C-USA Coaches Comment On Openers

With openers set for all Conference USA schools except Tulane starting this Thursday with Tulsa hosting UL-Monroe, it's time to start hearing from the coaches in C-USA. Here are reports from the league on press conferences by Skip Holtz at East Carolina; Tommy West at Memphis; first-year head coach Davide Bailiff at Rice; and Jeff Bower of Southern Miss, plus some notes from the conference call.

Quoting East Carolina Head Coach Skip Holtz, Week of Sept. 1 ((Mon., Aug. 27, from ecupirates.com). Opponent: at No. 9 Virginia Tech, Noon (EST), ESPN.

"Game week is finally here. We had a team practice last night where we were able to go into [Minges Coliseum] and also get some conditioning in outside. When I brought the team together at the end, I said that camp was finally over and that we are into the in-season routine. They then gave us a standing ovation. They are tired of dealing with us as coaches and tired of hitting each other. I think we are ready to get on with the season.
"There has been so much excitement andenthusiasm building up because of the schedule and opportunities that we have this year. These guys are ready to get on the field and start playing. With that being said, I also believe that there isan unbelievable challenge ahead of us. When you look at Virginia Tech as a program and team, they present such a challenge because of the players that they have coming back and the depth they have at each position. Everyone knows they are one of the best teams in the country. They are riding an emotional roller coaster right now and we know that we will be walking into a hornets' nest. We haven't yet had to deal with the crowd noise or distractions. Once you learn how to win, you then have to block out those distractions that don't have anything to do with the game of football. Our young players will have to face that challenge, as many of them have never stepped on the field and played.
"We are going to learn a lot about our football team from this game. We are inexperienced at the cornerback position and on the offensive line, but we are going to know a lot more about us as a team on Sunday morning following the game.
"I know that there has been a lot made about the Rob Kass situation. From a public standpoint, it is something of which we have been made aware. It is something that Coach Holland and I have talked about, but at this point I am not ready to address it publicly. When I am ready to address it openly I will, but now is not the time."

On the atmosphere of Lane Stadium affecting young players:
"If you are going to write a script, you don't want to baptize a new quarterback [in Blacksburg] but we have talked about that. Everyone knows that their defense is great, but they also have one of the top special teams units in the country. With the 'Beamer Ball' that they play on special teams, you also don't want to break in a new punter up there. I think Matt Dodge and Nathan Przestrzelski have done a very nice job of competing this year and we will continue that through Wednesday before I make my final decision. [The Hokies] do such a great job of lining up and coming after you. We have talked about who we will put on the punt protecting team so we will utilize the best players that we have. Guys like Davon Drew, Pierre Bell and Fred Wilson will have to step up in order to make our special teams unit the best it can be. We have talked a lot about the 'dirty dozen' that we have been trying to develop the past few years. You can't just throw young guys in there early in the season and expect them to be ready to play. That is something we will work on and develop as the season progresses. That puts a little more of a burden on our starters because they will have to pick up some special teams snaps as well. There will be a lot of pressure but, even Ryan Dougherty had to go kick in his first game. In three years, we could be discussing how to replace Ben Hartman, but for now we have to teach our team how to play the game effectively."

On the running backs:
"We will play all of them. We have looked at some two-back sets, but we have to find a way to get our best players on the field. The way we do that is to play all of our running backs. Chris Johnson and Dominique Lindsay will play a very active role in what we are doing, but they aren't our entire offense. Jonathan Williams, Norman Whitley and Brandon Simmons will all play. We always like to have what we call 'a pair and a spare.' That means you would like to see a clear starter, back-up and a third option. If someone gets injured, we wouldn't have to scrap any plays. When you look at our two-back sets, you see that 'pair and a spare.' We have been practicing this part of the offense since the spring. How often we use it will be predicated on our opponent and how we are playing."

On injuries:
"Khalif Mitchell and Scotty Robinson are the two main players that were out. Herman Best was out but he is back running on his ankle this week. Jerek Hewett missed a week because of his concussion and Nick Johnson missed a week because of a shoulder injury. We've had some bumps and bruises but the two that have been out all camp are Khalif and Scotty. Right now they have three to four week injuries and we are on week three. They both ran last night and have done a nice job of getting treatment. Mike Golden and Mike Hanley have done a super job putting them through rehab, whether it is in the pool or managing their practice involvement. If they can be approved to play in 10 or 15 plays then that would be huge for us because those are plays the C.J. Wilson, Zack Slate and Marcus Hands don't have to play."

