We had a really good off-season winter program. Our kids responded to some of the challenges that we put in front of them. One of the goals that we have for this spring is we want to continue to play fast. We want to continue to try to be as physical of a football team as we can possibly be.
The last thing, which I think at times we were inconsistent at, is playing smarter. Our teams want to be known as a tough, physical program. Sometimes being tough and physical they don't really understand what being tough is. Tough sometimes is walking away from things -- walking away and not retaliating. We have way too many penalties and retaliation penalties. So we have got to be a much smarter football team this year.
Some of the things we put our players through, we really liked how they responded to some of the challenges that we gave them throughout the winter program. It was really a short winter for us also. Having played in the bowl game on the 8th, January 8th, and taking a couple of weeks off. We only had about five weeks of the off-season program. So it's a really short winter for us.
But we were also able to lift a little bit longer. We were able to lift up until the bowl game which was beneficial for us, and we were able to have more football drills up until the bowl game also, which allowed us to develop some of the younger players. We have a lot of younger players that we're counting on next year that we were able to get reps, especially on the defensive side of the ball. A couple on offense that we're excited about also, and we'll go through those.
But, offensively, for us to continue to progress offensively, our offensive line has got to continue to get better. I said it last year that was one of the least concerns that I had was our offensive line. I knew we were losing four guys (starting offensive linemen) going into last year. But one of the things we had done, is we had done a good job of playing some of the younger guys. So that's the reason why I was excited and it showed this year.
The thing we have to do now because we will lose three of them this year, we've got to continue to develop depth so when those guys walk out the door, we're ready to go with some of the back-ups.
(One of the) guys that we're counting on who will be leaving us (is) Jake Lanefski. We'll probably move Jake Lanefski from being our back-up center to getting him more reps at the guard position. Jake did not get a lot of reps last year because of the concerns of playing two centers in the game. You don't like to play around with your centers, so Jake was only a center last year.
This year he'll be a dual guy for us. He'll play center and both of the guard positions, because we think he's one of our top five or six offensive linemen, so we've got to get him on the field.
He's one of the guys that will play. Then he'll walk out the door next year. But there are other guys that we're counting on that we think had a good off-season. Kevin Mitchell is one of the guys that's leaned up and gotten stronger as he's leaned up. He dropped 10 to 15 pounds. He's running and moving well. We think he might be a guy that can go out and play tackle. As he's lost weight he looks more athletic. He might be able to go out and play tackle. We'll start him off at guard, but he could be a tackle if needed.
We're really excited about Kevin and his development. We were able to get him a lot of reps with Chandler Burden being out. For the bowl game we were able to get Teven Eatmon a lot of reps during the bowl practices. And just watching him in the weight room, he's changed his body around. He came in here last year as a 280-pound -- when we signed him, he was about a 275-pound tight end. Now he's about a 315-pound tackle for us. So we're excited about him.
(Dave) Ulinksi is a guy that has to continue to progress because we feel really good about the first group in Stuart Hines, and Matt Smith, Larry Warford who was an all conference guy, Billy Joe Murphy who filled in from guard at tackle. He was one of our guys that was a swing guy.
We feel Jake has to be that guy this year. And then Chandler Burden, who will not practice this spring in full contact drills, but all the things that we can do with him will be non-contact, and those things that do not hurt his progression.
The tight end position, we have three guys that played a lot for us last year. Anthony Kendrick came in to make a fourth guy. He played a little bit late in the season. So we feel like the depth and the experience at the tight end will be beneficial for us.
(We've) got two guys that we were able to redshirt also at that position that will give us even more depth at that position.
Obviously, we lost a lot of production at the running back, the receiver, the quarterback position. For some people it's a concern. For us, it's not. It's a challenge. It's an opportunity.
In 2007, we lost similar to the same amount of production. We came back the next year and we were sixth in the league in scoring. So we've been here before. It's a familiar place for us. Very similar that we came back with Dicky Lyons being our lead receiver (in 2008). We have La'Rod King coming back (this year).
