Sam Webb: Coach coming off of a tough loss there against Michigan State, where obviously guys didn’t play their best football. What has the week of preparation been like bouncing back from that…what has the team morale been like?
Dan Ferrigno: “Our kids and our coaches are resilient and we bounced back fine. We still have got a lot to play for starting with this one. That’s been our mindset.”
Sam Webb: When you look at the performance of the tight ends thus far this year. Let’s start with A.J. Williams, give me an idea of what you’ve seen that you like that he has done well and what are things that you need AJ to do better?
Dan Ferrigno: “I think he has improved just in his overall play. Now he’s not where he needs to be or wants to be. His blocking has improved from a year ago. He actually caught a couple of passes this year, but still leaves some room for improvement in all those areas. He works hard at it and hopefully that will come to fruition.”
Sam Webb: Now Jake Butt, I remember talking to you in the summer and you were like it’s a pipe dream for him to be back for Notre Dame and he was back for Notre Dame. The guy has shown an amazing drive to come back, but even then it’s been a process getting back to what he was before the injury. How close is he to that point now?
Dan Ferrigno: “I still think he has some room to grow there. When you miss a whole year of lifting almost on your legs, I think we see it in some of his blocking sometimes. He’s not able to finish the blocks or drive his feet, which will improve in time. He is starting to getting back to lifting with his legs. His speed and catching ability, that’s all still there. I’m just pleased with the fact that he’s playing at a pretty high level right now for a kid that we thought might be on the shelf for a while.”
Sam Webb: Obviously, I don’t chart how many plays different guys are in the game, are you gradually building him up in snaps?
Dan Ferrigno: “He’s playing a lot more than anybody else. He’s playing more than AJ, more than anybody right now. We think he’s back.”
Sam Webb: Speaking of anybody, your depth got depleted when Khalid Hill, who was really coming on when he went down. What does your tight end room like beyond AJ and Jake?
Dan Ferrigno: “We have Keith Heitzman, who is a converted defensive lineman and we’re finding some things that he can do. He’s able to play both positions, which is good. He’s a smart kid. We hope to keep developing him. That’s kind of where we’re at.”
Sam Webb: Khalid Hill was the guy you were the most outspoken about in the offseason. You said point blank, he’s not where I want him to be, I need more from him, I need him to step up. It looked like up to the injury that he was starting to do that.
Dan Ferrigno: “Exactly Sam. He was playing for him, at a very high level and from where he was in the springtime. So I was very pleased with his progress. I think he it is becoming a real factor for us. It’s just unfortunate to suffer a noncontact injury like that. It is just not very lucky.”
Sam Webb: I don’t know timeline wise what it looks like, is it a goal for him to get back by the spring or is he likely out for the spring too?
Dan Ferrigno: “I don’t know. Not being a doctor, I couldn’t tell you. I’m sure they have a plan and their operate on him soon and then we’ll get more once they’re done with the operation.”
Sam Webb: All the ups and down of the season, a guy who has been pretty consistent lately on the high end is Matt Wile. You talk about a Tale of Two Cities, he struggled mightily early and lately dare I say, he might have been your best offensive here in the last few weeks?
Dan Ferrigno: “He’s been money lately and we just keep him going in that direction. He works hard at his craft. He always has. The Notre Dame game, he missed that first field goal, second one block and I think he missed one in the game after that I think pretty much after that he’s pretty solid.”
Sam Webb: What was the key coach, was there something you said, how does a kicker turn things around like that?
Dan Ferrigno: “They kind of fix themselves. I say that because as a coach, it’s almost like coaching a golfer that’s how finite the skill is. You try to watch them, know when they’re doing it right and get a picture of that in your mind and when they’re not doing it right, it’ll show and you tell them, hey you need to do this better and that’s kind of what we’ve done. He works so hard at it. He figures a lot of things out himself.”
Sam Webb: On the punt side of things, it was kind of up and down for Will Hagerup for some of his punts. Evaluate him lately, do you feel like it has been better. What has been the key to get things more consistent with him?
Dan Ferrigno: “I just think another guy that works hard at it. The whole thing with the punter is the drop. Coach Hoke works with him constantly on it. That’s one of Coach Hoke’s duties in special teams is he works with Will. I think it is finally becoming more consistent. He understands what we want from a field position standpoint, when we need to pooch punt, when we need to drive the ball. I was proud of him last week because those weren’t good conditions. I think he averaged 47 yards a punt or something, he really did well. We just hope his progress continues.”
Sam Webb: Then the return game, it is one of those things you’re looking to pop one, you’re looking to pop one. What about that, obviously Dennis Norfleet has been pretty consistent catching the ball sans one last week, but hasn’t been able to quite break free yet.
Dan Ferrigno: “Part of that is, our emphasis has been more on blocking punts. I don’t know if you notice, we’re coming after people more than we ever have. So that takes away from some of Dennis’ ability to do what he wants. I think as we finish up the season here, we’re making more of an emphasis on the return game and hopefully we’ll see some results.”
Sam Webb: Let’s transition into your next opponent, this was a very high scoring affair last year to see the least. A lot of points put on the board from both teams. Talk to me about what you see from Indiana defensively this year, are they different, are they better, break down the Hoosiers on the defensive side of the ball.
Dan Ferrigno: “I think they’re a year older and scheme wise a little bit different. They’re pretty solid and thick in the middle. They’ve got big kids that can cause problems for you. They have two really good linebackers. #2 is one of the better linebackers we’ve seen this year. He can run and hit. We like him. Backend, a lot of the same kids we played against last year, so we’ll see what happens.”
Sam Webb: A lot of the approach when some of your goals are off the board is kind of refocusing and mindset, what has been the approach been with the kids? You said they came in with a good attitude, which is the first part of it. That carrot that you have at the beginning of the season or many of the carrots that you have at the beginning of the season aren’t there any more. How do you address that with the team that is in the position that yours is in right now?
Dan Ferrigno: “I would say that is probably 90 percent of the football teams in the country are a little bit in that situation too. Everybody sets high lofty goals and you can’t reach all of them. Everybody can’t get to the top four and play in those games. Our goal here is to always be the best that you can possibly be as a player, as a person, as a football team. That’ll never stray. Where that leads us? Who knows right now. We’ve got four games left, possibly five. We want to win them all and I think the kids are motivated to do that. Starting with this one this week and that’s the way you have to approach it. If you don’t, you’re not going to be any good at all. Our kids this season, they’ve bounced back every game. They’ve played hard and practiced hard and that’s a credit to them. They’re a good bunch of kids to be around.”