Memphis quarterback Martin Hankins (13) had one shot at C.J. Spillman, the Herd's safety, after an interception in last year's game. The Tigers host Mississippi on Saturday to open the season.

Quoting Memphis Head Coach Tommy West, Week of Sept. 1 (Mon., Aug. 27, from gotigersgo.com). Opponent: Hosts Ole Miss, 3:30 p.m. (EST), Comcast Sports South (CSS).

"I'm excited to get started; I'm excited to see this team. We're a better team right now than when we started our camp. To be honest, I'm looking forward to watching them play. From a health standpoint, we're pretty good.
"Can you talk about how grueling camp was especially with the hot temperatures? This was by far the hottest I've seen it. I guess it was the hottest stretch — I mean I don't know any records or anything — but I'm sure it is. We took extra precautions to try and educate our kids. We even checked their names off in meetings. (We were) trying to teach them how to hydrate; that you don't just go to practice and drink water or Gatorade during practice, that you do it at night and before.
"When it's 6:30 in the morning with the morning practice, it never was over 85 when we finished practice. I felt like in the morning practice we were able to work and get accomplished what we needed to accomplish, and they weren't just zapped at the end of it. Now the afternoon practice, there wasn't a whole lot you could do at 5 o'clock.
"I didn't think we were just gone at the end of camp. I don't like them that way. I did think that we were taxed pretty well. That's why after fan day Saturday I gave them all day yesterday off. Then we started school today and we're not going to work today. We'll come back at 1:30 tomorrow. That's a pretty good length of time away from it."

Talk about where you think you're better now vs. where you were at the end of last season:
"I think we're a totally different offensive team. I don't think we're anything like what we were. I'm really looking forward to watching us throw and catch. I think we're a really talented group at wide receivers. We're two deep at wideout with good talented players.
"Our quarterbacks — Will's (Hudgens) thrown the ball really well too — have thrown it well. Martin (Hankins) threw one intercept in all of camp. It was just a dumb decision that he made down there at the goal line. I think that's the biggest place offensively that we're different.
"I want to think our running game is a little stronger inside then it was when we ended last year. Time will tell there; we'll see. But I know we throw and catch it better. Without us having played a game, I feel really confident about our passing game.
"Defensively, we're going to have to play to find out. I feel better about coverage. I feel better about assignments. I do think we know now what we're doing; why we're doing it. But we've got to go play. I thought throughout camp that our offense was better than our defense, and we ended camp and I thought our offense was ahead of our defense."

Is it that the defense is that more difficult to learn since you made the switch?
"No. I think we're more talented offensively right now to be honest. You can't be the same. It's not that I don't like our defense; it's that I think our wideouts are really good. We had trouble covering our guys during camp. I want to think that a lot of people are going to have trouble when they play man covering our guys. I think Duke (Calhoun) is really good. I think (Carlos) Singleton is really good. (Steven) Black's really good. I think Maurice Jones is really good. I think Earnest Williams is good. I think (Carlton) Robinzine is good. I think Dave Thomas is good. I like our wideouts. It's not that I don't like our defense; I just think we're a little ahead right now offensively."

Have you had that kind of size at wideout during your career?
"No. I laughed with the staff. It seems like everywhere I worked as an assistant coach, we played somebody and on Sunday the head coach would say, 'Why don't we have some receivers that look like those guys? We've got these little bitty guys and they've got those great big guys.' We've got those great big guys so you're not going to hear me say that on Sunday. We're big. (Steven) Black's almost 220 pounds. Maurice Jones is almost 230 pounds. Duke's (Calhoun) over 200 pounds. Carlos (Singleton) is bigger than he's ever been. We're not a small group, and we run well.
"I can't wait to see it. I can't wait for somebody to play us man and see can we go get them. I want to see what happens. We've worked really hard at trying to match people up on people. We'll see starting Saturday if we're as good as I think we are at wideout. That's the key to us, I'll tell you that right now. The key to us is again going to be making our plays down the field. If our wide receivers make their plays down the field, we'll play good on Saturday."

Quoting Rice Head Coach David Bailiff (Mon., Aug. 27, from riceowls.com). Week of Sept. 1, Opponent: Hosts Nicholls State, 8 p.m.(EST).

