Sam Webb: Coach, first of all, midway point through the season thereabouts; let’s start off first talking about the tight ends. Just generally speaking, how you feel your position group has performed.
Dan Ferrigno: “I think they’re performing okay… a work in progress. We’re still real young at that spot. A.J. Williams is a sophomore now, as is Devin Funchess, and Jake Butt has been playing a lot as a true freshman. So we see improvement every week, but there’s a lot of work to be done. “
Sam Webb: Last week was a bit different. We saw a lot of Devin split out; we saw a lot of two tight ends stuff early in the game with Jake and A.J. How much of your ability to do that was a function of Jake really coming along at this point? Did that have a lot to do with it?
Dan Ferrigno: “I think it did. I think Jake is ahead of where we thought he was going to be and that allows us to have more flexibility to do things like that with Devin, so we’re pleased with where he’s at.”
Sam Webb: You have been a stickler… every time I talk to you about your position you say, ‘yeah, sure, pass catching is great,’ but you really harp on their ability to block. You have really talked about needing to see improvement there. So what about that aspect of the guys at your position? A.J., who, I know from watching him in high school, was a devastating blocker; Jake, he seems to be proficient at both; Devin, who you said needed to see some growth there; just overall with blocking, how have guys done?
Dan Ferrigno: “Not near well enough. I think a lot of the time we get on the right people, but we don’t get the movement that we need. Until that happens I won’t be satisfied. You take a power play where a tight end blocks down… you’re trying to create a hole between he and the kickout block by the fullback, and just haven’t seen enough movement to be satisfied yet.”
Sam Webb: When you talk about Devin, Brady said ‘hey, he needs to get bigger’ and that’s going to be a part of him being more efficient and proficient in that aspect of his game. Short of getting bigger, which is going to take time, what immediately are you talking to him about technique-wise, and that kind of thing?
Dan Ferrigno: “Well, there are a lot of things that we do with him that are motion blocks. He goes in motion and just the ability to bend his knees and to move his feet in space. Sometimes he tends to bend at the waist, and when you do that, your head leads you right into the ground. So he has to learn how to get up underneath himself and block better. Those are the things that we see he needs to improve on.”
Sam Webb: What about A.J.? Like I said, watching him in high school, he was a devastating blocker. I mean, he wiped guys out. For him coming here, I remember talking to you last year about him, you wanted him to come down in weight, and he’s done that. What’s the next step for A.J. Williams?
Dan Ferrigno: “Strength. He’s not near as strong as he needs to be. He was a devastating blocker in high school because he was bigger than everybody he played against. He’s still a young player; he’s still in development. The things he’s improved on are his footwork. He takes good steps now, and he plays harder than he did when he first got here. I’m pleased with that, but if his strength improves he’ll become a better blocker. He just has to get stronger.”
Sam Webb: I imagine the same is true with Jake, who obviously benefitted from getting enrolled early. But size and strength, are those things you’re harping on with him as well?
Dan Ferrigno: “Right, and Jake has put on 20 pounds since he’s been here, but the strength aspect, that takes time, and Aaron does a great job with those guys. You can make only so many strength gains in a period of time. When he goes through another off-season training program, another spring practice, and another summer I think you’ll see a lot of improvement because he’s a pretty good technician for someone who’s never really played with his hand in the ground. That’s the thing we forget about both he and Devin. They’ve never played with their hand in the ground, and they’re learning.”
Sam Webb: Coach, over the first four games of the season, we saw Devin Funchess make – I think it was eight receptions. Last week against Minnesota, seven receptions in that game alone. Is there something particular about him being at receiver that allows him to be targeted more, or was it just more of an emphasis? Why was he just such a big factor in the pass game against Minnesota?
Dan Ferrigno: “Well, I think moving him out more – because he has played a little bit split out, but not very much – really created some mismatches for Minnesota, and I think it will for other people down the line. We don’t want to lose the mismatches we get when he’s inside, so I’d call him a hybrid. That’s what I’d call him now. As he’s able to go out and do what Heck’s guys do, and he’s able to still come down and do what we do, because he’s tough now. I mean if you get him on a linebacker, he’s a problem. If you get him on a corner, he’s a problem because people don’t really realize how fast that kid is. You know, he probably runs a 4.5, and he’s 6’5”, 230-lbs now, and tougher and stronger than he was when he got here, so I think he’s a heck of a player.”
Sam Webb: How does that work in practice? Does he spend part of the time with you, part of the time with them? Is that how it works?
Dan Ferrigno: “That’s how it works, that’s right. Lately, from the bye week on – because we know the things that he can do for us at tight end, and he knows what to do, we’ve been having him spend more time with Jeff (Hecklinski) so he can learn the intricacies of being a receiver because that’s basically – we’re asking him to do both, so he needs to catch up on those things… you know, releases, and how you stem routes out there; it’s all a little bit different. “
Sam Webb: And still you have pass catching options among your tight end group, particularly with Jake. Jake is a guy who, long term, he’ll really be able to do both. He’ll be able to block, and certainly we saw him be an outstanding pass catcher in high school.
