There is not a lot new to report. As I mentioned on Saturday on the injury front, Bryan Mattison had foot surgery on Friday. That went very well and we expect him to be back training in about eight weeks. Lee Gray is going to be out the rest of the spring and I also reported that Matt Melloy and Chris Brevi have missed basically the entire spring and we don't expect them to return.
I think we are making progress. The attitude of the players has been good since we started back in January. I have been pleased for the most part with the attitude out on the field. We lost our concentration a little bit last week, but Saturday wasn't a bad day. We have guys that are making improvements, but as I said the other day, we have a lot of improvements to make yet. A lot of questions to be answered, and I would anticipate a lot of things will go through August and possibly into September.
The bottom line is right now that we have three days left to practice. We will go Wednesday, Thursday and finish up on Saturday. We will scrimmage in situations, cover some key areas and do some individual work as well. Pretty similar to last year, although it will not be a game like circumstance. Hopefully we will finish strong with these next three days and be a little bit better football team on Saturday than we are right now.
Are 15 practices enough or would you like to see the NCAA expand that?
It used to be 20 in the 1980's, but I think 15 is a good number. I think that is about right. I think Spring practice is critical and important in our sport. It's more important to some players than others. 15 to me is just right.
If you had to play a game this Saturday (Kirk breaks in) "We'd be in trouble. Unless we were playing ourselves. We might beat us."
Who would be the RB's?
It's a coin toss. All three of the guys have done well. Damien Sims has improved. We have had several guys make strides. He is a bigger and stronger guy than what he was in the fall, he has more confidence. Sam (Brownlee) has done a nice job and Marques (Simmons) is improving and he has been healthy the whole time. I have been pleased with all three of those guys.
Tom Busch got to play last year, but he is a lot like Sims in that he is a lot more comfortable. He has been practicing with a big cast on his hand and has dropped a few balls and gets frustrated about that, but he has done a good job, too.
Could it be running back by committee next year?
I think it is way too early to tell. I am not unhappy with what we have seen from any of the guys; Adolphus Shelton is running as well. We will get Marcus (Schnoor) back, and he started to phase in at the end of last week and will work more this week, and we will get Albert back. Getting those two back will make things look different. I think until we see the whole group together we won't know where we will be. But the good thing is that both Marcus and Albert have been around enough now that they know what to do.
You talked last fall about looking into things that might have contributed to all of the injuries. Did you find anything?
Not really. I think it's inconclusive at best. We look at everything from surfaces to shoes, you name it. The thing I keep going back to is in 2002, we went through that season without any problems, we are not doing anything differently. The surfaces are the same. It was just one of those years. We had a few more than you would normally have, and when you have them all at one position, that magnifies it more. To me it was bad luck more than everything else.
You have a lot of new bodies on the DL; there have been some injuries there this spring, so have you seen what you needed to see there?
Not really. It's been inconclusive, too. One thing that we would have hoped is to have the entire group out there for all 15 practices where you can get a better grasp on things, but we have not had that.
Bryan went through half the spring and then got injured, Kenny has been steady, Matt Kroul has been out there every day and has done a good job. He is not the Jonathon Babineaux/Tyler Luebke level yet, but he is doing a good job and we are pleased with the way he is coming on.
After that it has been hit and miss. We moved Mike (Follett) and Mitch (King) over there at last week, and we are encouraged with what we have seen from those guys in a short window; I think they have had four practices. Then we have the partial practice guys, so it has been fragmented. But they are working hard. It won't be until the end of August before we know how that whole thing is going to shape up.
The past four or five workouts we have been going first team against first team. Some of the guys working with the second team right now (on the defensive line) are not second team guys, so I think the competition has been better that way.
When you recruited Matt Kroul, is this where you envisioned he would play?
It's like Mike Elgin. Matt was a good football player in a good program at Mt. Vernon. He was a tough fullback, a tough linebacker and we thought he would be a defensive lineman or a center. But he was tough and competitive and did well in wrestling, too. We just liked the intangibles. A big part of our philosophy is that if we get enough good players, they will find a home sooner or later. His work ethic has been outstanding.
You have mentioned him several times. Has he established himself?
I am just really pleased. I feel that he has had an excellent spring. He is not ready to play right now, but he just improves every time he is out there, he works extremely hard. We are glad we could redshirt him last year and I think he is doing a real good job. He will hold his own in there.
He plays with good technique. He is not as big right now as he will be when he is a senior, but he has grown quite a bit from high school. He has the ability to take what Ron (Aiken) teaches and put it to use out there on the field. He is a great effort guy with a lot of pride. A lot of the intangibles that we have had in our good players, he seems to have those qualities.
