A couple of news items quickly. It's an exciting time for the seniors. We had a few guys at the combine and the Pro Day on Monday. This is an anxious time and they have been working hard since the bowl game and they have been testing hard. Dallas Clark was floating around the other day and we were watching the guys workout and he made the comment how glad he was to get that phase of things over. It is an amazing process, the combine and the pro days don't mean a heck of a lot in the terms of how good a football player is, yet there is an enormous amount of pressure on the guys to perform. If they don't do well, it could hurt them. I said to Dallas that this is the last time that you ever run a 40 as a football player. The last time you do it is trying to get into the NFL. The guys have the draft coming up at the end of the next month, and there will be some anxious moments but those guys will do fine.
We had a real productive winter, the 2006 team has. Winter workouts with Chris and his staff when we got back to school in January. I think we had a real good winter phase of the program. We are eager to get back on the field, today and tomorrow will be in shorts and we will have a chance to get some things installed and get guys moving.
Injury wise, we have three or four guys that won't participate; Ettore Ewen, Alex Willcox, Ma'Quan Dawkins and Griffin Karr. All four of those guys will be held out because they have had surgeries and will not be able to participate. Chris Brevi is working his way back and he has had some complications. He had a test yesterday and we are hoping to get him off blood thinners as he had a blood clot problem. We hope he can be back mainstreamed by next week if things go well. He has missed a lot of training time.
The other wildcard now is Lee Gray. His rehab has gone extremely well. He had an extensive procedure last year and tried to go in spring ball. He is working his way through that. He looks good physically, but we have petitioned with him to the NCAA to get his sixth year, and that is up in the air. We are hopeful that they will see fit to give him another year. He has come down a tough path.
We touched on position changes in February; Ted Bentler and Anton Narinskiy have moved to the offensive line, Tyler Blum has moved to tight end and Chad Geary has moved to defensive end. Those are the main ones.
A couple newcomers that have been in the program since the start of the spring semester, Bryon Gattas, a Juco linebacker has been doing a nice job. James Cleveland joined the team back in January, so that is a first for us and he will practice with us this spring and we are anxious to get him on the field.
As far as our team goes, last year at this time we had some obvious concerns about our depth and experience level in the defensive line and running back positions. Right now, it looks like those are two areas where we have some pretty good young performer there. The big focus for us right now would be where we have lost experience. You look at receivers and cornerback and then obviously at linebacker and a couple of offensive linemen, too. Those are the things that jump out at you. The big thing I would say is that those guys played well for us, but we are losing a lot of experience. A lot of those guys were three year starters and in some cases four year starters, so you are losing a lot of quality play and quality experience and great intangibles, too. It's that way every year when you graduate a good class of seniors, it will be the big challenge. We have gone through the first phase and it's time to get out on the field and shape the team together as football players and see how things materialize. I am anxious to evaluate them.
One great thing about college athletics, nothing is very static. We will be a very different team starting today than we were in January. I think every player will show some different traits. Hopefully they are all positive. The potential for growth and improvement is great and that is why we are eager to get out on the field and try to continue that process.
Q: Getting Lee Gray's experience back would really help.
Kirk Ferentz: If Lee can get the sixth year and if he can come back fully healthy, which those are wildcards at this point, that would be a big plus because you are talking about a guy that has a year of not only experience, but good experience. I thought he played well in 2004. He had some rough edges, like any first year player does, but guys improve their second year out there on the field and is a guy that would really give us something. I hope for his sake that he will get that year. He has been down a really tough road; it's been a tough rehab and he has done a good job. I hope he gets that opportunity. I wouldn't know how to handicap his odds. I look around what is going on in the conference and around the country, some of the petitions that have been granted; based on some of the ones I have seen, I have to think that he has a realistic shot. I think the whole concept is doing the right thing for the individual and that would be the right thing for him. He will graduate this semester, so if it doesn't come through, he will have his degree and a shot at the NFL, but I think he hopes that he gets that chance at his senior year.
Q: How do things look at wide receiver? You will be lacking a go to guy this spring.
