"Why I decided to move this earlier is I'm trying to logistically work with you with the schedules and, really, today would have been a real pain in the butt for you guys. Because we are practicing earlier, and I'll tell you why we are doing that too. Because we are practicing earlier, you get your 20 minutes at the beginning of practice; then you wouldn't really get me until hours and hours later when we are coming out of meetings and all that other stuff. Normally with us having meetings first and then practice, so it's a little different today and you're not hung out to dry as much. Basically, what is happening this week and why we shuffled things around is that we have a coach's clinic coming Friday and Saturday this week. Friday's practice, which you aren't going to, is basically a technique and fundamental practice. Last year, we had 600 and this year we have 1,000 coaches that are at the clinic, and they get to watch fundamentals and techniques while we get to work on them at the same time. They are really the same drills you guys are complaining about seeing all the time anyway. So I figured I'm really saving you the aggravation. On Saturday, it's going to be kind of a hectic day anyway because we have talks all through Saturday morning, and 15 seconds after I'm done speaking Saturday, we drag all those guys out there and rather than see fundamentals and techniques, they will actually see some scrimmaging and that's something I'm really not big on opening to the public, as you know in the short time we have been together.
"Next week, we are practicing Monday at 6:00 in the morning as a special team's practice. Which is going to be a kind of another screwy day, but I will make players available Monday afternoon at 5:30 or so because we go from 2:30 to 5:30 in meetings. I will make myself available on Wednesday, when it's a more normal day again. So instead of going on Monday, I will go on Wednesday, because now it is Easter weekend and we don't practice on Friday or Monday, so realistically we go from Wednesday to Wednesday. I'll come back and meet with you again that Wednesday so I am keeping you up-to-speed as best as I possibly can so you can understand the rhyme and reason of what we are doing, and I can give you enough information so you guys can do your jobs without you having to guess what is going on with this or that. I figured I would squeeze in a half an hour for you now before we go to practice so it's not like, let's wait around and talk to Weis at 6:00 tonight. So I thought it best to get it out of the way now. The meeting room won't be available till after we're done watching the practice tapes, which tonight won't be until 7:00. So really you go from being on the field at 2:30 until the players are available at 7:00 tonight so it's a long window, and I was just trying to think about you, rather than think about me when it came to that. With that in mind, I am open. We haven't talked for a little while, so fire away."
How would you assess the progress of the guys you have seen so far?"We have several different issues going on simultaneously and I have to go in a number of different directions here. For example, defensively, we have a big competition going on just to see who is going to be in the mix at linebacker, which I think is too early to make the call on that. You guys were there the other day and saw that we lined up with (Anthony) Vernaglia and Mitchell Thomas and Steve Quinn with that first group and came back with the second group. It is obvious that you saw who was out there so I don't have to go over that because I don't think - because the first group was out there and the second group was out there - that anything was etched in stone. I think there are some guys who are making significant progress, but I think it is too early in the spring to tell who is really going to step up when you are going full speed. I think that full speed will come into fruition a little bit more when we get into a couple of scrimmage situations before the culmination of the spring. I have been overall very pleased with the communication on the defense. I think we have gone through spring with one of our major areas of concern was to cut down on the number of mental mistakes. I'm not saying we make a whole bunch of them but we are trying to simplify things so that we can find out if guys can line up and just play or not. The other thing, we have spent a lot of time challenging veteran players to step their game up and so far so good.
"I think as far as the kicking game goes, I think it was a rude awakening for both kickers and returners to all of a sudden have to be outside on Saturday. The conditions have been perfect, we are inside, we are in the bubble, and everything is beautiful and the weather is nice; no wind, no height you have to be concerned with – now all of a sudden you've got a cold, rainy, windy day and although I think that's more realistic as to how games are played, I think it certainly was not the ideal way to come out of the box for special teams, so I don't jump to any rash decisions as far as the specialists go. I think for both the kickers and returners, it is way too early to tell. There are several points on special teams that we have made where we are trying to find out some things, personnel-related, and some are schematically-related. I think one of our biggest areas of concerns was kickoff returns and, so far, we have liked what it looks like; not that we are running every kickoff back for a touchdown, but we have liked what it looks like and the more that we can get outside and the kickers turned loose, I think we'll be able to judge that a little more as the time goes on.
