I wanted to start by saying that we appreciate your working with our schedule and reworking things. Needless to say that everyone involved with our football program was deeply saddened with the loss of Jeff Parker. As I have said before, an awful lot of us have learned an awful lot from Jeff and his family and last week went as well as we would have hoped. What a great family, Norm and Linda did a great job and all of us feel better for having Jeff in our lives.
Moving to football, it has been good for us to get back out on the field. We started Thursday, got two workouts in on Thursday and Saturday. We had quite a few coaches in for our clinic on Saturday. Things are moving forward a bit. Everything we do we think is important; the out of season program, January up to the start of spring ball went extremely well.
It was very, very productive. I think that Chris and his staff do a great job with our players. We are really pleased with the attitude that the guys have displayed thus far and the work that they did during that time period. A big part of what Chris does is to get the guys ready to play football, and now the next step is taking place with spring practice.
It's great to get back on the field and that gives us an opportunity to improve as a football team. We have a big job to do.
As always in the spring, we are trying to get our system installed, teach skills and techniques and also watch the team continue to pull together and build chemistry. I think from a coaching standpoint, we really enjoy it because we don't have the pressure of getting game plans in, it's a time for us to teach and a time for us to evaluate. That is really critical in college football, where players are not static, they are constantly changing. We are going to see changes in guys this period, just like are going to see changes in August. We are excited to be out there on the field.
Just like last year, we had a good football team. Anytime you have a good football team, you are typically going to graduate some good players and that is certainly the case. We lost an awful lot of good seniors in that senior class, not just from a playing standpoint, but also from the leadership they provided. That is the challenge ahead of us. We have to go out there and find them now.
Injuries are a part of football. We have had that status and that has affected our outlook. About six weeks ago, I felt pretty good about our offensive line situation. For example, we had four guys coming back with starting experience, and right now we have lost two of them. Brian Ferentz underwent knee surgery back in February and unfortunately, that thing took a turn for the worse. He developed an infection in his knee, so he will definitely be out for quite some time. It is almost impossible to think that he will play next year. His career is not over, but to count on him playing next year is pretty unrealistic at this point.
The same day that Brian was having surgery in February, Dave Walker knocked an Achilles out. I think we are optimistic that he will be ready for the start of practice in August, but he will be missing some critical time between now and then. So we took two hits there on the offensive line, and we have a lot of work to do there.
Position changes, I think most of you know that Champ Davis moved to tight end, we are going to take a look at him there. Tom Busch moved from linebacker over to fullback, Ben Gates moved into the offensive line and a minor tweak, we moved Ed Miles to the Outside Linebacker position (G. Lewis).
Like any spring, we have a lot of work to do right now. But that being said, I am real confident that if we take the proper steps and don't have too many unforeseen things taking place, we feel that we are going to have a good football team next year. But we have a lot of work to do between now and then.
Is AJ moving to full back?
Yes, sorry, he has moved to fullback, too. He will play some one back for us as well. He is pretty big right now. He is over 235…a few pounds over where he should be, but we are working on that.
What do you do to replace the leadership that you lose from last year?
Common sense tells you that your seniors will do that for you. We don't have a big senior class in numbers like what we have had in recent years. The natural place to start is our two linebackers. You have Greenway and Hodge, those guys have played and know what it takes. We have several guys that are capable to lead beyond that senior class, and that has been the case in the last couple of years, too.
How are things taking shape at the quarterback position?
So far, we have four guys out there taking snaps. Pretty much, we have been splitting the reps among those guys.
Drew has a little bit of an advantage…now I will read tomorrow that he is the odds on favorite…but common sense would tell you that he has a little advantage due to being our back up last year. I think it will be real interesting to watch how that thing develops. We are watching that one with great curiosity. I will make a prediction: we will go into August, again, probably for the fourth or fifth year in a row, where we are not quite sure how things are going to shake out. It's going to be fun to watch. We have only been out there two days, but I am pleased with what I have seen so far.
Do you want to see one QB take the reigns?
That does not really matter. I am not that hung up on it. I don't think that we have had that situation to a great extent. It is not a big deal. I think it's more important where we are at in September. It feels funny saying September. How did that happen? Next thing you know we will be starting school in September.
Did you consider moving Mikes Jones to left tackle?
