of work to do this year. If that could happen it would be a wonderful thing because that would be back to back. We have lofty goals. Even back in the dark era, our goals never changed. You always have to have something to shoot for. We've always hoped and envisioned that good things were going to happen. We knew it was going to take time. We know we're not out of the woods yet. Even if we have a great year this year, we've got to get back to work next year. We're never going to be...we're not riding in limos. That's just not us. We're not going to be there.

Is this program to the point where you can expect to have a good year every year?

I hope it is. But that being said, I know it's fragile too. You just look across the country right now. There have been teams in the last 10 years that have experienced tough years that you would have said, "Geez, I never thought that could happen." If it can happen at some of those glamour schools, then it can certainly happen at our place. Just like I tell our team, I think we all need to be very cognizant of what it takes for us to be successful. The minute we ever relax, we're going to spiral down fast. You can only coast downhill, right? That's what Chuck Noll said. There's only one way to coast. That's downhill.

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