"Offensively, I think the flow has been broken up a little bit because we have had a couple receivers banged up a little bit and Jeff (Samardzija) has been in and out of practice, so in our passing game, that has hurt our continuity a little bit although we have a lot of time to feature both the running backs and the tight-ends. When you lose at one position, you gain at another position and I think we are getting some answers as far as the offensive line and how that is shaping up before we get Sully (John Sullivan) back at full speed and we get the rest of those guys coming in this summer."
How much should we assume about what we saw on Saturday?"There were definitely some telling things there. I think it would be premature to make any rash judgments, like Mitchell Thomas is our starting middle linebacker, but the reason he was running first at this point is because he was running the best. So that's why you put somebody out there first. You don't put them out there first because you are patting them on the back and saying, ‘hey it's your turn today, buddy'. I think there are some things that are pretty obvious to all of you that follow us on a daily basis. The questions come where the holes are and who is going to fill those holes. I don't think any of us, me, therefore certainly not you, will be able to answer some of those things until August rolls around."
Where are the coaches coming from who will be attending this week's clinic?"They're from all over. Today I spent some time with guys from Tennessee, California, and Illinois. Those were three entire staffs that were here. They are coming from 28 states and two Canadian provinces, so we are international. Last year, it was a little novel and we had a pretty good attendance. And all of a sudden some things start turning in the right direction, and now everybody wants to come. So all of a sudden, you go from 600 to 1,000 in a year; that's a lot of people to be dealing with."
At linebacker, with guys sitting out this spring, does that complicate things?"I try to look at it the other way, it actually helps because, just like I said about other people, it lets you get a look at people who might have gotten a lot, lot less reps, and I think that is a telling tale. All of a sudden you're looking at guys and saying, ‘Mo's not in here, Joe's not in here' so who's going to win these battles or who wants these spots. I told the players, I really don't care who plays, I'm going to play the guys who give us the best chance of winning, I don't care who they are. I'm not here to make buddies. Whoever is the best guy is who I want to get out there. And they're getting their opportunity. We're basically practicing two-deep, so they all are getting plenty of reps; there is no shortage of reps for these guys and in practice today, we are featuring third down, red zone, and two minute; we are going to have a red area set 7-on-7 that is multiple plays. We're going to have a third down 7-on-7, which is just a passing skeleton with multiple plays. We're going to have a team third down and a red area third down; then we're going to have a whole section of two minute as well. So there will be no shortage of opportunities for guys to stake a claim on whether or not they should be out there or not."
How is Joe Brockington coming along?"I know last year, his back was sort of bad all year, and we knew that it was going to have to be fixed after the year. Last year he was the one guy we felt, if we had to go to a fourth guy on a regular basis last year, he was going to be the first guy in. By that deduction, you would assume that he would be one of the guys stepping into the mix now, but I don't know that until he gets out there a starts playing. But that's where he had put himself in the mix last year. We basically went the whole last year playing three guys. I am concerned about going into games like Georgia Tech early in the year, on September 2nd down in Atlanta, when you know it is going to be hot and humid; that's a fact. You can mark it down now; it's going to be hot and humid on September 2nd. I think if you try to play the game one deep, not only are you concerned with dehydration, but you are concerned about guys playing 100 percent for the whole game. So that's what this is all about right now."
Is the right-tackle position beginning to take shape?"We haven't really tried that many players there. If Brian Mattes had not been banged up at the start of camp, just by seniority, we would have given him the first shot at right tackle. But because he has missed some stuff full speed early on, it has given both Paul Duncan and Mike Turkovich an opportunity to play that position. So when it all is said and done and spring is over, we will evaluate where we are right now, and when the freshmen come in, we will slot them in there and may the best man win. I would have to say, you would have to consider all of them in the mix. The guy who has played the most there has been Paul, but I would say they are all in the mix. I would not anoint him starting right tackle at this point though."
Would you give us your assessment of the baseball game Friday night with Samardzija on the mound?"I thought his curve ball was wind-aided because it was breaking a little bit more. I told him if the wind hadn't been behind him, his fastball would have been going about 75. It really wasn't ideal weather conditions. It was a cold, nasty night and not exactly baseball weather, but that's the time of year in the Midwest. You have to be ready because you don't know if it's going to be 65 degrees or 35 degrees. He ended up settling down, giving up 8 hits and a 1-run game. When it's all said and done, that's good production. Not enough ammo for me to get on him too bad, although I tried my best on Saturday morning."
