The following is Coach David Cutcliffe's Monday press conference as the Rebs prepare to travel to South Carolina to face the Gamecocks Saturday. His brief opening statement will be followed by questions and answers from the media.
Cutcliffe: It was good to get a win. There were some positives we can build off, but there are certainly things we can do better. We did get a few people beat up a little. WR Mike Espy is a little injured, C Chris Spencer is beat up. Mike may miss today, but we'll be able to evaluate more tomorrow, injury-wise. We are getting back WR Bill Flowers today, but we will hold him from contact this week. We think he will be able to play against South Carolina.
South Carolina is a very tough challenge. They are very good and appear to have good senior leadership. They are playing well together and are certainly a Top 25 football team.
Q: Can you give us some specifics on what you are doing well and what you are not doing well?
Cut: We were horrible in third downs on offense again. That is something we have to not only address, but get fixed. Our execution in all third down situations - long, medium or short - has been poor. We were 3-13 Saturday - not acceptable. But we ran the ball well at times. We seem to be getting more out of our running game and we threw the ball Saturday for a good percentage (75% competion rate). On the flip side, we are not throwing the ball down the field very effectively. We have to stretch the defenses we face more than we have been with some big plays and some longer throws for completions. Defensively, we got better as the game progressed, but we didn't play well early. Our tackling was poor and our gap responsibility was bad. It cost us. Our defense is playing right now like we started last year - make a good play, make a good play, then give up a big play. At times, we are in position to make the play and simply don't make it. That's a mystery to us, but we will continue to challenge the players to make plays when they have the opportunity.
Q: With third downs being an issue, it seems like sometimes your QB will throw a five-yard route on third-and-seven. Why?
Cut: Sometimes you are forced to lay the ball off. Sometimes you throw underneath and try to run for first downs in one-on-one situations. Normally, he's coming off a receiver and laying it off to an open receiver below the sticks. On just about every pass play, we have people in longer, medium and shorter routes. Where the QB goes with the ball is based on his reads of the defense and his decision-making.
Q: How do you prevent the slow starts your defense has been having? You seem to adjust well at halftime, but the slow starts are digging you a hole.
Cut: Obviously, I don't know the answer to that or I would fix it immediately. Why we are not playing well early is still a mystery. Whether it's being emotionally ready or not preparing in practice well enough or not being physically ready or assignment ready, we are asking all those questions ourselves. We are looking at every angle to find those answers and we need to find them in a hurry.
Q: What does having Jonathan Nichols on the sidelines do to your confidence, knowing you will get points in just about any situation?
Cut: Touchdowns are always preferable and that's what we shoot for. We don't feel we are in a comfort zone and are settling for three points, but having him there is a luxury. We also don't think the kids are too cautious in the Red Zone knowing if they take care of the ball we will get three points. He's a weapon, but we would prefer not to use him as much as we've been using him. We'd prefer touchdowns. . . As far as Jonathan goes, if you watch him in practice and watch the focus and all the little things, you will see why he's so good in the games.
Q: Do the scholarship limitations over the last decade or so make the SEC more competitive and unpredictable?
Cut: The league is definitely more unpredictable than when I first came in it. It used to be dominated by a few teams. Now anyone is capable of winning on any given Saturday. It's tougher to be undefeated now. There are a lot of good teams and football players in this league. I think that's good for our league. I don't know how other people view it, but I think the way things are anyone in our league can compete for championships any given year.
Q: With Lou Holtz now running SC's offense, how is it different than last year?
Cut: They made a commitment to run the football from a lot of different angles and from a lot of different looks. He's always been very multiple, in my opinion. Coach Holtz also has a knack for throwing the ball downfield at just the right time to hit you with big plays. They do a great job of throwing the deep ball. They present you a lot of problems formation-wise and their personnel is very good.
Q: Talk about your special teams this year.
Cut: We've had some positive things this year in special teams, but we have also had a disaster or two. Your goal is to make big plays, but not give up any big plays. That play is a whole series in itself, very critical. For the most part, we have been consistent in special teams play, but there is always room for improvement.
Q: How is WR Kerry Johnson's hand now?
Cut: Kerry got behind with all the missed practice time, but he's catching up now. The surgery set him back, but he's feeling pretty good now. He's not 100% healthy, but I think he's beginning to feel like himself again.
Q: Talk about TB Vashon Pearson's progress.
Cut: Vashon is finishing runs better, using his speed better and making some cuts better after he reads a hole. He's seeing the holes better and getting more out of runs than he was a year ago. He still has some little things to improve, but he's on the path to being a real fine back before it's all over with.
Q: Last year after the Texas Tech game you made a commitment to simplify the defense. Has that been an issue this year - a need to simplify what you are doing on defense?
Cut: That is something we have discussed, but we don't feel that's the major issue. We haven't had as many assignment busts as we did early last year. My concern centers more around are we as quick keying to the ball as we should be? Those are the questions I'm asking right now along those lines.
Q: How is LB Garry Pack progressing?
Cut: He's doing well. He's getting more comfortable with the speed of the game and with the defensive system we run. He's improved a great deal. He had, I think, six tackles last week and will continue to get better.
Q: Vandy was an uplifting win. How did the team respond to the win over Arkansas State?
Cut: It was different. There was no celebration. We played better in the second half, we got a two TD lead and then it ended up with us just hanging on. We had a lot of frustration at halftime. We are happy to win and will never take it for granted, but we know we have a lot of work to do and that's a part of what the atmosphere in the locker room postgame was.
Q: What gives you confidence and hope with what you have seen thus far and what you are facing down the road, starting Saturday in Columbia?
Cut: We are playing one game at a time, not every remaining game all at once. The schedule collectively is not our focus. South Carolina is. We know it's a challenge, a big challenge against a team that is playing extremely well. But I think we have a bunch of competitors on this team and what competitors do is get pumped up about a challenge. We have the right kind of people in this program - coaching and playing - and all we need to focus on is South Carolina.
Q: Is Holtz a character behind the scenes as well as in front of a camera?
Cut: Yes. He's funny and enthusiastic and energetic. You never know what he's going to say. But in the midst of all that, he's also a great football coach and will always be as long as he chooses to coach.
Q: How is the move to this new facility going?
Cut: It has provided some energy to our team and staff. We've already had meetings in here and it has been uplifting. There have been some kinks, but we expected that. We are happy to be in this magnificent facility. We are very proud of it and thankful to have it and we think it will pay great dividends immediately and in the future.
Monday press conference
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