CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Tray Scott is serving in his first season as the UNC Tar Heel defensive line coach where he held the same position at the University of Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks (2013-14), an FCS team in the Ohio Valley Conference. Prior to that he served as a graduate assistant at Ole Miss (2012) under Hugh Freeze. Scott went to Mississippi from Arkansas State where he served two seasons as an assistant under Freeze (2010-11). And prior to that he was a graduate assistant at Arkansas Tech (2008-10) where he earned his bachelor degree in sociology in 2008 and masters degree in 2010.
Walk me through the series of events that led you to be hired into this position.
Well, I didn’t even really know that the position was open. I got a call from a friend from Ole Miss who knew Coach (Larry) Fedora, and it kind of lit fire from there. They had and opportunity to bring me out for an interview, and Coach (Gene) Chizik grilled me pretty good for about six or seven hours that day. It was a great experience. You never know what to expect in those situations. Prior to that, I didn’t know anybody on this staff.
I think what that falls back to is the testament to the hard work that the people who hired me and helped me to get where I was—all the way back at Arkansas Tech with Steve Mullins, Arkansas State and Ole Miss with Coach (Hugh) Freeze. And then transitioning to Jason Simpson at UT-Martin. Those guys trusted me enough to give me a job, really help me develop, throw me out and give me an opportunity to earn my own keep. For me, I’m absolutely blessed to be in this situation. Essentially, that’s how it happened, and I attribute that to the work I did with those guys.
For someone who is unfamiliar with you, describe your coaching style.
I’m a teacher first and foremost. That is the absolute main thing that I focus on every day—how I will deliver the information to the guys. I’m an intense guy, you know? I’m a very focused individual, and I really want the guys to always focus on the simple things. That sums it up. If you said it in one word, Tray Scott is a teacher. Now, I run around a little bit with some energy, I growl at them every now and then, but at the end of the day I really want to be able to develop these guys, give them great information, and simulate things that they will encounter in game situations.
Tell me how your philosophy in teaching Xs and Os meshes with Coach Chizik’s.
Coach Chizik, when he took this position and hired [John Papuchis and Charlton Warren], he was really looking for a specific type of D-line coach that taught what we teach. We play with a little bit more technique. We might not vertically penetrate and run up the field as much, but we like to control box and attack angles of departure of the offensive linemen, so I thought it meshed very well with him. He saw the vision, and it was a good link because he wanted to play with a lot more control and a lot more physicality at the point of attack.
All the guys you are coaching now have been in a 4-2-5 defense their entire college careers, so prior they basically had three down-linemen with a fourth standing up. In terms of depth—
Here’s the issue. I think what people need to understand is that the 4-2-5 and the 4-3 are very, very similar. The only thing you are doing is substituting and outside linebacker for a nickel, which is more of a cover guy. That is the first thing. I’ve played in a 4-2-5 at Ole Miss with four D-linemen and we were extremely accomplished. With the guys we had that played the bandit position last year—it has been a very easy transition for Malik Carney and Mikey Bart to come down and actually play D-line because they did it a little bit last year. Those guys are a little bit more athletic in linebacker frames, so they can do a little bit more. But to me, those defenses are pretty similar; it’s just a matter of switching out the nickel for an outside ‘backer. So if your question is depth, I think we have enough. The cupboard is not bare here, for sure.
One of the complaints by fans in the past is that the fourth guy on the line is not big enough to penetrate against the run. Is the scheme change enough to account for any improvement in the defense this season?
At the end of the day, it matters how much you want to pressure, how much you want to move your guys, and how much base you want to play. We like, our staff here, we like to develop a really strong core base as far as just your base fronts with your four guys and using seven in coverage. That’s our choice, but we also have the ability to heat you up, and that is a matter of how your defensive coordinator mixes it. As far as the frames, we have big enough frames to be able to hold a point at run and also generate some pass rush, but they have to continue to learn how.
You have been at UT-Martin and Arkansas State, schools that aren’t in the headlines as often as teams from some of the major conferences. I understand that competition is competition and football is played the same everywhere, but is there a difference coaching for a major conference team?
Coaching is teaching, and being and Arkansas guy, I will disagree a little bit because Arkansas State has built a pretty good program. Having an opportunity to be with Coach Freeze over there before we transitioned to Ole Miss was an amazing deal.
To answer your question, there have been guys that get drafted from small schools, and at a Power Five conference they might not have anyone. That being said, the whole recruiting deal is really an unproven science; if it was 100 percent accurate, no small school kids would ever get drafted into the NFL and play multiple years. I think that is a definite misunderstanding when it comes to small schools. At the end of the day, football is football. There are some guys from Arkansas State and Tennessee-Martin, and Ole Miss that I say could play anywhere on any level.
What did you know about Carolina football before taking this position?
Good defensive linemen come to this school—that’s really what I knew about it. Ebenezer (Ekuban), Marcus (Jones), all the way up to Quinton Coples. I’m blessed to have Ryan Sims helping me (as a graduate assistant) because you’ve got a first-round [NFL Draft pick] who has been through it. He graduated from here, played 10 years in the league. It’s invaluable having him so that was probably the extent of my knowledge. Once I got here I learned a little bit more, but I knew it was going to be very easy to get defensive linemen here.
What does it take to reach that level again?
