I think what it does is it certainly builds a tremendous amount of excitement. Anybody that's got a crystal ball that can predict exactly what's going to happen for all 12 teams, I give them a lot of credit. If you'd told us in the middle of the season that we're going to lose T.J. Yates our starting quarterback for seven weeks and we're going to still be able to find a way to win games… I think every team is this league is going to be dealt with some adversity. There's going to be things that are going to happen to you during the course the season that how well you handle it is going to determine… I've laughingly said this and in some respects there is a little bit of truth to it, but all of these reality shows that are on television like Survivor. You go off to Thailand and the jungle and stuff and every single episode sombody has to deal with, did you find the key and did you do this right and did you find water. Well, today, that's like the football season. How are you going to handle training camp? What young players are going to mature faster than you thought that they were going to? And obviously the proverbial injury situation. And of your experienced veteran players, new leaders are going to be expected to emerge. Will they emerge in time to be a major impact during the season? So, I don't worry about the other 11 teams, we've got our hands full worrying about ourselves.
What about the wide receiver situation? Has anybody emerged?
We are currently, as we speak, holding tryouts out in the parking lot [laughs]. Anybody that has great hands and can tuck the ball… This is one of the most unique situations, I don't think I've ever been like this. We lost five wide receivers, three of which got drafted. Two others graduated and one of them, Cooter Arnold, was a significant role player in our offense. So, the top four wide receivers left. We are not going to be without talent and we are not going to be without guys that we're going to expect to play well. They're young , they're inexperienced, there's a lot of things they've got to learn to be able to handle. We pushed the envelope with a couple of them during spring. We'll continue to do it during training camp. Greg Little is the most, probably, experienced player that we've got, in the sense that he's been in games. He's started at running back, he's started at wide receiver. This is clearly the position that he was recruited and it's where we think his future is. We think he has the chance to be a very, very talented wide out. I think also, one of the things that could be an added caveat, the experiment of him playing at running back could be a real blessing in disguise as far as running after the catch. I mean he learned to be physical with the football. We know we need Dwight Jones, Josh Adams a whole laundry list of young guys to come in. And probably what you'll see us do is, is you ‘ll see us kind of be creative about creating packages for certain kids. We may not have a guy that can go in and say, ‘Ok you now become Brandon Tate and you're going to take 65 snaps in the ball game.' We may say ‘You need to learn to do these 20… you need to be a nickel guy. You're going to play on second and long and third and this is all we need you to know at this time in your career.
How did Josh Adams impress you in the spring? Did the experience of being there in spring, did that put him ahead of the other freshmen?
Very much so. Two years ago, Bruce Carter, Quan Sturdivant and Zack Pianalto along with LaCount Fantroy came in at midterm and three of those four started as true freshmen. Josh Adams got that opportunity this spring and I think it certainly helped him. It helped our offense. We knew that this was going to be a need position, we knew we were going to lose a significant amount of the receivers. We were kind of hoping that Hakeem (Nicks) would hang around, but we didn't have enough money to compete with the Giants [laughs]. Josh Adams is one of the more polished high school receivers coming into a program that I've been around. He's got some skills, he's got some talent. He loves to practice and he loves to work. I think going through spring practice really helped him.
How's the offensive line depth-wise?
Yeah, we've got some issues depth-wise on the offensive line. Unfortunately, we lost Aaron Stahl, who decided not to come back for his fifth year, and then we lost Calvin Darity, who was our starting right guard, and we lose Garrett Reynolds, who was the starting right tackle. During the spring time, we've got some kids … Carl Gaskins, who is a young offensive lineman that we think has got a chance to really come on and maybe be a really good offensive lineman. We're going to start him off at right tackle and let him be the swing guy, to play behind Kyle Jolly and Mike Ingersoll, so we think that that's probably a pretty good thing. Jonathan Cooper is really a good young, offensive lineman. He'll either start for us at guard or he may be the center. He's a really good young player. Very strong, very athletic and can really run well. But, again, we're talking about an awful lot of guys that are very, very young. We've got two experienced starters at center and left tackle and that's about it.
Did Aaron (Stahl)'s departure surprise you?
It did. You never really know. Once they get their diploma, once they graduate, sometimes some of them assess, am I going to be able to play on the next level? Am I going to be an NFL player? If they make that choice and decide that they're not, some of them choose to move on with their life. They're going to get a masters or ‘I'm going to get into the job world' and stuff. It did surprise us a little bit. He missed all of spring, he went through a shoulder surgery. I don't know how much that dampens, sometimes, kids' spirits for playing is the battle to come back from an awful lot of repeated injuries sometimes becomes a little bit psychologically overwhelming.
Is there something you want to see from T.J. (Yates), progression-wise, like the next step?
I think there are steps. We started to see a little bit of this last year in T.J. and then when he missed all those games… One of the steps that you want, not intangible steps, but actual performance steps, is to have such a great command of the offense and where everybody is that you can get the second and third read and some progressions and some of the plays before – you already know that one is gone. ‘This coverage takes that away and I'm not even going there right now' and you're starting to see some of that. The other thing that I love that I did start to see even more so with T.J. is his ability to stay alive and extend the play in the pocket. John Shoop does as good a job coaching quarterbacks as anyone I've ever been around. He's always talking about quarterbacks never throw from balanced, perfect five-step drops. There's always people flying across your face, there's always someone bumping into you, you've got to move. His accuracy in the spring was outstanding in those kinds of situations. Getting the ball to the tight ends, getting the ball to the running backs, getting the ball to the wide outs and stuff from unusual positions and not have … a lot of times when the rush is coming a lot of quarterbacks, their eyes go immediately to the ground or they go to the rush. His eyes now are all downfield all the time and I think that's a real plus.