Brock Ita's battle and recovery from cancer is a good story that was under the radar last year.
Brock has decided to leave the program, about two weeks ago. It was a great story, but he did not want to draw a lot of attention to it. He still passed 12 hours while fighting cancer in the fall. He was a great inspiration to our football team, too. The way he handled it and with the support from home and in his community. He came in a couple of weeks ago and when you go through something like that and your name is down the depth chart a little bit…it was a thrill for us and for him that he was able to dress out for the bowl game. I think he is seeing the big picture and he has some other things on his list that he wants to get accomplished. We left on great terms. I think he would like to get into athletic administration down the road, and I told him that if he wanted to come back and work in our office, we would love to have him.. It is a great story.
Does the staff acknowledge to the team that some in the national media expect you to be a very, very good team?
We have talked about it; not so much on a daily basis, but we talked about it in January and when we got going before spring ball. All of that stuff is predicated on what has happened in the past. We have had good success and we are proud of that, but I think if you look at the teams that are really and truly top ten teams at this time of year, we are not in that caliber.
If you just go back to the last few years in 2002; we were not saying it, but we felt like we had a pretty good football team at this time. We had a veteran group, we were coming off the Alamo Bowl victory, a strong group of seniors…we felt that if things fell right, we would have a chance to have a good football team. That being said, we had a real wild card at quarterback because Brad (Banks) had not played much. I don't think that any of us could have told you in April that he would become the AP Player of the year. But we had a quiet optimism.
The last two years has been different. We had some big guns in 2003 with Gallery, Sanders, Nate, Russell, but had some work to do. And last year we had a lot of holes to fill. I think we are more like the last couple of years and if we do end up in the loftier rankings, it will be a process. We still have a lot of questions to get answered and a lot of thing we need to work through right now as a football team. I am hopeful that our team realizes that, because that is the reality of the situation right now.
Look at LSU, who we played in the bowl game and how many outstanding juniors they have returning. We are looking at their roster last year; they were a young football team in September but by October, they were pretty veteran and extremely talented team. They have the majority of those guys coming back, so they are going to be an extremely talented team next year. That is just one team, and I could find eight or ten of them, and a couple of them are in our conference. I could name three real fast who have an edge on us in terms of experience coming back.
The more you have success, the more attention will come your way. That is a part of the process we have to deal with. It guarantees nothing down the road. We are different than a lot of teams.
You look at that stat about us being (one of four teams ranked in the final Top 10 three years in a row), with the other teams being Oklahoma, Southern Cal and Georgia. We are a little different. We threw in that Georgia tape to learn how to beat LSU, as they were the only team to beat LSU by a significant amount. Auburn, who had a pretty good team, barely beat LSU. The Georiga film didn't help us that much because their players are a little bit different than our players. I am not saying that in a disrespectful way to our guys, but the talent level is just a little bit different. I think we all understand that we are not quite in that category. We do, I think. I hope we do. It's not just going to happen.
It sounds like you have eight in the mix on the DL; will any true frosh challenge for playing time?
I think so. We are going to keep an open mind on that. A lot will depend on how the guys on campus progress and improve in August. We still have a lot of questions to answer with so many guys being in and out with injuries. I think that is one position where we are going to give every guy coming in a chance. We will watch them hard in camp, and if it looks like they may be able to help us at the onset or by October, we will keep and open mind to help fortify the position.
How has the competition been at punter?
Pretty even. It's a lot like it was in December; they competed well. The key thing will be consistency, whoever can become the most consistent performer will be the guy that comes away with it. They both do some real nice things out there and it has been good competition, but they are not ready to play yet, either.
How about TE?
Pretty much a draw there, too. Right now it's by committee. They all do some things well, but they all have some things they need to improve upon. Outside of CJ, it's a pretty young group. Ryan Majerus has improved as much as anybody and is showing the greatest strides of anyone at that position. He has taken a major step, which is great to see.
You talked about three teams in the Big 10 as being pretty good; who would they be?
A couple of the usual suspects with Michigan and Ohio State, and I think you have to look at Purdue right now. It was amazing to me as to how well they played on defense after replacing seven starters the year before. As far as I know, they have everybody back on defense and they lose very few overall. They have been one of the better teams in the league since I have been back.
What percentage of work does Manson get and how important is it for him to be ready?
He gets more than half the reps right now. He is one of the neater stories on our team. I don't think we have a guy that works any harder or that is more conscientious or more knowledgeable than Jason is, on either side of the ball. He is in a tough spot right now, because he and Drew have the same amount of eligibility, but he has done a great job. It's a comfort to know that we have a guy like him on our football team.
