Sam Webb: Before we talk specifically about Akron, just give me a feel for how your specific position group has done over the first few weeks of the season.
Curt Mallory: “Well, I like the way Jarrod Wilson has progressed. He’s gotten better each week, and I expect him to continue to do so. With the young guys, we’ve used some other guys; we’ve used kind of a group of young guys, whoever has performed the best that week we’ve inserted in that backup role, and getting Courtney Avery back will certainly help us with the experience back there.”
Sam Webb: I want to start off with Jarrod because you mentioned him first. It seemed like about halfway through camp, talking to Brady, talking to Mattison, that Courtney was probably going to be that safety. Then he goes down with the injury, and then the onus is upon Jarrod to step up. As you guys say, the expectation is for the position. Did you see the light bulb click on at that very moment, or was it a gradual process?
Curt Mallory: “Well, you know, he’s a young player right now, and it was gradually, but we saw improvement, and he’s been with us almost two years now, being an early enrollee, but we’ve seen him progress. He’s handled the position, he’s handled the leadership back there, and the communication, which we obviously rely on so much with our safeties.”
Sam Webb: Leadership and communication; I think those two terms go hand in hand with a guy like Blake Countess. We’ve seen his impact from the moment he got back on the football field. Were you at all surprised by how quickly he’s gotten right back into the form you saw before he went down with the injury?
Curt Mallory: “You know, Blake’s always stayed involved no matter what. When he was injured, he was involved. He was staying mentally focused in a position, and we were asking him to play a position maybe a little bit new to him, with the fact that he was injured, so that’s a real tribute to a young man who was studying a position, who had never played it, and was able to come in and keep that focus. He’s gradually getting better, getting a better handle at the nickel back, and the corner position, and we’re expecting him to continue to progress and get better.”
Sam Webb: I remember talking to you this summer, and you challenged Ray Taylor. I know you challenge all your guys, but you issued a specific challenge to him about consistency. It was something that he really spoke to when I spoke to him prior to the season. Talk to me about his response.
Curt Mallory: “He’s got a lot of upside, but he has to continue to remain focused, and play with his eyes, and play up to ability, and can’t ever have a setback. Whether it’s Coach Hoke, Coach Mattison, or myself… we’re going to make sure that we get the most out of him, and he’ll always accept the challenge. He’s not one to shy away from that and we expect him to bounce back from last week’s performance.”
Sam Webb: Let’s talk about last week. Akron was a team that came in with a belief that they could win. They were able to make some plays out there, so I want to give them some credit. But at the same time… listening to Brady after the game, he felt like there are some things that you guys didn’t do. Talk to me about your position group, and kind of evaluate them in that game.
Curt Mallory: “Well we didn’t do a great job with our eyes. Things that we always stress in the back end are eyes, feet, leverage, playing with your eyes, leveraging the ball, leveraging the receiver to where your help is, and always keep your feet moving; and when you break down any one of those categories, let alone two or three of them, then you’re going to have breakdowns, and we did not do our part in the back end, and we need to rebound, which we will, and learn from those mistake, and get better, and get back on track.”
Sam Webb: It seemed like, from an outside perspective, that they noticed some youth on the field at times, and tried to attack your youth. Did you feel that way… that maybe some of your younger corners were some of the guys they were trying to pick on a little bit?
Curt Mallory: “Sure… they’re always going to go to the field, or to attack the boundary, depending upon where maybe you’re single covered, but they’re always going to look to where they feel they have their best matchups, and we feel that any of our corners can match up, and they can, and we’re not going to shy away from that, and they’re going to have to continue to learn from that, and know that they’re going to get challenged each and every week.”
Sam Webb: So let’s talk about some of your young corners that we’ve seen thus far this year, starting with Channing Stribling. We saw him I think more than a lot of people expected early in the season. Just talk to me about his progression this season thus far, and what you saw in fall camp to get him to the point that he’s at now.
Curt Mallory: “Strib is going to be a very good football player. He’s learned the system; it’s great that he’s getting experience right now, but his consistency is going to – and that’s part of practicing every week, and with those guys, whoever practices the best that week, or whoever shows it on the practice field, we’re going to have confidence that they’re going to show it on the game field. The time where you saw Strib in there a little more, he had a better week of practice, and vice versa with maybe some of the other young guys.”