At safety, other than Zibby (Tom Zbikowski) and (Chinedum) Ndukwe, who else is stepping up?"We have been very pleased, almost surprisingly pleased, with the play of Ray Herring and David Bruton. The jury is still out because very seldom are we taking them to the ground. It's full speed to set them up, but I'm not trying to lose people all the time, but we have been very pleased, knock on wood, with the progress of both these guys. And Kyle McCarthy, he is running through stuff full speed, but we are holding him from full contact at this point. He is doing everything else at full speed; we are just not letting him hit as much as those other two guys are."
How do you improve the communication on defense?"I was just talking to the high school coaches from Tennessee about this today. On defense, you really have to pick your poison. You really have two different things you can deal with, you can make your scheme very simplistic where you never have mental errors, but when you do that, you open up yourself to personnel mismatches. Or you can play to adjust your personnel to exploit their personnel by trying to have the right call on all the time, but then you open yourself up to more communication errors. Because somewhere in between the two, lies the truth as far as what you want to do. Obviously, the more experienced team you have, the more you can figure to minimize the communication errors. When you are going through the spring and a number of guys are rolling through, it's not just 11, 12, 13 guys you are playing out there, but 30, I think it's important to make first things first to make sure to eliminate communication errors. I think you must keep it more simplistic on defense."
From an offense standpoint, which one is harder to go against?"Neither one is harder to go against as long as you can figure out which one they are doing. If I'm going against a defensive coordinator who is trying to take away my personnel, there are games that I play where we wouldn't throw any passes to the wide receivers. They have 18 guys covering the wide receivers and no one covering the backs and tight-ends, so we just throw all the balls to the backs and tight-ends. Why do I care, I'm not worrying about the stats, I'm just worrying about moving the ball and scoring touchdowns. Those other guys might care about them, but I don't care about them. Conversely, there are going to be times when they line up and just make you play where they are not going to have minimal errors, and that's where you have to try and make sure you have them in personnel mismatches. You just have to know which cards you are being dealt and then go right to the attack based on what they are doing. Your whole goal and your preparation is to try and stay ahead of their preparation. So you have to stay one step ahead of them. There are games where in each series you would put out a whole different set of stuff, and they wouldn't see anything that they had seen earlier in the game. So you go from one thing, to the next thing, to the next thing, and they would never catch up. There are other times when they would be ahead of you, and you just have to throw out everything you are doing. You have to have a little guts to take your game plan and say, ‘Fellows, this is what we are going to do' and then, ‘Fellows, we are throwing this away and we're not going to do any of that anymore and here is where we are going'. It takes a little guts to do that because everybody looks at you like you are on drugs when you say that to them."
In communication, it's important to have experienced players, but how important is it to have intelligent football players too?"It's absolutely important as long as the intelligence is football intelligence because I've been around a lot of really smart guys who have done some really dumb things. I've been around some people whose football intelligence exceeded their class-work intelligence. Football intelligence is a whole different subject."
How much marketing of Brady Quinn will there be?"Doug (Walker) and I have addressed this subject generically at this time. As an overview when the spring gets over, we will try and make sure we get a good handle on the whole thing. The number one thing is, you won't have to worry about him getting too big a head; that I can promise you. As a matter of fact, we practice at 2:30, but he will be in my office in 10 minutes and we'll keep ‘nailing that hammer.'"
Can you talk about using Wade Iams, the walk-on as a kick-returner in practice Saturday?"We have been outside twice, and one time we featured on kickoff returns and the other time we featured everything. I could care less if the returner was a walk-on or a scholarship player. I don't look at Wade or anyone else like they're any different on the team. When you're on the team, you're on the team. Just like last year at this time when I put Tom Zbikowski back there as a punt-returner, everyone said, ‘How can you put Zbikowski back there when he is one of your best players?' All of a sudden he averages 15 yards a punt-return and everyone said what a great move putting Zbikowski back there. It's a catch-22 both as a kick-off and punt-returner, you have to keep putting people back there and giving them reps and trying to find the ones who eventually give you the best chance of getting the most yardage out of it."