How did you guys help T.J. get back on track after the injury?
First of all he is a great kid. We talk about, on our football team, we talk an awful lot about the ability to handle adversity because inevitably it's going to happen. If you don't think adversity is going to happen, you're kidding yourself. It may be collectively, you may as a team lose a game that is devastating -tThat you just, you should've won the game and you didn't win the game. It could be on a personal level, it could be an injury that happens. I think when we talk about those kinds of things and how we're going to get through it… teammates are going to pick you up, coaches are going to pick you up. We're going to be able to help guys get through that. Because he was - he was crushed. He was off to a great start, the team was playing well. I mean he couldn't have played much better than what he played at Rutgers that night, he just lit the scoreboard up. It had to be frustrating and disappointing, but he stayed positive and I think he knew that he would come back at some point last season.
You set the bar pretty high with that quick turnaround last year, so what's the next realistic step for you guys?
Every season is totally different, it really is. What happened in ‘07 and ‘08 has no relevance whatsoever with the kind of success you hope to have in ‘09. We have realistic expectations of what we think that we can accomplish. We're still a young football team, you talk about nine starters that are coming back, but all nine of those guys are all underclassmen basically. E.J. Wilson and Cam Thomas are the only two seniors we have on defense. We're still growing and there are still things from a sophistication standpoint that we can get more sophisticated, add more things to the packages that will hopefully make us a little more dynamic. We're still going to be a team that we're going to try and improve every single week. That's kind of been our mantra since I've been there, is to go in there and play the best we can every single week and let the chips fall where they may and the end of the game we'll reflect back say here's where we have to get better next week and we'll try to play the best football we can in weeks 13 and 14.
With that whole, ‘what have you done for me lately' idea in college football, do you think that three-year mark when so many coaches start to get scrutinized is fair as a measuring stick?
I try not to get into ‘what if' questions. I really don't. You just deal in the reality of the moment, that's where we try to stay all the time. We don't project as to how we're going to look late into the season, how we're going to look next year, how's recruiting next year. I mean this is all, really, truly, about August.
When you take over a program, you've got a plan as to the progression you want. Are you where you want to be at this point or are you farther along than where you thought you'd be three years after you took the job?
I think we're at least where I thought we would be. Whether we're slightly ahead of it? I don't know. I've been pleasantly surprised and pleased at the passion and the enthusiasm of the fans. We've had sellout crowds two years in a row. The recruiting has gone well. We've had some players that have come in and bought into the system. The players that we inherited, the Hakeem Nicks and the Brandon Tates and the Brooks Fosters and the Richard Quinns, those guys wanted to be winners and they wanted to go out winners and that really helped us accelerate the pace.
You and Coach O'Brien came in at the same time and he had to do a little bit of house cleaning and you didn't have to do quite as much of that, did you?
Well, I don't know. We're all faced with changing the culture of your building and creating an atmosphere and attitude that it's about winning and the type of football team you want to have. I don't know about his situation, but I mean we had some significant hurdles to overcome. We were dramatically undertalented in 2007 and two recruiting classes later we're a little bit better.
When you come in to build a program from where you got it, is it more about changing the culture than it is X's and O's?
I think it's equal. We can talk about changing the culture, the attitude, the atmosphere and the expectations of the program inside the building, but it's still about the athletes. You still have to go out and recruit talented players and that takes time to enhance your roster. We added 20 or so players last year and we added 18 or 19 players a year ago and we now we're going to bring in another 23. So, it's probably going to take us the better part of four, maybe even five, years to completely have the entire roster of guys that you hand picked.
Do you have a specific philosophy for building? What job one is?
Job one is getting a great assistant coaching staff, that's clearly first and foremost. You need guys that are charismatic, good teachers that can actually coach football. They have to be good recruiters; they become the ambassadors of the program. They are going to get in the homes of thousands of athletes over a period of time and you have to be able to trust those guys. I think we have great assistant coaches. I am blessed to have the guys we have on our staff.
Having said that, having to replace three coaches this year, did that set things back a little bit?
I hate transition. I'm one of those guys, I don't like change. But, that becomes the reality. If you're going to hire really good, talented coaches, inevitably at some point they're going to get a chance to be coordinators. They're going to get a chance to be head coaches, they may get a chance to go to the National Football League. When those things happen you have to be prepared to go out … and I think that anytime someone leaves, whether it's a player or a coach, it gives you an opportunity to get better. You can say ‘Ok, this guy was really good, these were his strengths.' Now, we know our players so much better that we say, ‘Now let's go get a guy that fits these guys.' I can tell you, when you get a chance to come to practice and talk to our players, talk to Zack Pianalto and talk to Ed Barham and our guys that play tight end, Ryan Taylor and those guys. They were nervous. They really liked Steve Hagen, he was a good guy, and he coached in the National Football League. He was charismatic, he was young and energetic. They were nervous about, ‘Now who is coach going to bring in?' Now, we hire Alan Mogridge, a former tight end at Carolina and a little bit of a miniature stint in the NFL, and within two days the guys are like ‘Coach, great job.' That makes you feel good that you picked a guy that they really liked. It gives them a chance to continue to grow. So, hopefully the three guys we added – I think that we added some really good football coaches.
(Check back tomorrow for Part II …)