Steve Wilks' job this season isn't going to be an easy one. Inexperience abounds in the Irish secondary this fall and it will be Wilks' job to get the younger players ready for the season.
"The number one thing you have to do is make it simple for the players in that situation," Wilks said on how he'll try to get his young players ready for the season. "Because they are young, you have to do a better job in your meetings, explaining things that the veterans already know.
" You try to structure practice to give those guys the looks that they need to see before going into seven-on-seven and things like that. It's more of a hands-on for the younger guys."
The Irish secondary the last two seasons was directed by Trent Walters, who taught most of this year's players his techniques and theories. With a new coach on board does this mean things have changed and the players have to learn new techniques and strategies?
"I don't want to say changed, but it's pretty much a universal family as for what you're doing in the secondary," Wilks said. "You try to get those guys the things they are going to use in the game for the techniques and things like that. I think the reads are the same because the defense is the same. We emphasize a lot with our eye discipline, reading the keys, and doing the little things right.
"I can say much hasn't changed from what was in place last year. We're just trying to harp on it a little bit more, trying to be more consistent. Each coach has to add his own signature. That was my approach in the spring--bringing my identity and bringing a lot of energy. That's just me, that's the style I coach. I feel once we hit the field, it's all about getting better and going to work so those guys have accepted that kind of coaching and have responded well and accept the challenge every day."
One area of concern, and it is a huge concern, is the lack of experience at corner. Senior Dwight Ellick played in nine games at right corner in the 2003 campaign and is contending for the starting position this year.
We asked Wilks if Ellick is likely a starter at one corner position this fall.
"I would definitely hope so because Dwight has had experience before--he has started some games," Wilks said of Ellick. "You have another guy, Mike Richardson, who is playing well right now; he's showing some great things."Carlos Campbell is stepping up and we also hope to have a good rotation of four. Preston Jackson is somebody who has experience--so our thing is just getting a good rotation of four and staying healthy."
Continuing our discussion, we asked for an update on sophomore Freddie Parish, who we have been told has been working with the first unit at strong safety.
"Freddie has done a tremendous job this summer working out," Wilks said of Parish. "He finished top of the DB's in most all the categories. He is someone who has a lot of talent, a lot of ability, but he is young as far as understanding the game and that's what we're trying to teach him with film study--the things he needs to see out there on the field--so that ability can take place. He is really concentrating more on doing the little things right. He has been making plays in the fall camp and has definitely stepped up without a doubt."
Hearing the good news about Parish, we decided to ask for a report on the progress of sophomore Chinedum Ndukwe, who made the switch from receiver to strong safety this past spring.
"I tell you what, speaking of Ndukwe, he probably had the best day of fall camp today," Wilks said. "He was all over the place. He was reading his keys, making plays, compensating and making other people right when they were wrong. So he is someone who has emerged and stepped up today and I was excited about that because he is going to have to play this year.
"I think he is getting more comfortable at each practice. There is so much to think about on the back end as far as formation adjustments, guys shifting here, running there, and once again, it's just a matter of getting those looks every day to make him feel more comfortable with what he is doing."
One player who has been missed so far this fall is senior free safety, Quentin Burrell. Burrell is still slowed by an injury to his knee, but he is also the most experienced defensive back returning this season. Wilks says it's important to get him active soon.
"Quentin is out there moving around now," Wilks said. "He went through some drills the last two days. He looked great today in individual period. Hopefully, I expect to have him back sometime early next week.
"I think what his absence has allowed our team to do is get more experience and more reps. You talk about a guy who started last year, a guy who pretty much understands the defense, knows what's going on.
'I think he needs to see the reps, too, but he is ahead of the game as far as those other guys. I hate that he is hurt, but he has allowed those other guys to get more reps, which in the long run is going to make us better. When he comes back, there is no doubt he is going to be out there."