He has been a great leader as well as a good football player. It's a nice luxury. Last year, we were not sure if we had a quarterback, now we have two guys that we have confidence in. A year ago we didn't know if we had a center on our roster and now there are three guys that we can put in a game and play with. So in some positions we are better than we were in the past, and Jason figures into that equation. He has really been an outstanding guy on our football team.
Did you accomplish what you wanted to in spring?
Yes and no. Injuries factor into it. Because of guys missing practices, we have questions. Chris Brevi is a good example. We don't know a lot more about him than we did three months ago. That is one of the great things about spring ball. I heard someone propose a few years back that we take these 15 practices and add them on in August, and make camp longer.
As a coach, you come off of the bowl game and four months later you get to see the guys make strides. We talked about a guy like Majerus, and Ed Miles has made great strides. I really like the way we have this window of exposure. But the guys that can't go, you cant get a feel for. I hope we know in August, but it would be nice to know part of the answer in April. Everything else has been on schedule.
How are things looking at center right now?
We are working a couple of different guys in there right now. Brian (Ferentz), Mike Elgin, Ben Cronin and Todd Plagman. So there are four guys that have all played in ball games that can go in there and do a pretty decent job. We are in a pretty good situation as opposed to a year ago.
Do you like Brian over Mike?
We are just taking a look at that to find out if there is a difference. Mike has a season under his belt and Brian has a half season under his belt at the center position, and then more than half a season at guard. We got a look at what Brian could do at guard and Mike at center, and now we are flip flopping it. To me, it's a win-win situation and we will try to figure out what the best combination is for our football team.
Who would be your starting five on Saturday?
That is a good question. Probably Mike Jones at right tackle. He has really practiced well, that is another guy I would single out. Mike has played for two years, but he is really starting to act like an older guy now. He has been extremely attentive and the concentration has been great. He is visibly trying to improve; you can tell that by the way he is practicing. Mike at right guard, Brian at center, Dave Walker at left guard and then Ben Gates out at left tackle, and Ben has had a pretty good spring, too. He has made some real strides and has taken advantages of his opportunities.
In the past, you have used the preseason snubs as motivation. Now it's the opposite. How do you present that to the guys?
It's not a lot different, because what we have told our players in the past when we were rated on the low end is that rankings are just rankings. They are on a sheet of paper. It's up to us to decide how they come out. Preseason rankings are projections. To me, it's the same discussion. These things have been written, here is why and they are someone else's projections. Like in the past, what we do out there in terms of performance determines the rankings that count in December and most importantly in January. It's a bit of a flip, but it's the same process for us; it's all about our performance and not about how many five star players we have.
What is your opinion on making the coaches poll public on how they vote?
We were surveyed on that. I have never voted, I have not been invited to vote; I think you have to have ten years tenure or something like that…I don't think that is true. They probably have had to of heard of your team or something, I don't know.
My answer was that I would just as soon not vote, because there came a time when I thought ‘the media poll, what do those guys know? But the coaches poll…' But now that I am in this seat, I can tell you that I don't know much about what goes on nationally outside of the teams we see on tape. By midseason you have a good feel for the Big Ten.
And the teams out of conference, only if we see them on tape. But for me to try to tell you who is good on the west coast, it would really be silly. I would have a hard time with that. So if I am ever invited, I will decline the invitation. It is a tough issue and I can see why coaches would not want to be named because of motivational reasons.
What are your thoughts about what happened with the Cal and Texas flip-flop? Some said B12 coaches gave Texas a push at the end?
I don't know all of the details, but there was some political ramifications. I am not sure how you get around it, so that is a tough one. I do know this; my sense was that Cal had a pretty good team and so did Texas. You will have those debates, and where the line is right now, the number three team gets short changed. Auburn had a great argument last year, so that is a tough one. I don't know who you avoid those. That is one of the problems with the BCS.
I heard a story yesterday where one of the coaches had their SID do it for them. I don't have the time to do that stuff.
Would the overall theme of the spring would be don't stop and admire your achievements?
I think that is fair. That has been our theme the past couple of years in January. We have had some pretty good seasons, and you can be proud of what you have accomplished, but we need to move on. The seniors can enjoy what happened, but they have their focus elsewhere too. We all have things we need to do, including our best players.
One thing I do feel good about is that some of our best guys, guys like Greenway and Hodge, when you watched Abdul practice all spring, he is not sitting on his laurels. As long as our best guys are setting that kind of example, that is helpful.