Not really. Not at this given stage. We were really pleased with what we saw of Lee Gray during the bowl period. I was really pleased with the way our team practice and how our starters got ready for that game, but the nice thing in December was seeing several younger guys step forward and carry themselves like they should. Lee was one of those guys. We have seen enough from Lee at this given point to believe that his progress will be such that he will be able to play that position well. Lee had some class conflicts last spring and fall, but that was the great thing about December, getting him out there all of the time. I would not rule Mike out down the road, I think that could be a position that he ends up at. He may be our #1 backup (at left tackle), and we are really pleased with Mike, too. I think we are comfortable with those two guys.
What type of make up does Kyle Schlicher have?
We are going to find out more about that in the next couple of months. I think the great thing that Kyle was afforded was that he had a chance to learn from the best. I can't imagine anybody being more meticulous with their preparation than Nate. Robert was the same way. I think it was a real benefit for Kyle to have been around Nate for two years, watch how he prepares and goes about his work. I mentioned some of the two's (at the Outback practice) and I would include Kyle in that, too. I think he has done a nice job learning how to kick the ball off of the ground. We have seen a marked improvement there over the two-year stretch. We think he has great potential, the thing he has not done is played. As you know, it can be a little exciting initially with new players sometimes, so we will probably go up and down the mountain that way with him. We are very optimistic, as we feel he is talented and driven to be a good performer.
Jake Bower, on the depth chart?
I thought you meant as a backup kicker. We have not tried the steel toe.
Jake has moved up. He has been doing some good things. I will say this about the whole depth chart: we tell our football team that depth charts in spring don't mean an awful lot, just like the one in August will not mean a lot in September. We have 13 more workouts to go, and we are going to learn an awful lot about who is who and what is what.
Realistically, I thought Mike, back in December, we were going to put our best five guys out there, and I was not sure Mike was or wasn't going to be one of those five guys. Had Brian of been healthy, he would have stayed at center and let Mike fight it out at guard a little bit. He has to step up. He is ready to do it. He has worked hard, he had a good fall, and is practicing well right now. That being said, he will be a first year starter, too, if in fact that is how it ends up. I think both he and Ben came here to play. Ben right now is in contention at guard, too. We are going to get our best five guys out there.
Is his weight an issue?
He is at 265 right now and I think it is fair to say that he will be 270 to 275 by the fall, and to me that is plenty big. He is competitive, very smart and very tough.
Will you have more people in the mix to return kicks?
We will have some good candidates. We are healthy at running back. If we stay healthy there and at receiver, we might be able to use guys like Jermelle, Albert and Marques there. Or some of the receivers. The biggest thing we dealt with last year was the health issues. We got Jermelle hurt, it kind of took the flexibility out there. We wanted to use Fred there, but we couldn't do that. If we can stay healthy, we will be fine there. But we will not work a lot of that on it this spring.
How is the competition at cornerback with Walner in the mix?
Right now, he is feeling his way out like Brad did when he got here. It is really all wide open to him, but we are pleased with what we have seen thus far. He will have a chance to compete with all of those guys. This is one of the first times that we have had that experience at that position returning, so that is a luxury. That will help compensate for losing Bob. You lose a marquee player like that, but we are more veteran at the other three spots, so hopefully the sum of the parts will compensate for losing a great player. But I think Walner will be in the mix.
Did Champ come to you about the move?
I talk to the guys after recruiting is over. I threw it out there as a thought, and it was a thought at that time, to see what his reaction would be. As a staff, we were not set on anything. I just asked him to think about that a little bit. I went back and visited with the staff as a group. There is never a right answer on these things, but I just think that right now, that might give us a little boost in that area. We like to have four good tight ends on our dress list every week. You throw Ryan Majerus in there, who I feel is an improving young player. I think that gave us a chance there.
Tommy Busch is a guy that we fooled around with a little bit last year at fullback. I think he was receptive, because he is looking up at Abdul, figuring that Abdul is not going anywhere for a while. Probably a pretty good bet. So, he just wants to get on the field. I think this is a move we will look at to see how it works.
We are very high on Champ. I can see him playing a lot. We like to play two tight ends a lot, so that is part of our thinking. He is only a second year player next year, but he is a very cerebral guy. I think he can be an amphibious character, if you will. I think he could be an ‘H' back/fullback/tight end. The hardest thing he will have to learn is how to block on the line. That is what we want him to work on this spring. We have high hopes for Champ, and we feel that he could be a good weapon for him. We are just trying to find the best way to get him involved in touching the ball a little bit more.
With the turnaround of the program, is it a task to get across to the younger guys of just what it took to get to this point?
It is a continuous education process and it is something that I worry about a great deal. Because the players that you alluded to, they understand the 1-10's, they 3-0's, the 0-8's in the league. As you move along a little bit, if you are not careful, they don't have an appreciation for what it took to move forward. I will tell you one thing in athletics, things are very, very fragile. Good things are hard to come by and you really have to work hard.
