Mark Smith, Sam Webb re the LB's, the Huskers

The Michigan Linebackers coach runs through his 2-deep, then goes into the Nebraska offense.

Sam Webb: First things first, coach, let's just start off – first opportunity to talk to you this season. Just very generally, how are things going for you this season?

Mark Smith: "As of late they're going pretty well. The kids seem to be improving every week, and I'm talking about my players, and just in general the entire team. So I'm very happy with where we're at right now, and the progress we're making, but obviously we have to keep getting better."

Sam Webb: Speaking of getting better, it seems like every game last season, every game this year, number 47 is getting better seemingly every day, making plays in every game, Jake Ryan. It's interesting to hear you guys talk about him, because the way Coach Mattison puts it, he said, ‘you know, he doesn't always do it the way you coach it, but he gets there'. How do you strike that balance between ‘hey, you know, he may not do it by the letter that we teach, but somehow someway finds a way to make it right'?

Mark Smith: "As Greg said, you know, Jake's just a very instinctive football player, and his effort and his intensity that he brings on the field is something that you never want to take away from a kid. So for whatever reason, or however you can get it done, you'd say ‘hey here's the framework you've got to work within', and as long as he's not hurting the defense, which he's not, let him be. It's just like sometimes people say let Denard be Denard, and sometimes he just makes things happen on their own, and as long as they're doing that more than they're not doing that, they're in good shape."

Sam Webb: I imagine as a coach that it takes experience to learn how to balance that. Have you experienced that before where you had a player that what may have been a little bit more unorthodox, may have not done it exactly the way you told them to do it, but they got it, and you figure out, hey, sometimes you have to let that guy go?

Mark Smith: "You do. You have to. It's just like – if you want to put in baseball terms, you know, sometimes there's a guy who doesn't have the greatest looking swing, but he's hitting the ball, you don't change them. You have to make them understand that there's a framework have to work within so they don't hurt the other guys around them, but as long as they're being productive and making plays, then you let them be athletes."

Sam Webb: Now when you watch him, his evolution from when you guys first got here, as a redshirt freshman, he had a great spring game and I remember you guys saying ‘temper your enthusiasm a little bit', but he comes out in the fall, and he makes some plays in the fall. Talk to me about his growth as a player, and now that he's made so many plays, what's the next step for Jake Ryan?

Mark Smith: "Obviously, he's always had that physical ability. You could see that from the beginning, how he runs and jumps and changes directions, how strong he is. You know the biggest improvement Jake's made is the mental part of it. Greg is done a great job of helping him evolve into the mental aspect of the football game and understanding what the picture tells you before the picture even happens, you know, before the play starts. Jake has a pretty good idea, and is become a much more intelligent football player, when it comes to recognizing things either before they happen, by the formation tendencies, and/or as the play develops, he understands what they're trying to do to him. That's where I've seen his improvement is just the knowledge of the game."

Sam Webb: Coach, now let's slide inside. Kenny Demens is a senior on this team, and you guys challenged him in the off-season, and you talked about it, places and areas you wanted him to step up. Early in the season, he was, you know, he talked about learning to meet that challenge. Over the last few games it really seems like he's taking his game to another level. Have you seen that from him as well?

Mark Smith: "Yeah I think Kenny's starting to play, starting to work at that level of football that we expect him to play at. Again, being a fifth-year senior that's played a lot of football, and obviously is a very knowledgeable young man of the game, you expect him to make plays, and what he's doing right now is what he's supposed to be doing, and hopefully he'll continue to improve that, and I think always having that competition sitting right behind you always helps too. Because the kids understood from the first day we got here that there is no ownership, there is no entitlement. You know, the best kids will play, and if he's not being productive, and he's not producing, then the next kid will have a chance. But you know, to Kenny's credit, he's really done a good job of trying to study the game. He's done a good job of preparing himself mentally to go into each game, understanding what can happen to him, and you see that coming a little bit more on the field now."

Sam Webb: Certainly he looks much more comfortable in pass coverage. I don't know that's just how it seems on television, but are you seeing that part of it as well, particularly in his pass coverage?

Mark Smith: "I think you're exaclty right, and I think all the linebackers have done a better job of seeing the ball, and looking where the quarterback's looking versus trying to worry about where the receivers are running to. That interception he got, for example, a couple weeks ago, it was strictly nothing but reading the quarterback's eyes and looking where the quarterback was looking, and I'm happy they're starting to understand that, because in the past we weren't very good zone coverage droppers, and we're getting better. We're not where we need to be yet, but you can see the improvement."

Sam Webb: What about his partner to his side in Desmond Morgan? Last year, baptism under fire. I remember last year, the Illinois game was one where he really seemed to start to come on. What about this year? What kinds of improvements have you seen from Desmond?