Ferentz: Hopefully that will happen. You lose guys like Ed and Clint, Matt Melloy that have played a lot, which is the bad news. But we have some other guys that are capable of making plays, like Chandler and the rest of the tight ends. We look to be healthy in the backfield right now, so you may have to spread the ball around a bit. But we are anxious to see how guys perform. The two guys that we are starting with, Herb has flashed and Calvin has done some good things and Brodell got some good work. It will be fun this spring to watch them progress and grow. You can't overstate the importance of a guy like Ed Hinkel. What he has brought to our team over four years in so many ways, you can't minimize a loss like that.
Q: Talk about cornerback, and the lack of experience you have there.
Ferentz: Charles, we have bounced him back and forth between corner and safety. He has been on special teams. He is a tremendous athlete with a great attitude. He just lacks the experience. Both Adam and Charles are great athletes. They don't have a ton of game experience at corner, so it will take some time. They have worked hard, they looked good in December and it will be interesting to see how they pick things up. I think they will do very well. Bradley Fletcher is a guy who is coming on. He came in as a raw player and had a lot to learn, but he is working hard and he is a big, physical guy that can run well. We are anxious to see him progress.
Q: It sounds like there will be some competition at that position.
Ferentz: Corner is a tough place to play. We had two guys that played three or four years (Allen and Johnson). It's tough to recruit corners. The NFL has a hard time drafting and evaluating them. It's the toughest position to fill out there, because there is some guesswork. All that being said, we feel like we have some good players out there, it's just a matter of getting them experience.
Q: Has there been any more talk of Damien Sims moving to cornerback?
Ferentz: I think that died on the vine back in September. To Damien's credit, he gave it a shot. I respect his honesty. Position changes only work if a player buys into it. Sometimes you have to nudge and coax a little bit, and we went through that with Damien. We had Abdul working on our behalf; we used a little peer pressure if you would. The bottom line is that it's not what he wanted to do. If that is the case, it's not in anyone's best interest to force something. He is doing a great job at running back. We are very pleased with what he did and he improved as the year went on. He really matured and made some big plays for us. We are excited about the things he can do offensively. The big challenge is using our guys intelligently back there, because we have some guys back there that we feel can be pretty productive with the football.
Q: Did Mitch King warm to the position change?
Ferentz: Mitch wasn't too wound up for that one. Somewhere during the season, he felt that was a pretty good move. I was joking with him the other day. He was coming out of the bubble and Dallas and I were talking and Dallas was eager to meet him. He watches every game he can on TV. I think Dallas was as excited to meet Mitch as Mitch was to meet Dallas. Both guys are from the school of position changes. Neither one was excited about it initially. Mitch hesitated a bit, but he jumped right in there and went to work right in the middle of spring ball. He is a lot more comfortable now at that position than he was a year ago at this time. I think it's a good situation for him and for the team and he was very productive and we like his attitude and work ethic. He has found a good home.
Q: What have you seen out of the other defensive linemen this winter?
Ferentz: I think all those guys, we were young up front last year and they hardened up during the season and this out of season. That was major for them. As young as they are, younger players develop more fully. You think about Iwebema and Mattison on the outside, they were 215 or so when they got here and now they are in the 260 to 270 range. Guys like Matt Kroul, Bain and Kanellis have matured a bit here. This is their first time in an intense out of season program where they are not involved in another sport. It's exciting to see those guys develop.
Q: You have three solid options at quarterback this spring.
Ferentz: It's nice to have those guys. Their attitudes have been great. Everyone can improve and we are going to get Drew out there and push on him to keep improving just like he did a year ago. Jason is in the same boat and we may fool around with him at some other positions, maybe at receiver and let him catch some balls and see what happens. We would like to get him involved if we can and see if that works. Jake is next on the list and we want to get some good work and exposure and we did that in December like some of the other redshirt freshmen. This will be a big spring for him to get some in-depth work and get a working knowledge of what we are trying to do. If he can get that down, he will make strides this summer and come in in August and compete. Kind of like what Brad Banks went through and Nathan Chandler when they came in as JC guys. He has a jump on things, but this will be the first time to get extensive work within the offense.