"It seems like I was here just the other day being announced as the head coach. It has gone by fast, but I'll tell you it's been absolutely remarkable just to attribute to the young men we have at Rice. Seven months ago they were nervous, I was nervous. Standing here today we are a football team. We've really grown together. We've established a relationship based on trust, and it's one that is going to continue to grow stronger every time we work together.
"We've had a tremendous camp. I think we've got a great attitude. Exiting camp there is a lot of chemistry in this football team, there is a lot of accountability on this football team, and most importantly there is a lot of trust. That's what made it just an absolute ball to be the head football coach at Rice.
"Nicholls (State), I've played them as a player, I've played them as a coach. I know Jay Thomas does an absolute great job there. We were in the Southland Conference together. Two years ago we shared the conference title with Nicholls. They're a team that you know is going to play for all four quarters. They've been very solid running that option, and defending that option is just so different. About a week ago at camp we had to stop what we were doing defensively and get ready for defending that option because it is unique. They've got nine starters back on offense. Their quarterback did a great job last year, so he's a seasoned veteran. They've got 6-6 receivers, they've got a big offensive line. Defensively, they're going to blitz you and blitz you and blitz you, and they'll have fun doing it. They're solid on special teams. It's a game that we're going to have to show up to. You can't take I-AA opponents for granted. We've learned that when I was a coach at 1-AA, we've learned that when I was coaching at TCU. You better prepare for Nicholls the same way you prepare for Houston, the same way you prepare for Tulsa. They're going to give us their best shot when they get off of that bus. Once again, though, I think we'll be ready and I think it will be a great football game."

On facing the option:
"One of the things that we like to do defensively is just putting our ears back and blitzing them and running a high pressure defense. When you face an option team, you have to make sure that your dive, quarterback, and pitch sound every snap, so it really balances you up. It also is one that puts a lot of pressure on the free safety and safety when they throw the play action pass; they're going to try to throw it over our heads seven times in this game. It takes great discipline. Those young men have to read their keys every snap. If you take a play off, they're going to put seven on the board. It's one where every snap defensively we've got to watch what they're doing and read our keys. It takes a disciplined football team to beat the option, and I think we can do that."

On the team developing an identity:
"Well, it's something that I think we've been working on since the day I got here. You look at the type of young men here and you look at President Kennedy's speech in 1962 in this stadium where he said, 'Why do we choose to go to the moon? Why does Rice play Texas? Because it's hard.' That's the kind of guys that we've got here. They came to Rice accepting this challenge academically, they came to Rice accepting this challenge athletically, and even though I am the third, I think we can trust each other and I think there is tremendous loyalty from this coaching staff to them and from them to us."

Marshall linebacker Ian Hoskins stood over Southern Miss quarterback Dustin Almond in the game in Huntington in 2005. Southern Miss will open Coach Jeff Bower's 17th season as head coach by hosting Tenn.-Martin Saturday.

Quoting Southern Miss Head Coach Jeff Bower (Mon., Aug. 27, from southernmiss.com). Week of Sept. 1, Opponent: Host Tennessee-Martin, 7 p.m. (EST).

"It's good to see everybody. It's game week, thank goodness. It gets fun. We're excited about playing and about our preparations throughout this week. I think we've got a tough opener. They're a team that knows how to win, and they won a championship last year. They have a lot of players back. It will be a good gauge for our football team and to see where we are. It will be the typical opener in the aspect that you have to expect the unexpected. You're not sure about a lot of things. We've got a lot of respect for Tennessee-Martin. They've got a good tailback and four starters back on the offensive line."

"From an injury standpoint, we've lost Ivory Bradshaw and Ralph Turner for the season. Antrone Harris had surgery last week. It was a lot worse than what they expected. He'll be gone for about the next nine weeks, which looks like a season-ending injury. Josh Adams will have his shoulder operated on today, and we'll lose him for the season. Hopefully we can stay healthy from here on out. I feel good about our football team and where we are. I look forward to hitting the field tonight to prepare for the year and this game."

On the injury status of Micah Brown:
"We're going to work him a little bit today. I think it's too early to say on him and (Ryan) Hebert, but we'll intensify their participation in practice and bring them along to see where we are."

On solidifying the depth chart:
"I'm not going to make a decision yet on a kicker. I want to chart them a little more this week and see where we are. (Justin) Estes had a groin pull, and he was a little limited last week. It affected his kicking, but I think he feels better now and I want to see what he does this week. On the offensive line, Calvin Wilson will be a back-up right now, but we're going to rep him with the one's at guard this week. He can play any position on the offensive line with the exception of center. We'll continue to work him and bring him along there. Hebert will rep some this week and we'll give Micah some work. A lot of that depends on what they can do. We'll start C.J. Bailey at corner. We've got two snappers who are kind of neck-and-neck. Andy Hill will do the deep snapping for punts, and Cody Tawater will be the short snapper on PAT's and field goals. Chris Johnson will return punts, and he'll be backed up by (Brandon) Sumrall at that position. Returning kicks, we've got Tory Harrison and Ed Morgan listed there."