Mark Smith: "In the same way you talk about Jake understanding the game and the scheme of the defense better, that's Desmond's whole thing. Desmond's always been a very smart football player, understands the game, has played it his whole life, but now I think he understands the defense much better where he can feel much more comfortable that he's not doing something he shouldn't be doing, so he's also another one that I think is really starting to come into his own. Not as good as we need to be yet, but starting to head in that direction."

Sam Webb: Now, we get this question a lot. Certainly there's been improvement in the play upfront. You know, Brady, and Coach Mattison, and Jerry Montgomery have been coaching those guys up there, and they have really brought them along. How much of the improvement at your position can be attributed to what those guys are doing upfront, and how much is it that your guys are getting better with reading their keys and their fundamentals in pass coverage? What is the balance there?

Mark Smith: "Well, the balance is that since they've gotten better upfront, we've gotten better. And I've coached both positions. I was a defensive line coach for a lot of years, and I've cause linebackers, and believe me, the whole defense starts with those guys up front. And us playing better on defense, those linebackers being able to flow better and see things easier is all a credit to those kids upfront, because they're coming off the ball, they're using their hands, and they're squeezing holes better, and it makes the linebackers' jobs so much easier, and when that happens, then they don't get nervous about ‘okay I got to go play two or three gaps'. They understand where they belong now, because those guys are where they belong, and that's a credit to those guys with Greg, and Jerry, and Coach Hoke that they're starting to play better up front, and there's no doubt about it that the linebackers play better and so does the secondary, when the defensive line plays better."

Sam Webb: Now coach, the backup position, or positions. We've seen a lot of young guys already this year. I want to start with James Ross because we saw him the most early, and I'm curious, what was it about his play? I've watched him a lot over the years, and one of the things that always struck me watching him play is you always saw a speed and aggression to his game, even when he was learning. Did you notice that, and what were some the keys to him being able to get on the field so early?

Mark Smith: "I think what you said is a big part of it. He's a very instinctive football player that has physical abilities, and he doesn't paralyze himself by trying to analyze everything. Even though he may not always be right, he will play fast, and he will play physical. And James has a bright future. He has a long way to go as far as learning what we need him to do, but when you watch him, he's naturally strong. When he hits something, it stops, and his fundamentals and techniques have gotten much better, with his footwork, and you can see that play on the field, but a lot of why James played early is because he has a lot of natural ability, and that has nothing to do with me as much as it does his gene pool."

Sam Webb: Another guy who has played football his whole life, been coached his whole life to be a linebacker, Joe Bolden, a really good athlete, came in as a mid-year guy. What about him and his progress? We talked to him earlier in the season and he said he was a little light, needed to pick up some weight, but other than that, he seen a lot of action. What about his progress?

Mark Smith: "You know, the thing Joe brought in with him, he has some good natural ability also, but probably not as natural an athlete as James, but what Joe has is what he's been raised with, is football his whole life. He's been on a football sideline since he's been old enough to walk, so he understands – and coming from a great program in Cincinnati Colerain, that he understands the intensity level, he understands the competition level. He understands being a student of the game, he understands studying, knowing his job and his position, and that's why Joe can play early on, because he has great knowledge of the game of football, and has done a great job of trying to learn and understand the concepts of our defense."

Sam Webb: Now an older guy, but a guy that we've seen some this year, and he really looks like he's gotten comfortable in his own skin at the Sam position is Cam Gordon. What about him?

Mark Smith: "You know what, and you're exactly right Sam, Cam – and just so we understand this, is, Jake and Cam, Greg actually coaches those guys. We kind of split them up, and I take the inside and he has the one outside position, but Cam's done a very good job of trying to come in and give Jake a rest, and also compete with Jake, because what you were just talking about with Joe Bolden, and James Ross, and Kenny Demens, and Desmond Morgan, you've got the same competition going on with Jake and Cam. They're both very prideful football players that want to be on the field, so they work with each other, they push each other, and Cam's going to help our football team win a lot of games, not only this year, but for years to come."

Sam Webb: Alright, now a couple of other guys, to talk about one that we see on special-teams a lot, not quite sure where he figures in your linebackers scenario, but Royce Jenkins Stone, which linebacker position are you working him at, and what has his progress been like?

Mark Smith: "Royce right now is working primarily as a Mike linebacker, so he's with Kenny Demens and Joe Bolden at that position there. And Royce has done a very good job of being a solid third or fourth right now. He and Mike Jones kind of alternate at the third Mike backer a little bit. But you know, with the positions that we have with Kenny and with Joe, Royce was still too good of a football player to not use him in some capacity this year, and so that's why we opted to get him a little more involved in the kick game. Royce needs to have a little more attention to detail, and understand the little things that go into playing not only his position, but what he does in the kick game, but from a natural ability standpoint, and a ‘want to', Royce Jenkins Jones is going to be a very good football player."

Sam Webb: Now a kid who is clearly red-shirting this year, had an injury to his knee, Caleb Ringer, how is his rehab coming along, and what's his future? How does he kind of fit into the scenario?