Q: Who are some of the guys that made the biggest moves since the start of last fall?
Ferentz: I don't know if I can handicap players that way. I mentioned the linebackers already. They have been doing good things behind the scenes and on special teams. We are excited as we have a lot of young guys right now. The five that we did play as true freshmen, then some of the guys that redshirted, are making steady progress. 15 days from now, I will be better able to tell you how things are coming along. We are hoping to see the kind of growth and progress we anticipate. On one end you are losing some good players, so somebody has to step in and do the job not only from the playing standpoint, but also the leadership standpoint. We have plenty of candidates right now, it's just time for them to grab the range.
Q: Do you think 15 days is enough time for spring drills?
Ferentz: We had 20 practices in full gear each practice (during the spring) back in the 1980's. In my mind, players started drifted mentally. They were looking right through you when you spoke to them around day 16 if not sooner. I really like 15 days. It's ideal, to me. Three days in shorts, I can live with that. I would rather not, because you get more work in with shoulder pads. But it gives you a great opportunity to teach. Because of the scholarship limits, I don't think people are hitting the way they used to. There are some, but to me it's not smart.
Q: Where would you like to see the team three weeks from now?
Ferentz: The big thing we are trying is to teach and install our system on a fundamental basis. You like to see the guys learning their jobs and getting some conceptual knowledge. You try to work on techniques and fundamentals and get a good base established there. Then you want to see how the team pulls together and how things are shaping up. Those are the things that we are looking at, and it gives us a great chance to evaluate every player out there on the field. We don't work every phase of special teams in spring practice, but watching guys practice gives everyone a chance to watch their own player groupings. You get a good idea to figure out who would be good candidates to cover kicks and be on the punt defensive team, things that we don't work on in the spring. But we are always evaluating and trying to rank our guys 1 through 100 to get an idea of who's who, knowing that will change in August.
Q: What do you think of the possible rule changes of shortening the halftime and coaches challenges for instant replays?
Ferentz: Those are the two biggest ones out there. The shortened halftime thing is up in the air. I couldn't tell you how long they are now, but they are long. I guess it's all driven by television. It's not like I am going anywhere after the game. On instant replay is that my understanding is that it's an ongoing thing. They surveyed us again for more information and they are looking at a couple of examples. The only thing I have changed on is for coaches challenges. I think you need more than one a game; I don't know what just one gets you. I guess it gives you one more than none. I have flipped on that one and I am for coaches challenges now.
Q: Why did you flip?
Ferentz: Previous experiences. The way I look at it right now is that you burn a timeout hoping to get a replay in certain circumstances and hoping they will replay it, but there is no guarantee there. We have burnt a few timeouts in hopes of getting one reviewed. If you burn one, it would be nice to have a guarantee it would be looked at. When that urge hits you, I can't resist it, so you take the timeout. The bad news is there is no guarantee that the play will get reviewed. At least in this way you would know, plus you get the timeout back if you are right. Occasionally that happens, too. That is what changed my mind on the whole thing. Initially, none of us wanted it because it was another area to get second guessed on. The other problem is that I don't know what you would do with those goofy flags.
Q: Albert Young came out of nowhere last year. Do you think he can live up to expectations this year?
Ferentz: That topic hasn't come up as a team or with individuals. It doesn't seem to be as prominent this year. With all due respect, there were a lot of great backs in our league last year; we really liked Albert's production and we are glad that he is on our team. We expect more of the same from him; he is just an excellent football player. We thought he would be a guy that could help us right away, but he had two season ending injuries. He has a great attitude and work ethic and he is very positive and loves challenges. I don't see him coasting at all; he is anxious to get out there and do the best he can do. I feel the same way about him or Drew; we don't want either one of those guys to feel like they have to carry the team. That being said, we are counting on them to be top notch players and there is no reason they shouldn't be. In Albert's case, he has an opportunity to improve his speed. He was only a year off of his ACL last year, and if anything, we might see a quicker Albert out there and he will be bigger and stronger as well. He is just worried about playing the best he can and we expect him to play well for us.