We have more experience at the wide receiver position this year than we did when we came back in 2008. We brought five freshmen in and those guys were thrown into the mix right away. We still have Matt Roark, and E.J. Fields who will give us some reps there, and also Brian Adams.
The running back position, Raymond Sanders has played a lot there last year, and also Brandon Gainer, Coshik Williams and Jonathan George. Those guys will give us some quality depth at that position for the spring, and it will be a heavy competition.
At the quarterback position, Morgan (Newton) will start off as the guy that goes out with the first team, but we're really excited about what we saw in the five practices with Max Smith, and that will continue to be a competition at that position with Max Smith pushing Morgan.
We won't hit those guys this spring. We'll only have two scholarship quarterbacks. We'll limit those guys' contact.
Defensively last year was the most inexperienced defense we've had in about 20 years. And we have a lot of those guys that got a chance to play their first football here, which now gives us a lot of guys that have played a lot of football now.
So we just want to continue to build the type of defense that we think that it takes to win in this league. To win in this league, you have to play dominant defense. We want a defense that's creating turnovers, a defense that's creating negative yardage plays, the defense that smothers people We have a lot of people coming back that will allow us to play a little bit faster and play a little bit more aggressive on defense, especially on the back end. We're excited about it.
You look at our back end, and there are four senior safeties and two corners that will be seniors, so it's a lot of experience and depth. Some young guys in Jerrell Priester, who is one of the most explosive guys on our football team when you talk about running, catching and jumping and those things. We're excited about him.
Our scheme on defense, yes, we will get into some three-down (lineman) looks. But we'll base out of a four-down look. I hear people saying are you going to a true three-four? No. We will have more defensive backs on the field. We'll be more of a 4-2-5 type of defense if you start studying us.
We'll be more of a four down, two linebacker, five defensive back type (of defense), which gives you nothing but more speed and more athleticism on the field. So that's how we'll look more than being in the three down.
We will get into some three down looks, but most of the time it will be a four-down look with five defensive backs in the game.
Special teams-wise, we have our punter, our kicker, our field goal kicker, our kickoff guy all coming back. Some might consider this a concern. But, again, we consider it a challenge. We've got to replace all the things that Randall Cobb did in the kicking game, and all the things that Derrick Locke did in the kicking game.
But we have guys that have been working this off-season trying to replace that.
Questions and Answers
Q. Is it a concern with a guy like a Max Smith when you don't have contact?
COACH PHILLIPS: No, because we've been doing this for a long time. We've developed quarterbacks without contacting them. We brought Andre' Woodson up, and we never would have anybody touch him. And Morgan I think he can get just the feel of guys flying around him I think helps him.
Our guys do a really good job of pulling off when they get to contact, so we do want people in his face. But we don't want people into his framework. So it's not a concern to us.
Q. Can you talk about a couple of times you said to some people it (the offense) may be a concern. Do you get the sense that there is a concern?
COACH PHILLIPS: There is no concern to us. But we hear it. We're not in a cave. We hear it. We hear people's concerns. We've lost this, we've lost that. We've lost a lot of production before. We lost Stevie Johnson, Keenan Burton. We didn't have a tight end for a couple of years and we made do with it. So it's not a concern of ours.
We view it as an opportunity. It's an opportunity for E.J. Fields to get reps, get quality reps. It's an opportunity for Brian Adams to get some quality reps.
Brian Adams will be -- I talked with (baseball) coach (Gary) Henderson, and Brian, we'll share him, okay. Those guys (the baseball team) as they compete for a championship, an SEC championship during the weekends or the SEC series we'll allow Brian to play in those SEC series that are away. When it's home, he'll also play in them, but he'll also practice on mornings with us in football.
I think only one of the series or actually, two, two of the series are at home while we're at practice. The other will be the Auburn series on the 8th and 9th. He'll practice in the morning with us, and then go play in the baseball game, so that would be a good story for you guys to get on top of.
