I think it’s wide open. I think that’s why everybody got votes. I think anybody could win it. It’s going to be about who plays well down the stretch and takes care of business.
How much of a good feeling do you have coming off a bowl game?
Last year, that was one of those seasons where you didn’t want it to be over. Our guys that were getting better and better every week. More confidence every week. It was fun. It was fun coaching them at that point. It was fun because we were young; it was fun that they were enjoying it. You were watching them grow leaps and bounds. Every week, your chest starts swelling up because you see a guy like Ryan Switzer, T.J. Logan or Brian Walker, each week, get better and better. I really believe that gave us a lot of momentum going into the off season. And, not only that, it was the way we started the season that gave us a lot of momentum going into the offseason because nobody wants to do that again. So hopefully we learned a good lesson.
Does the amount of youth you have on the team concern you?
It scares the heck out of me. But at the same time, it’s exciting because we’re talented. They’re young kids that are talented. Sometimes you don’t know what they’re going to do and how they’re going to react. Let’s take Switzer for example. You saw what he did in the second half of the season, he returns five punts for touchdowns. When you go back and look at film in the first five games, he probably could’ve returned three or four, but he didn’t. It wasn’t because he wasn’t as good. He’s the same guy. But it wasn’t until about that point in the season that he looked up and realized, ‘You know what? Wow, I can do this.’ He started playing with some confidence, and just playing. And he had a heck of a run.
With the quarterback competition being a major media topic, does the fact that you chose Marquise to (represent UNC at the ACC Kickoff), speak to how he’s handled things?
I think he’s done a great job handling it. That’s what I was proud of him about. I think a lot of people just took for granted that Marquise Williams is going to be the starting quarterback because he finished the season that way. When I made the statement that it was wide open, Marquise never batted an eye. He just said ‘OK, I’m ready to compete.’ I’m proud of the way he approached it. I’ve been proud of the way both of them have approached it all year. Those guys are competing; they’re making each other better. If we can get that kind of competition at every other position, then we’re going to be a really good football team. We just don’t have it at every position yet.
Did you think openly stating that it was an “open competition” could blow up?
You know, maybe, if I had put some thought into it. But it was natural for me. At the end of every year, we talk about it with the team; every position is up for grabs. We want the guys that are going to compete for their jobs. I didn’t really think twice about it actually. I know everybody else made a big deal about it. You don’t get handed a job just because you’re the next guy in line. I don’t ever want it to be that way at our place. I want it to be about competition, I want it to be about production. I want our guys to understand that it doesn’t matter if you’re freshman, sophomore, junior, senior - if you produce we’re going to find a way to get you on the field.
How do you go about a situation where Marquise is playing half the season and Mitch hasn’t played any? Since you can’t equate that until Mitch actually plays.
It gives Marquise an edge because he has more experience, he’s been out there, he’s battled it. If you look at Marquise, you look at the player he was in the first game against Virginia Tech and then you look at him at what he was at the end of the season, two totally different people. That’s because he got experience as he went along and he got more comfortable. Mitch is not on the same playing field with him because he doesn’t have that experience. Mitch has got a tougher task in beating him.
Do you feel like you have a grasp on what the potential for this team could be?
How many games could we play possibly? (media answers: “15.”) That would be the ceiling. … It’s hard for me because this is new ground for me. I’ve never had a team with only six seniors on it. I’ve never coached a team that’s this young. I’m kind of going to be learning to see how this works also. It should be very exciting, it should be a lot of fun. I’m sure they’re going to be some headaches involved also. I am excited because I think these guys are very wide-eyed and they want to please and they want to be good. They’ve put in a tremendous amount of work. You talk to our strength coach and he talks about the attitude of our team and where this team is mentally. It gives me a really good feeling.
Are you also excited because it’s year three? A lot of coaches say that’s when it’s your team and your program?
I’m not going say that because that first year I was so proud of the way those guys bought in. It was not ‘We’re not Coach Fedora’s team.’ Those guys were our team immediately. They bought in and did everything we asked of them. What this year is that makes it different is we’re more comfortable. We know them. We know what their strengths are and their weaknesses are. They know us. They know what our strengths are and our weaknesses are and what our expectations are. I think there’s a comfort level there which enables you to probably play a little bit faster without thinking.
With it so wide open in the Coastal, is it an opportunity to take control of the division?
It is an opportunity that we want to take advantage of. If we’re going to continue to grow at the rate we want to grow and get to where we want to be, this is an opportunity we need to seize. We don’t need to let this slip by.
How much did you learn from those first six games last year?
It’s funny you ask because you guys don’t know this but the first year at Southern Miss we were 2-6. I went back to that year and I started pulling out all my notes. There were so many things that were the same. As a staff, we sat down and started talking about the things we did at that time. And then we implemented those same things and basically had the same results.
What were some of those things?
We started talking about giving one more inch. Everybody in the room, every player, every coach, every video person, every trainer, everybody in the building giving just this much more. And then quit worrying about things and just find a way to win. Do whatever it takes to find a way to win. And when we started doing that, guys started relaxing and they just started playing.
How difficult was it to get them all to buy into that? And how much did guys like Kareem Martin help that process?
Those seniors were incredible, those were the guys. The assistant coaches and those seniors were responsible for that. It doesn’t matter if I’m the only one saying it. The assistant coaches, first of all, they knew we could do it because we’ve done it before. And then it was ‘OK, now we’ve got to make sure the kids believe that.’ And those seniors were the ones selling it to their teammates and their peers.
Even though you’ve had better records, was last year one of the most satisfying you’ve had?
I would have to say so, yeah. Believe me guys when you’re 1-5, it would’ve been real easy to say ‘Let’s go this way.’ But that team stuck together, never pointed fingers and kept fighting together and won six out of the last seven.
How much negative recruiting are you all fighting?
Since the day we stepped on campus, it hasn’t stopped. Until all of that is behind us it’s not going to stop. People ask ‘How is this affecting your team?’ It’s not affecting our team. They’ve been hearing about it for three years, it’s just old news. The ones it affects is in recruiting. That’s where it hits you the hardest. The other schools, that’s what they’re using when they’re recruiting against you.
Did you think that was in the past?
I thought it was, yeah. And I still believe it is. Them coming back in has opened up the door for all that to come back.
Have you had to reassure recruits?
We addressed it from the very first day it happened and we haven’t talked about it since and none of them have really ever asked again. We feel pretty confident about the guys that we’ve got committed at this point and the guys that we’re recruiting.
When you’re recruiting in-state about what percent of the kids you talk to are Carolina fans and leaning your way from day one?
If they are leaning your way from day one, they don’t tell you. They all love being recruited. Some of them hold it close to the vest so they are being recruited and they are being wooed. Then, eventually, when they make that decision to go, they jump. We have to recruit all of them hard. They’re not lining up at the door and saying ‘I want to come to Carolina.’ We’re having to recruit.
Check back tomorrow for Part II ...