Mark Smith: "Well obviously, you know, that's all to be determined. Caleb is the one who will determine that."

Sam Webb: I mean as far as position goes…

Mark Smith: "Oh, as far as position goes, right now, when he does come back, he'll probably be more of a Mike linebacker type. You know, we lose Kenny after this year, and Mike Jones has one year left, if he opts to stay, so that position all of a sudden will be cut down from four guys down to two. So right now when Caleb comes back, that would be the plan, to play him more as a Mike linebacker. As far as the rehab goes, my understanding is that it's going very well. I think Caleb has been, at least in the recent history here, he's been very diligent in the training room, trying to get himself ready to go, and hopefully he'll be out there for spring ball."

Sam Webb: Alright coach, now let's switch the emphasis to this week's opponent. Top rushing offense in the Big Ten, and as a linebacker coach, I imagine some people might look at that and be nervous, and the linebackers may be licking their chops because they know they're going to see a lot of action. What do you see when you see this Nebraska offense?

Mark Smith: "Well first off, I think Nebraska's a much improved team from a year ago, in a lot of ways. They're finding ways to win football games even when they're behind, and it all starts up front. They do a great job with their offensive line, I think they're physical, I think they come off the ball, and if you watch during the course of the game, I think they rotate and alternate guys, so they keep guys fresh upfront, those big guys. In most offenses, it always starts with the quarterback, and that's where I think you see improved play out of Nebraska this year, is out of Taylor Martinez. He has done a much better job of managing that offense, and running that offense, and not putting them in bad situations. Particularly at home, you know, he hasn't thrown interception at home, he hasn't turned the ball over much at home, so in my opinion, they're a much improved team. Last year, we were fortunate enough to get a couple of breaks early in the second half, to get it rolling a little bit, but this will be one of the toughest, if not the toughest, test today that we've had to date in our conference."

Sam Webb: A couple of differences I see, you mentioned Taylor Martinez, certainly better decision-making with the football, as you pointed to, seems to be more accurate with the football is well, and more confident throwing the football. 340 yards passing last week, two fourth-quarter touchdowns. Are you seeing that in the passing game as well? Greater confidence and greater accuracy?

Mark Smith: "Well no doubt, and I think they've improved his mechanics. A year ago when you watched him throw the ball, it was really low all the time, and he's carrying the ball much higher now. I also think that their offense of coordinator, and the people running that offense for them, have done a good job of giving him the decisions, or giving him the routes that he's capable of throwing, and putting him in situations for a chance of success, and I think all of the above. I think they've done a great job of putting him where he can be successful, but I think he's also improved with his mechanics from a year ago."

Sam Webb: Now people are very familiar with Rex Burkhead. Hpe's been a workhorse for that team to be sure – Doak Walker candidate – but he's been banged up all season, in and out, and there's been a report on the Big Ten network that he's doubtful for the game, so – I think if he can walk, he'll play, but I think fans might get a little bit overconfident about what that means if he doesn't play. This Abdullah kid, he's been pretty good for them this year.

Mark Smith: "Abdullah is not only a good back, he's a very good back, and the thing – and not that Rex wouldn't be a breakaway guy, because he is – this kid, if he gets in the open – Abdullah – he can take it the distance. Very elusive, and very deceptive strong for his size. You know, he looks like a smaller guy, but he plays like a bigger guy. I mean, he can make you miss, but he also – when he wants to lower the shoulder he can get a couple extra yards. Believe me, if you know about the history of Nebraska, and what they do with trying to run the football, they're going to have a stable of guys who can do that, no matter how many guys get banged up. They're always going to have that I-back, as they call them, in their offense, that can tote that ball, and believe me, I don't see – if Burkhead doesn't play, I don't see them missing a beat with Abdullah, or the two guys they've got behind him, so they're very deep in that position because that's what they count on."

Sam Webb: Alright coach, just very generally, the keys, at least for you your unit, the keys to the game. We've seen your guys do well against a variety of offenses. We've seen a downhill rushing attack, we've seen spread teams, we've seen option teams. Preparation, you think – not only from what you saw from them last year, but from what you've seen earlier this season, preparation for this game, that you've been able to play this – maybe not exactly the style of offense, but similar to it thus far this year?

Mark Smith: "Well, the one unique challenge that Nebraska presents to us that other teams don't, when you watch Illinois they're much more of a spread team. When you watch Purdue – Purdue is closer to what Nebraska's trying to do. They want to be some spread, and also some downhill running, whereas when you got the Michigan State, it was a downhill running football team that was going to knock you off the ball. Nebraska presents that challenge of being pretty good at doing both. They can run the spread type offenses with the replay, but then they can line up with two backs in the backfield and try to pound you were two tight ends, and in my opinion, they're very good at doing both, and it's not by happenstance, or luck, or chance, that they are averaging over 500 yards a game on offense and averaging close to 42 points a game. Believe me, again, because of the variety of ways they can attack us, I think this is going to be a great challenge for us."


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