Then the spring game. We don't have a practice the Friday before the spring game, but he'll play in the spring game at 3 o'clock, and play baseball at 7 o'clock. So that's another good story.
Q. With Maxwell, there will be a competition. But this is the first time that Morgan hasn't had somebody with comparable experience to him. What do you want to see from him now?
COACH PHILLIPS: I want to see Morgan lead, first of all. The thing is, Morgan is a talent. We've got to be more efficient in the passing game. No question about that. But we also want to see Morgan take control of this offense and lead them in the right direction. The right direction is at the goal line.
He's definitely talented enough. Again, we've been here before where we've had at the quarterback position with very little experience three years ago with Mike Hartline. Six, seven years ago it was Andre' Woodson who had no experience. We did nothing but do a good job of developing those guys.
We're excited about Morgan's opportunity, but we're also excited about the opportunities to get Max in the fold also. Max is a guy that came in here for five practices, and has been here the whole spring. I really like some of the things that he's shown in leading some of the young guys.
Actually they're old guys to him, but he's done a good job in leading those guys. The young guys, you overhear them talking, the young guys are always responsible for making sure the balls are out there. We've always had balls -- I haven't had any complaints about us not having balls out there, so Max's leadership is already starting to take fold.
Q. Who is coming in early, and how excited are you to have the opportunity?
COACH PHILLIPS: Well, we had Max Smith, Tim Patterson, and Jabari Johnson. (It's good) to get all three of those guys in here, especially Max who you're counting on to give you some competition at the (quarterback) position. Jabari came in a little overweight and had been sitting out the last semester, so it was good to get him here early to get him conditioned for the winter. Wish we had more time with him.
Tim Patterson's key for him also coming in with the knee injury. Got him rehabbed, so we can see how much he can do. I think he'll be able to do a little bit more than if he had not come in here.
Again, the jury's still out on whether or not he'll be able to go full speed contact yet.
They're guys that we grayshirted we signed last year. They sat out last fall, so they're a year older, a bit more mature. So I think it will definitely be good for those guys to sit out that semester.
Q. The defense will remain a four three. Talk about how different it will look and how important it will be for these guys to learn?
COACH PHILLIPS: Well, how different it will look? We'll have more athleticism on the field. We'll have more of a four-two-five. We'll have two linebackers. (Ridge) Wilson will be a hybrid type of guy where he'll go play some defensive end, some rush end, play some linebacker when we get into some heavy package.
Ridge allows us to be able to do that. Winston Guy, you'll see Winston Guy playing a little closer to the ball in some of our packages, so that's the difference.
Then when you do that, you get faster. When you move Ridge to defensive end or rush back, or you move Taylor Wyndham inside and you move Winston Guy down in the box, you do nothing but make yourself more athletic and a lot faster.
Q. You talked about more reps for some of your players to replace the older guys that have left. You'll get a punt returner for Randall (Cobb) and replace the wide receiver. What about finding those intangibles he brought with his willingness to put his team on his back?
COACH PHILLIPS: Yeah, we've got to find that, no question about it. When Keenan Burton walked out the door, we found it in Randall. Now we've got to find the next Keenan Burton, Randall Cobb. La'Rod King showed some flashes this past season, and he showed some flashes of being able to lead in the winter program.
Raymond Sanders has also been a guy that's been very vocal, and a guy that's made some plays. I think it helps when you've made some plays around here that you can be vocal, that you can demand the ball.
I'm not saying that Randall really ever demanded the ball to us verbally, but with his presence. With his presence it meant it was a very demanding presence that you knew you had to get the ball in his hands. So hopefully one of those two guys can be those type of guys for us.
Q. When you look around the football landscape both college and pro, do you see the Wildcat formation as much as you used to?
COACH PHILLIPS: Yeah, it's starting to decrease a little bit. You don't see it as much as when it came out a few years ago with (Darren) McFadden. They started to run it in Arkansas with McFadden, and right now it's not in our package.