Sam Webb: Right, which leads me to Jourdan Lewis. We saw him a lot more last week versus Akron. He was in on some plays, and he was one of the guys that saw a lot of action. Just tell me what you’ve seen from him.
Curt Mallory: “Well, same thing. He has great reaction speed, quick feet; but again, the same thing, it’s going to come down to consistency with the young players, and whoever performs the best that week, we feel the best about. Not that we won’t use all of them in a game, depending on how the game goes, you like to be able to roll in a few more guys, and we feel that those guys have done well in the preparation up to the UConn game, so we’re going to continue to play those guys.”
Sam Webb: Couple more guys; first of all, Thomas Gordon. We talked to Thomas, and he talked about leadership, and feeling like his setback early in the season was one that he didn’t just let himself down, and his teammates, but his coaches. How has he come back from that, and what kind of leadership has he demonstrated in the aftermath of that?
Curt Mallory: “Well, you know, we do have some young guys in our room, and you want to be able to turn on the film and say ‘ok, this is what I want. This is how I want you running the ball; this is how I want you leveraging the ball; this is where I want your eyes to be’, and when you have someone you can point to, whether it’s Courtney, whether it’s Blake, whether it’s Thomas, and now you’re seeing Jarrod being that guy, it helps with your development at your position.”
Sam Webb: And then with the other guy we saw; he came through with a big special teams play earlier in the season, Dymonte Thomas. Talking to Brady, he said you really liked the coverage aspect that Blake brings to it, and the experience he brings to it, but that Dymonte is still a factor. What have you seen from him thus far this season?
Curt Mallory: “He has a high motor, plays extremely hard, and you see him playing fast on the special teams, because he loves to run and hit, and he’s going to be a very good football player. We just kind of have to corral that a little bit in his technique part a little bit on the defensive side of it, but we expect great things from him, not only right now in what you’ve seen on special teams, but also down the road in the secondary.”
Sam Webb: Let’s move and into talking about UConn. The first road test this year for you guys, so tell me what you’ve seen from UConn on film, their offensive approach and attack. What do they bring to the table?
Curt Mallory: “It starts with that they have a really good wide receiver, Phillips, and Shak Phillips is a good player. He had a big game last week, had a 75-yarder that broke through the middle, but he’s a guy that they’ll play in the back side of trips, and go to if you’re single covered. He’s a big, physical guy, just like their other receivers. Number 85, Jeremy Davis, both guys are good size, physical on the line of scrimmage, so we have to match that physicality. They’re very good blockers, and inside they have a good receiver, good slot receiver, in Fox, so we have to challenge; and the quarterback, I’m fortunate to have known him, recruited him when he was at Illinois, and he’s a heady, smart, young man who’s going to make good decisions, Chandler Whitmer. I have a lot of respect for him; I think he’s a very fine football player. And then the running back, Lyle McCombs, he’s quick, he’s tough, you’re going to have to get him down, and you can’t just throw him down, you have to go down with him, you have to get a hold of him and go down with him, and that’s the type of back he is. You try to throw him down, he’ll keep going, and get those extra yards, so we have very good skill, and we’re going to have to do a good job keeping the ball inside and in front with their wide receivers when they get the ball out to the tailback, we have to keep it in front.”
Sam Webb: In the aftermath of the Akron game some of the players, Taylor Lewan in particular blamed it on the players and their readiness for that game. He said ‘it’s all on us.’ Did you see something different from them in practice this week compared to the week prior?
Curt Mallory: “I think – there’s not a lot of talk. That’s the thing, you’re seeing a lot more work, and it’s the old saying, actions speak louder than words, and they’re coming to work, not saying a whole lot, but putting your nose to the grindstone, and that’s what I’ve seen. I haven’t seen a whole lot of talk, just work, and that’s what it’s been all week, and we’re not – you know, what happened last week happened, and we’re back to work. We’re not saying a whole lot, just back to showing it on the field on Saturday.”