With Penn State set to kick off spring practice March 28, FOS felt there was no time like now to start picking the brains of the Nittany Lions. And who better to lead off than Tamba Hali, the intelligent, not-afraid-to-speak-his-mind senior defensive end?
How close did Hali come to declaring for the NFL draft? How did concerns for his mother, who is stuck in war-torn Liberia, play into his decision on that front? What are his thoughts on Penn State's struggling offense? And what is his take on Lion true freshmen Derrick Williams and Justin King?
Hali talked about all of that and more in a Thursday afternoon interview with FightOnState.com editor Mark Brennan and reporter Pat Tholey of Blue White Illustrated. (Penn State said a one-on-one interview was not possible for either outfit). Brennan is identified as MB here, Tholey as Q2. Hali, of course, is HALI.
Note the WMV audio file in the story, which has Hali's comments on Williams and King. In the meantime, read on for the interview, which has been edited for length, relevance and clarity:
MB: Why were you guys so much better as a unit last year than the year before?
HALI: Team cohesiveness. We got together, we got the point as a D-line and a group of what we needed to accomplish. We were much stronger and much faster. As a defensive line, we want to have four guys in there who can do it and be consistent. We did well as a defensive squad. But as a D-line, we want to be more consistent.
Q2: Have we seen how good this defense is, or is there more? Tom Bradley sort of kept things simple last year.
HALI: It's simple. We're good, but we don't try to do too much. A good defense can line up in a regular 4-4 and play right there. You don't have to stunt and move around too much. That's what we're trying to get to. Whatever the [opposing] team wants to do, we can just line up and stack, just play from stack. Let's see what they can do.
HALI: Watching NFL dudes, most of them time the snap. The game, for the defensive ends and defensive line, is really played within about 20 yards. So getting quicker, if I can be able to get from where I start when the ball is snapped around the tackle as fast as possible, it that can be a real help. Then tackles will have to worry about kicking back faster, and that's going to allow me to do more as a defensive end.
MB: How do you work on quickness and guess the snap?
HALI: On our own time I come up with little drills we can do. You grab a tennis ball, and line up 10 yards [away]. You let the ball drop one time. As soon as the ball drops, you have to be out of your stance and catch the ball after the first [bounce]. When the ball drops, you snap and go get it. Then you back up some more and see how quick you can get that ball.
Q2: We didn't see many blitzes from the Penn State defense last year. You think we're going to see more of that this season?
HALI: That would be good, blitzing. We do a lot of stunting. I don't think we do a lot of blitzing. But you have some guys out there, quarterbacks, who know how to [read] defenses. I don't know. I don't know what we'll see next year. It's up to the coaches.
Q2: So right now you haven't put in any new wrinkles yet?
HALI: It's the same defense. Teams will prepare much better for us now because we're getting to the point where we're getting looked at. So they might put something in. But right now, to my knowledge, we just have to learn our defense more. Before I just used to know what the D-line does. Now coach is trying to emphasize that we want to know what everybody does.
MB: Did you consider going [to the NFL] after your junior year?
HALI: No. If I should have considered, it would have been if I had been playing defensive end since I was a freshman. But there is so much I have to learn at the position, so much I have to work on. After you watch these pro tapes, the next level, it's just not [an ordinary] player coming in there. You have to be really good. I have to be really good. I don't think I'm there yet.
MB: I assume playing pro ball is important to you for a lot of reasons. But one is to be able to help your mom [who is in Liberia]. Did that come into play [when considering whether to turn pro] at all? Or did you think, if you do what you need to do, that situation will take care of itself?
HALI: That's exactly how I thought about it. I'm not rushing it. I'm not trying to get out there as soon as possible. Things will work out if you play and be patient. I'm eager to get to the point where I can play professional football. But as for now, I'm more concerned with what we have to get done here.
MB: What is your mom's situation. Is she doing OK?
HALI: She was doing fine the last time I heard, which was around Christmas. She calls my dad every once in a while. He sends some money down there. She's doing all right. I just don't feel comfortable where she is.