The thing we've got to do is get better at running football plays. Then trying to figure out who, or if we can do some of the Wildcat package. But right now we've got to get good at running our base plays and finding out who can run our base plays and finding out who can make plays for us on the perimeter, that's a huge opportunity for some of these guys to see.
We'll have some scrimmages where it will be all passing game scrimmages, because we've got to come out of this game being more efficient at throwing the ball with this group.
Q. Did you find anything that stuck out that you will do differently?
COACH PHILLIPS: I tell you this, Tony (Neely) talked about all the things that I did in the community. I did cut some of the things down that I was doing, because I thought I needed to spend more time on football. I needed to be fresh when I'm in front of our football team. I need to be fresh for spring football.
You've got to lean on your staff also. I've never been on a staff that the head coach didn't lean on his staff. I've got to do that even more this year. That is a lot of the experience. Rick's (Minter) been a head coach before. You have to lean on him. You have to lean on all our guys because they do have experience. That will be the thing that we'll do different.
Q. Regarding Alex Smith
COACH PHILLIPS: Got a lot of tight ends over there. You have four that have actually played, actually five. Gabe Correll is one of the guys that's actually played also. And you have two other guys that were redshirts. So you have five tight ends that played. Everybody's got to start somewhere, and that's where Alex will start for us.
Q. Talk about replacing Randall's intangibles. Is that something that has to show itself in the spring or over the summer?
COACH PHILLIPS: I don't think it has to show itself in the spring. We've been here years that we didn't have it also in the spring, and it showed up in the fall. I think, again, King is one of those guys that could step up and be one of those guys, Raymond Sanders, Morgan Newton.
And it doesn't always have to come from a skilled position. I think Larry Warford is a guy that is trying also. I mean, Larry Warford is the guy that's worked his tail off. Larry Warford is a guy that when he first got here couldn't run with our football team. He couldn't. He couldn't make any of the runs. I'm sure you guys saw some of that last spring with some of the open practices.
Now Larry Warford is a guy that not only does he go through our practices, he'll come back and go a few rounds punching on the bags and boxing with Rock (Oliver).
So Larry's a guy that's gotten respect around here because of the way he's worked. He's the guy that could be one of those guys that puts this football team on his back also.
Q. How has Aaron Boyd developed?
COACH PHILLIPS: He's shown some. But, again, those other guys are a little ahead of him right now. They're getting enough reps right now. There are only six or seven receivers in spring. With Brian Adams being out, Aaron will get quality reps.
Hey, we'll give you some reps if you show up. (laughter from crowd) Takes more than hands. I've got good hands (laughing).
Q. You've got like nine or ten guys that are sophomores on that defensive line. Can you talk about some of those guys?
COACH PHILLIPS: Those guys had great off-seasons. The thing about it is this is really the first time we've been able to redshirt when we had four or five guys, and you see (Mister) Cobble was one of those guys also that we were able to sit out this year.
And those guys being one unit in Rock and Coach (Ted) Lambrinides over there getting the defensive linemen together and having those guys lift four days a week during the season. That's key.
We've never had that around here. None of our defensive linemen. You talk about Jeremy Jarmon came here, he was injured. He wasn't able to lift four days a week. Corey Peters was not able to. Myron Pryor comes in and he's playing right away, he and Corey.
So we weren't able to have those guys lift four days a week (during their first season) which have been some of the luxuries that some of the other programs have had. Now we have four guys that were able to lift three or four days a week during the season. Then you get (Donte) Rumph who has a chance to play. Now he's in a position where now Rumph can make all of our runs. He's now down to around 305, 308, and running well. So I think the reps that he was able to get last year will be nothing -- or do nothing but help his development.
Brice Laughlin is one of the stronger guys on the football team. I like Mike Douglas's athleticism. And Alvin Davis, we think he's got a chance to be a good football player, so we're excited about those big guys up front.
That's where everything starts. We feel really good about what we have up front, offensive line-wise, and we feel really good about what we have in the young defensive linemen to be able to give us some quality depth.