Dan Ferrigno: “Yeah, my hope for Jake is that he’ll be a true tight end, in that he’ll be able to put his hand in the ground, block and catch balls in the same fashion that Devin does. And us being able to do those type of things, then you have a real weapon, and I think he’ll develop into that.”
Sam Webb: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another guy who we saw on the field with Jordan Paskorz getting a few snaps in there. What have you seen from him to help him emerge like he has?
Dan Ferrigno: “Well, he’s been playing that position for a year now. He was a linebacker; and he’s showing a willingness and some ability to block. That’s the best thing he does. So his role right now is in short yardage and goal line, and if something were to happen to AJ, heaven forbid, he would be the next guy to go in there and be a blocker. So he’s come along. “
Sam Webb: Let’s transition over to the special teams side of things. In the return game Dennis Norfleet seems like he’s an inch away from breaking kickoffs. He’s almost there. He started out doing punts and kicks, and then you put him on kicks. What was behind that decision? Also, talk about his performance thus far.
Dan Ferrigno: “I don’t know if he was comfortable yet, and I certainly know that I wasn’t comfortable on punts. He had a couple that he was a little indecisive on, and I thought if they hit him we were going to have a fumble because that’s all it has to do is brush up against him, as we know, on the punt return. So it’s not that I don’t trust him, I just don’t think he’s ready yet back there. I do trust Drew (Dileo), and Drew makes good decisions. And as we saw in the Connecticut game, he can make things happen with the punt return. Dennis, on kickoff return however, he has a feel and a knack. We’ve had a couple come that close, two or three this year where he just gets clipped off. Part of that is he’s not the biggest guy in the world, and he has to learn to pick his feet up. The other part is we have to do a better job of holding on to our blocks. There was one last week where we missed a block, and it was a touchdown if we get that block. They just barely get him, and he only weighs 170-lbs; it doesn’t take much to get him down. But he’s quick as can be, he can make you miss, so there’s a lot of good things going on with him back there and he’s going to continue to get better I think”
Sam Webb: I don’t know if there’s much to say about Brendan Gibbons. He’s just so reliable and so steady that you almost take it for granted.
Dan Ferrigno: “Right, and you just know he’s going to make the kick. I think he’s missed one kick this year, and that’s about his average for a year. Since we’ve been here I think he’s missed four kicks, so yeah, very steady, very consistent. Not much bothers that guy. If it’s the kick to win the game, or if it’s just a regular kick in the middle of the game, he makes it.”
Sam Webb: The interesting thing is, most of the time when you talk about the kick game, the actual kicking field goals is more of an adventure than kickoffs. It’s been the opposite for you guys. Kickoffs have been a little more of an adventure for you guys this year.
Dan Ferrigno: “Yeah, very much so, and you know the first game of the year I think he kicked ten times, Matt Wile did, and he had seven touchbacks. He’s had a bunch of touchbacks, but it’s the ones – and they seem to come at the worst times, usually after we get back into the game or get ahead in the game, he cranks one out of bounds. I think he’s done it three times this year. So we have to get that out of his game. On the flip side with punts he’s gotten better the last couple weeks, but he’s had three to four, what I call shanks, you know, that – we just have to be more consistent. He’s the guy that we brought here to be our field goal kicker, and he’s kicked three field goals in his time here, but he’s done a lot of good things for us.”
Sam Webb: Right, I’m curious, what’s the reason why – because there are a lot of punters that can kick, and kickers that can punt – why typically do people separate the two? Why don’t you have more kickers that do all the duties as opposed to splitting them up like most teams do?
Dan Ferrigno: “The strokes are so different; that’s what you’re worried about. A field goal stroke and a punting stroke are on opposite ends of the world, they really are, but he’s able to do them, and he has a strong kick. When he hits the ball on the kickoff, they usually go out of the end zone, and when he’s punting properly, he can bang the punt too. He’s a very talented kid, so we choose to let him do both. We know we have a young guy in Kenny Allen who’s a real good punter from Fenton, and I think eventually someday he can be our punter. It’s just, we put him in one game to see what he could do, and he banged a 54-yarder every once in a while. There’s a lot more that goes into it. Getting it off in time is something we’re still working on with him. He tends to hold onto the ball a little bit too much.”
Sam Webb: Last one for you coach, and most importantly, let’s switch over and talk about this week’s opponent, Penn State. They’ve been in some tough games already this year. UCF came in there and was able to get some things done. Last week against Indiana was a disappointment for them, a bit of a shootout there. What have you seen from Penn State on film? What problems do they present for you guys on offense?
Dan Ferrigno: “Well, offensively, they have – they’re very good inside on their defense. Number 91 is a heck of a player. He’s as good as any tackle is in the league. They’re always consistent and strong at linebacker, good safeties. They’re not a team that blitzes a lot, they play real sound defense, and they run to the ball, play hard, all the things you want out of a defense. They pose some problems that way, but especially the inside people on their defense are good. “
Sam Webb: It seemed like you might have one new guy at your position? Are you coaching Taylor Lewan a little bit these days? You’re not coaching Taylor to catch any passes out there?
Dan Ferrigno: “No (laughter), he can do it though. That guy can do just about anything. We’re flipping the formation around and taking advantage of his abilities, that’s all we’re doing. I’d like to claim him.”