Focusing on the progress through the process. It sounds crazy, but guys have to slow down and focus on what they are doing at this moment, take care of that, go ‘there,’ take care of that, and continue to progress. That’s one of the biggest things because we have really good players here—and we have guys that want to be good, so it makes it really easy as a coach when you are trying to instruct them and trying to get what you want fixed.
Fans love pressure on the quarterback, no matter what—even if it takes stunts and blitzes. How will your guys go about that?
When it comes down to it and you are running a four-down front, in order to get great pressure on the quarterback you have to show that defensive line how to build a trap to the quarterback. The way you go about doing that is getting them to understand reference points on the quarterback. Defensive ends have to rush to a specific shoulder. Defensive tackles have to collapse (the pocket). You should be able to get equal pass rush with a four-man front compared with a six-man pressure or blitz. It starts with want-to, and then they have to know how to rush the quarterback, how to balance lanes, and then how to make sure they keep [the quarterback] in the trap. We don’t want any escape areas.
Coach Warren told me that Coach Chizik likes to be aggressive. In what way do you accomplish that—is that a matter of scheme?
We are just aggressive by mind-set, first and foremost. You have to have the right mentality to create the right reality. If we are playing regular base defense, only four defensive linemen with no pressure, the way we want our guys to be aggressive and use their hands and control the line of scrimmage, that’s a mindset, so we really try to practice on that. We try to rep it and make cut-ups to show them exactly what it looks like. We all have an aggressive mindset, but you can be aggressive and not bring one blitz at all. It really starts wit the front four so they have to be the ones to understand how important it is to get proper knock-back and to control the line of scrimmage.
Who of the young guys are standing out and making an impression on you?
Well, Jeremiah Clarke is doing a really good job of being dependable and really trying to work on his craft every day. [Nazair] Jones is coming along—and Tyler Powell. And the list go on, really, but those would be the three right now that I can say, since the beginning of camp to this point, have done a good job on slowly progressing to show us exactly what we are trying to see.
Who is the leader of that group
Man, we have a few guys. They look to Justin Thomason, they look to Jessie Rogers. They look to Naz Jones. Mikey Bart is a quiet leader; he does everything right. They follow his example. Those are they three or four guys.
At what point to you finish the installation of the defense and begin game planning for South Carolina?
For the most part we have in what we are going to do. Now we are in a the process of adding a few more concepts. Then you want to review. Seven to 10 days out from South Carolina, or any opponent, is when you really try to lock in with this much time leading up to it. Right now, we have five or six practices left, so we are still focusing on ourselves. In a couple days we will transition to South Carolina.
Football is a tough sport. When things get difficult it would be easy to give up. What do you see from them that demonstrates to you that they are not going to give up?
I think one of the biggest things is the want-to—they fact that they really want to figure out how to do things. When we got here the mind frame wasn’t necessarily as aggressive as we liked, but one thing we walked away saying after we met these guys is that they want to be good—they want to be great. When it comes down to it, once again, you have to get your mind right in order to [be successful]. That’s the thing that I think they have really taken advantage of, especially with the defensive line. They know the job that they have is the hardest, toughest job on the team, and they assess that situation the same way.
Regarding the different tempos in practice, how do you strike the balance between guarding against injuries by scaling things back versus going hard enough to get them ready for game tempo so there is not such a shock in live game action?
We have times where we go full speed. As defensive coaches, I think it is important to simulate hurry-up, no-huddle situations… sometimes even in walk-throughs having that mind set of going here to there to there, shooting out a ton of calls to them to process the information fast. That’s one of the things the coaches have had to transition to, always working on it. Even if you are going at a slow pace, still having the guys process it faster.
What obstacles did you expect to encounter due to installing a new defense for the whole team that the players have overcome?
The system we have built is very simple. We make sure that it is really descriptive so I think the transition has been a lot smoother because maybe it’s been even simpler. We have really tried to strip things down and dive deeper into the core of teaching these guys how to play football and teaching these guys more football knowledge. It really allows you to expedite the process when you install blitzes or different fronts or coverages because they understand why we are installing it. They understand the difference between a third down pressure or an opener call.
Maybe I’m mistaken, but my impression last year was that, at least at times, mistakes by the defense were due to the complexities of the scheme. How do you strike the balance between being simple enough for the players but complex enough for the offense that you are facing?
I think that is a good question because when it comes down to it—I have no idea about last year—but when you are constructing a defense you have to have a base, a foundation, and then you have to have reasons why you change different fronts with stunts and pressures. It is going to eventually grow when you build on it because you don’t want to hand-cuff yourself. Offenses do so much, so you want to want to have different opportunities to scratch an itch, if you will. You have to have a good balance on having a good foundation, explaining the process of that, and they building your change-ups off of that.
You seem like a very thoughtful, calculated, and measured in what you want to do. Tell me where that comes from.
Everything I life must have an objective—an objective an a mission. Simply put, that’s how I live my life. When we come out and prepare the guys for practice in a meeting, when they walk in the room, we make sure we have a mission and an objective on the board so that they understand the direction we are going. I think it is extremely important for young men to see their coaches and their leaders have a well thought out plan to develop them—I take that very seriously. When it comes down to it, what I attribute that to is life. When you woke up this morning you had an objective. When I woke up this morning I had an objective. If we didn’t, are we truly living?