On the position battle between Eddie Willingham and Bailey:
"I think C.J. really came on. He did a good job of staying in shape while he was away from here, and came back ready to go. He picked things up fast and made plays for us. That's the bottom line; he made plays."

On if any freshmen will play on Saturday:
"Yeah, I think Antonio Leonard will play. He'll be a big factor on special teams. (Justin) Estes and Chico Hunter will play. That's probably it. We haven't decided the final dress list yet, but we'll probably dress a number of young kids that we think, in time, might factor in and play."

On if they have considered splitting the kicking duties:
"Sure, because Barefoot has got the big leg. I'm going to test them out this week and see who does what."

On if UTM's coach played for him:
"He did. He walked on. (Assistant Head Coach Chris) Boone played. They know a lot about us. There are a lot of similarities in the defense, and you've got to expect that with those guys. They'll have some of the same formations and some of the same plays."

Marshall's Albert McClellan sacked Virginia Tech quarterback Marcus Vick in the Herd's game at Blacksburg in 2005, a trip East Carolina will make this year to open the season.

Holtz on playing at Virginia Tech:
"This is a big game. What concerns me is the amount of people (we will play) who haven't played. We might wear our gold pants to keep some players from being embarrassed. We can't lose our focus. We've got to keep focus on task at hand, while respecting what they are going through. But we don't want our players entering the field with cameras on their necks. These players will remember some of the tributes, but we are not going up to Blacksburg for just that. The Christians stood on the floor of the Coliseum (in ancient Rome), looking up at the big crowd and all the flags, but eventually, those lions came out," said Holtz, referring to his young team opening at Virginia Tech in the first football game since the tragedy this past spring in which over 30 persons were killed by a gunman who then killed himself.

Mark Snyder, on kids being excited about playing versus Miami in the final opener for the Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl:
"I sure hope so. I've been there and so have a lot of players on our team. We have a few who have been there. I've been to the OB, but never coached in the OB."
On whether he would rather play the last opener Saturday or the last game there, which Virginia will do in November:

Phil Bennett of SMU, on playing on Labor Day Monday at 4 p.m. against Texas Tech, then coming back on Saturday at Arkansas State:
"It's a little bit of a gamble, playing on Monday and then on Saturday. But opening play with a Big 12 team is something we at SMU wanted to do. They are a little bit like us. Mike and his staff have doen a great job. We are excited about the opportunity (to be on ESPN), and we have played them better at home than on the road. You have got to score some points on Tech, they are a team that will stretch you horizontally and vertically and their run game doesn't get enough credit."

Bob Toledo of Tulane, on separation of quarterbacks:
"Scott Elliott is the starting quarterback, but the big thing is all of them got experience (in camp). We'll give them the weekend off and that gives us about a week and one-half to get ready for Mississippi State (in the opener Sept. 8). Hopefully, he'll manage the offense and not do the things that will get us beat. We are not going to yank him on the first mistake. We'd like to get all three quarterbacks into the first game, a non-league game, and all get reps. The second game is the one that really counts (in the first five) because it is a league game (with Houston). We should then have a great idea after Southeastern Louisiana, LSU and Army who can get us the most wins in league games."

Todd Graham on being first opener in Division I, Bowl Championship Sub-Division:
"We are chomping at the bit, and tired of beating on each other. It will be my first game as head coach (at Tulsa) and what better way than playing on national television, in the first game of the year, on ESPN. We are really excited to get this thing going in the right direction."

Marshall's Josh Johnson rushed UTEP QB Jordan Palmer in the second half of last season's game. Mike Price will replace Palmer and a number of players on his young Miners team for 2007.

Mike Price on his UTEP team and opening with New Mexico:
"We've got a lot of energy around here. We're young. We'll be exciting, but we are so young that could be good or bad. The community of El Paso is jacked about Miners football, and we'll have over 50,000 at the opener. Our fans don't like New Mexico or New Mexico State...We like playing at home. Our fans are great. We like to compete. Our fans like to compete with the New Mexico schools, they mean a heck of a lot to our fans. We put pressure on people (in the Sun Bowl), it's loud and the fans get cranked up. We won the game three years ago (with New Mexico), but it was close."

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