Does communication naturally advance during this second year?"It's way too early for me to judge where we are as far as that goes, and that's natural in all facets of our team. It's natural on offense and defense and special teams too. I'm finding on both sides of the ball, not neglecting special teams, that guys who have played before, it's been pretty good. We have some guys, like Rhema (McKnight), that are just getting back, and all of a sudden physically he's at the top of his game, but relationships have to be developed between quarterbacks and receivers. It isn't just running routes, it's relationships. I know how he is going to run this route; I know where to put the ball. The best part of Jeff not being around here all the time has allowed Brady and Rhema to develop a little bit quicker. I think with the guys who have played before, it is progressing at a nice pace."
What do you consider Rhema's strengths?"First of all, experience. He knows how to play the game, and he has exceptional quickness. He doesn't have just okay quickness, he has exceptional quickness. I even forget about it because it has been so long since he's been out there. He got hurt in the first or second game of the year and then he's out of sight, out of mind. I hate to say it that way, but that's the way it really is. He has all the skills to be a top line receiver, but the thing that has stuck out to me out there on the field is how much quicker he is than everybody else."
Personality-wise, Rhema seems to be having fun at practice, even when you don't want him to have."Don't worry; he's not as much fun when I'm out there. He's not as much fun when I'm there; he's probably more fun when you're there; he's not more fun when I'm there. It is a blessing in disguise that Rhema McKnight is here and healthy for this football team. It doesn't make any difference which prospect you bring in here, to have a guy that is a polished receiver, a front-end guy; it's just like picking up a guy off the NFL free agency. This isn't a draft choice you have to develop. Everyone talks about the guys coming in, but they're still freshmen in college. In the NFL, if you need a wide-receiver, you say if that one is available, bring him in here and he is a starter. There is not a question about Rhema coming in and playing; he is a starter and we haven't played a game yet, but all those guys are going to have to earn their keep. It's a blessing in disguise that he is here and healthy."
Who does Rhema remind you of in the NFL?"The guy who came to mind first was Keenan McCardell, to tell you the truth. I hate to go through my whole inventory of players right there, but that's who he reminds me of the most. If he could go on and have the career he had, I think he would be more than happy, to tell you the truth."
Have any other receivers stood out this far in practice?"I don't think any of them have stood out for me to go out of my way to say I'm fired up about someone. I'm fired up about Rhema, how's that?"
What appealed to you about the three tight-end formation used on Saturday?"To be honest, you saw one facet of it. You saw run and play action. What makes it more intriguing is when you take all those guys and they start loading up the box because you've got all your big guys in here. All of a sudden, you take those guys and start spreading them out, now all of a sudden, they've got a bunch of slugs in there covering on defense. And you've got guys spread out all over the field. It's just the opposite of when you put in multiple wide-receivers and run the ball, now when you put in multiple tight ends and throw the ball, it gives you a whole other weapon to use personnel-wise and formation-wise and that gives you an opportunity to exploit defenses."
Are you able to use this formation because the talent at tight-end is very athletic?"I would say, it's very athletic, and we have more on the horizon that are yet to be announced. I'm saying we have a couple more tight-ends coming in on scholarship that we are going to throw into the mix. You have to look at all these guys coming in here and try to find if you're going to put them in a starting role or a backup role, when it is all said and done, and what you intend to use with them. We have three running backs coming in this year, and James (Aldridge) is already here; by the way he was running around pretty good the other day for all of you who were noticing. Munir Prince is coming in and I've got Luke Schmidt coming in; what do you do with these guys. You don't just bring them in here and not have a plan. You have to have a plan for what you're going to do with them. It's no different when I'm talking about (Konrad) Reuland and (Will) Yeatman, you have to have a plan for what you're going to do with them when you bring them in."
Have there been any surprises for you this spring?"I mentioned before, Marcus Freeman looks solid, and that's pleasing to me. We talked about Rhema being back; that's pleasing to me. And I think the most encouraging thing, really, is those two young safeties we talked about earlier. Now I don't have either one of them penned in as starters, but that doesn't mean I can't be encouraged by what I am seeing."