Several players have been rotating in and out when the Irish are in their nickel and dime packages as the staff seeks to find the right combination. Wilks says a number of guys could see action in these situations.
"Right now, it's really a toss up," said Wilks of the likely starters in the nickel and dime situations. "You have Dwight Ellick, Carlos Campbell, Mike Richardson, Preston Jackson, when we go to a nickel situation, all four of those guys will be on the field. The next progression, when we go to a dime, is to figure out, 'do we have another best corner or is our next safety the best guy?'
"We're looking to put the best guy on the field. Right now, those four guys are in the mix and you have Isaiah Gardner, Ambrose Wooden, who are making steady progression--still young and still learning--but they're doing some great things too."
The 2003 secondary gave up a number of big plays which affected the outcome of games. With a lot of young guys scheduled for playing time this year we were curious to find out how the defense will be taught to prevent big plays.
"The quickest way to win or lose a football game, without a doubt, is through the air," Wilks said. "We're the last line of defense so that is our philosophy, our foundation, our base.
"We have to build a fence around everything, not saying that it won't happen, but it's something that you constantly talk about each day. You have to eliminate the big play. We create drills to play the deep ball, to break off the hash, to play the middle of the field, and understand and read our keys. So if we keep everything in front of us, we always feel we have a chance to win."
It is no secret that many Irish fans complain about the defensive backs not turning around and looking for the ball while it is in the air. Wilks told us that is going to change this year.
"I think once again you have to create situations in practice and in your drills that are going to be relative to what they are going to see in the games," Wilks said. "I say all the time we are doing something that does not come natural. You are trying to cover a guy while running backwards.
"You are trying to find a guy who runs a 4.3 and when the deep ball is thrown, you are trying to get your position on him. You've got to create that drill every day and that's one of the things that I tell my guys. We are going to work on deep balls every day, because we're going to look back for the football."
"We're going to be in position and make a play on that ball. They're going to catch some, but I want to see us fighting and competing for that ball. So that's one of the things I've harped on even watching films and one of the things I'm going to concentrate on this year.
"I think we're creatures of habit so if you don't create that situation for them to make it natural, when it comes in the game, they aren't going to look back, so we worked on it today, we worked on it yesterday, and we're going to work on it again tomorrow."
There is always much conversation about the quality of recruits that the Irish bring in each year and it was interesting to get some news about these rookies.
"I can tell you, we did not go wrong on any of the guys we signed," Wilks said of his freshmen. "Just seeing the guys for these first few practices, they have a lot of talent, a lot of ability.
Junior Jabbie showed some great things today in one-on-one. He's doing a good job. Tregg Duerson breaks on the ball well. You can pick up something each one of these young kids is doing excellent. I think it's going to take some time to learn the schemes and figure out what's going on. Once again, when they get more comfortable with what's going on, then that ability will be able to take place.
"The one thing I've seen is that they're fearless and they'll stick their nose in there and that's one of the things that coaches watch in practice --will he put his nose in there? There is no question they will. So that right there relieves our mind, who will hit. So now you just have to get them doing the right thing."
The common thread among fans regarding the secondary is not very positive. There are some players who will be thrown into action not having much previous experience so the expectations in the early going are not very high. Wilks says there are no excuses for his secondary this year.
"My expectations for the secondary this year is to perform well and to carry their weight on this football team," Wilks said. "The thing that we try to do, and it's not all about a young team and somebody asked me this before, is not to use that as an excuse.
"My thinking is, young or not, it's still going to fall on our shoulders because, as I just said, we cannot give up the big play. So we talk about it all the time, not from the standpoint of struggling, but from the standpoint that we have to be in the right position to make the big plays. So I think if we continue to harp on that and work on the little things in practice, we should be all right."
Steve Wilkes is a young coach with a lot of experience and Irish eyes has been impressed so far by his knowledge, energy, intensity, and overall approach to the game. Every player we have spoken with is excited about his style and what they are learning.