Q. Does Morgan's ability to run allow you to run some of the Wildcat with him in the shotgun?
COACH PHILLIPS: It does. It would be equalizing. With (Andre') Woodson or Mike Hartline getting in the gun, you have a couple of (running) plays. You either have some type of zone scheme with your running back, or you have to throw the ball. You didn't have any downhill running game.
But with Morgan Newton we've got some downhill running back game because you're really in the two-back offense when you have him back there in the shotgun. Again, people wanted Andre Woodson in the gun. Andre Woodson was better for us under the center. And now we have all of our running game that people have to account for.
But in the gun, we only have a couple of plays in the run game or you had to throw the football. Morgan, you've got a lot of things. You can still be a fast football team, similar to Auburn. Auburn being in the gun, most teams you see in the gun, people view them as a zone scheme.
Auburn was a downhill football team because of the things that Cam Newton brought to him. We think that Morgan can bring those same things to us.
Q. What is your expectation now for Danny Trevathan?
COACH PHILLIPS: Danny's got to be more of a leader. Danny's going to play hard and have 15, 20 tackles a game. We need Danny to be a vocal leader for us. Danny put on probably 10, 15 pounds, looks really, really good. That's not a man crush (laughter from crowd), that's just telling it how it is.
Danny needs to step up and be more of a vocal leader for us. You hear guys saying, well, he's not the leader. But Danny is the leader. He just doesn't know it yet and doesn't know how. And Coach Minter and he have sat down numerous times trying to teach him how to be a leader, because we think he can be a tremendous leader for us.
Q. Do you think he's one of the best? Is he one of the best linebackers?
COACH PHILLIPS: Yeah, no question about that. He's one of the better ones in this conference. And if you're one of the better players in this conference, it spreads throughout the country in my opinion.
Q. How far along is Morgan in terms of learning to trust the play enough?
COACH PHILLIPS: That's yet to be seen. I think he was definitely better from the bowl game he played his freshman year, to the bowl game he played in his sophomore year. But how comfortable he is in staying in there and until the last minute? I learned this early in my career, a great quarterback is one that extends and then takes one right in the lip before he delivers. I think that's one of the qualities that great quarterbacks have.
Morgan's done it a few times. The more times you see it, the more times that you'll start to understand how good of a quarterback he is.
Q. Is this where you wanted the team to be in the long run (on defense)?
COACH PHILLIPS: We don't want to get into where we're always subbing. Rick would like for the scheme to be able to hold up in the heavy, heavy packages that offenses are running, and also the spread packages. I think being in those type of schemes gives us a chance.
Fifth defensive back is a hybrid linebacker. A hybrid safety linebacker type guy. Similar to what you hear teams talking about a hybrid end. He's a defensive end, linebacker Ridge Wilson. Same with tight ends. Tight ends are hybrid guys, they're wide receivers/tight ends/fullbacks.
So that fifth defensive back will be a linebacking type body. Winston's a 215-pound guy. And he'll be a guy that's closer to the box for us when we get into that package.
Q. How ready is EJ Fields to make the step up?
COACH PHILLIPS: With some of the plays he made in the kicking game, we all think he's a lot closer, definitely a lot closer than he was last year. Some of the plays he made in the kick game, and we've been visiting with a team that came in to visit with our offense. One of the guys on another team that we played last year, and he was actually a special teams coordinator.
We started picking his brain also to try to give us some feedback on what they saw when they played us. One of the guys he talked about was E.J. Fields. E.J. Fields and Matt Roark in the special teams area. So if that tells you what type of respect that he's got in this conference.
We need to tell E.J. that too. So E.J. understands he can be a force in this league, not only a force in the special teams area. But we need him to be a force in the wide receiver position on offense.
Q. How is Gene McCaskill's progress?
COACH PHILLIPS: McCaskill had a little setback. So I'm not sure if we'll see him much this spring. He had a little swelling, so we might sit him this spring to make sure he's ready for the fall.