I read something last night, just coincidentally; coach Jackson gave me a Rose Bowl program and there was a nice feature on Richard Bass in there from this past year. But in reading the program, I was surprised to see that the last two years was the first time that USC has had back to back 10-win seasons 1978-1979, or somewhere in the 70's. You think of them being an elite program, so it just shows you how competitive things are. We try to educated our guys on that all of the time. It didn't just happen; we didn't just fall into having some good football teams here. We are going to have to work out tails off to not go in the other direction. That is just how life is and how sports are. So, it is a big part of what we are trying to sell.
I have been out in public enough since New Years, doing some dinners and functions, boy the enthusiasm with our fans is great, and that is fantastic. But we did not win the National Championship. If I am getting that feeling from our fans, and believe me, I don't mind it, but I worry about our players getting that feeling, too. We still have some work to do here. The high-fiving time is over, and we need to get back to work, which we are doing. The good news is that the reports I get from Chris, is that everything has been very positive with the attitudes, and the guy have been on the field for two days. We have to keep pushing and keep educating people.
What have you seen out of Marques Simmons?
We are real pleased with what Marques did last year, but he was always running Michigan's plays, Ohio State's plays, Penn State's plays. So it's fun for him to get involved in our offense now. We are really high on him. It's kind of funny, one of the coaches over here this past weekend was from Omaha, that watched him practice at Nebraska. He really thought that Marques was one of the top players on their depth chart, so he had kind things to say about him. We are anxious to see how that pans out here in the next 13 days. I am glad he is with us, I can tell you that.
Are you tackling in practice?
Yes, we will. We are going to keep our plans just like we have. You have to be smart about how you practice, but you can't run scared, either. Jermelle's injury came in a non-tackling drill. Unfortunately, most of the knee injuries that I have been around, I won't say most of them, but maybe it is most, have come from guys making plants or cuts. I don't know how you can prevent those. I think for the most part, the way that we have practiced have been pretty intelligent. I learned a long time ago that if you don't have your best players out there, you are not as good a team. But you still have to put in the hard work.
Jermelle looks really good out there. He has had some leg stiffness or soreness, but it is not related to his knees. We expect him to be 100%.
Jonathon is out practicing and looking good. That might have been a coin toss in the bowl game as far as him playing or not playing. We were not going to take a chance for one ball game. If that had been the last game of his senior year, then maybe. He looks great.
In February, you said that you went after some blue chip wide receiver recruits as you were operating from a position of strength. Talk about who you have coming back.
If you look at our entire senior group, we have a lot of developmental players there. Ed Hinkle is probably the most experienced guys, but he missed most of last year with a leg problem. So he really has only played one year. Matt Melloy will be in his fourth year next year, but as far as actual playing time, he has a lot of work to do. James is in that boat, Calcin, Warren might sneak into that group. We have some younger guys too. I think it will be fun to watch and see who does what. I think we have talent and potential in that group, now the key thing is for us to move forward where those guys are confident enough to play well at the rate they need to play at. That will be the challenge for us.
A lot of your backup defensive linemen are RS freshmen. That has to make you feel good
I will feel better when we see them move forward more. I thought about two things on defense. We are replacing four starters and then if I picked one other thing out that is paramount, we have to develop depth on the defensive line. It seems like we have been that way every year. We have always lost some good seniors. This is a great time for those guys to get caught up and get in the mix to where we can get some quality playing time out of them. I don't think we will need any of them to start, but we need those guys to get ready to take the burden on a year from now. Everyday they are out there is important.
Matt Neubauer is one of those guys where we are comfortable with him playing inside or outside. I think you can say the same thing about Derreck and Jonathon. I don't know if we will fool around with Matt Roth too much inside. Tyler has played both, so we have some flexibility there.
Do you have National Title aspirations? Is the program there now?
I think our first goal is to contend for the league title every year. That being said, I think that all of us know how difficult that is. To me, Purdue had it all laid out last year. I don't mean that in a negative way, but they had a senior laden ball club. They had a nice ball club as well all know, we found that out first hand over there. I thought going into the season that they had a chance to make a good run, and they did. They were an excellent football team, yet they still didn't win the Big Ten title. It is a very competitive league and I appreciate as much as anyone how tough it is to win this conference. It all starts there, and if you do that, things will fall into place to have an opportunity to do something beyond that. The fair way to say it is that the work that we need to do from this point on, is that we need to do more work than some other programs in our conference from year in to year out, but that is OK.