Q2: How important is it for you to have a good year [in terms of the NFL draft]?
HALI: I'm not really concerned with me having a good year. I'm more concerned with us as a group, as a defense having a good year. Everything will work itself out. If I'm concerned about myself, I might be the downfall to the defense. I'm more concerned about how the two tackles inside are going to do. We complement them, and they complement us.
MB: You had a good year defensively last year but the offense struggled. Were you frustrated with that, and is it going to take the offense playing better for this team to get the kind of recognition it needs?
HALI: You're right, the defense can't get the job done all by itself. You need an offense. This is college. They just have to mature like we did. The year before [last], we were horrible. We were dead last [in the Big Ten in rushing defense], people were running the ball on us. We didn't want that to happen again. Hopefully, they get the same mindset, that we don't want to come out in Beaver Stadium and NOT put on a show. They want to be coming out there to put on a show.
MB: Can you sense if the offense is improving the way you guys did last year at this time?
HALI: Yeah. To look at it right now, the type of things we're doing so early in the off-season, they never occurred while I've been here. Mike [Robinson] has been taking the wide receivers out since we've been back, before we [the defense] even went out there. He's been out there throwing the ball to them. And the offensive line, I think they're getting the point, too, because we've got to work with them. As a whole, they see where we're at, and say, we want to be there, too. They understand what we want to get done.
MB: Who are some young guys on the offensive line that people should look out for?
HALI: I work with Wyatt [Bowman] all the time. He always wants me to pass rush on him. I try to coach him a little bit. I try to do stuff with him so he can understand. And I tell him, don't get the mindset that the guy in front of you is a senior. If you want to play, you come out there and do things and you will play. He has the size. So long as he's able to learn, he'll play.
Editor's Note: Later in the interview, Hali talked about redshirt freshman center Trent Varva. For the purpose of flow, we moved that quote here.
HALI: He's a big dude, a center. He snaps that ball hard. I was going against him all season on the scout team. These guys, I have to say, they've brought in some good linemen - [Varva], Wyatt and Tommy [Schnell]. Down the road, there are gonna be some highs. They're gonna drive the ball down people's throats. Because they're big, they're huge and they're athletic. I like them. I like all of them.
HALI: Those guys are coming on. I don't know much about Tyrell Sales. But Amani, he's starting to learn and get the point like we did. If you want to do something here, you have to sacrifice something to get something. Amani's starting to get the point. He had a great winter.
MB: You have such a veteran unit on the defensive line. Is there anyone there who will surprise people, if not this year then after you guys are gone?
HALI: A.Q. [Shipley]. I think they want to move him to center. But the kid is such a fast learner. I'm slow at learning. I've never seen someone catch on so quickly. He's young, too. I think he's only 18. Everything we teach him or the coaches teach him, he's got it. And he always comes to me to make sure he knows what's going on.
MB: How can you say you're a slow learner when you played as a true freshman?
HALI: When I first came in, I was dead last on the chart. I was. Preseason camp, I was horrible. I was not catching on. Jimmy [Kennedy] and them, it was fast-paced for these dudes. I was just trying to hang on somehow. Once I get it, it's not a hard thing for me. But before I get it, it's really hard for me. It takes a while. Once I get it, it's like putting my shoes on. If Ed Johnson would have competed much harder, he probably would have played before I did in those positions [defensive tackle]. But I just wanted to play, regardless of where they wanted to put me.
HALI: When I first got here, it was a shock to me. Anthony Adams worked so hard. It was just incredible. In the weight room. In conditioning. It would be like Bryant Johnson and Shawn Mayer, it would be like 10 guys, and [they'd say] let's bring four freshmen with us. We'd go to the hills and start running the hills. It was hot. We'd do the hills, do pushups, doing things that made you think, I should be home right now. But those guys were working and doing it. With that mentality, I kind of realized that's what you need to get done. That's what you want to do to be able to play at the next level.
MB: Can you believe your career has gone by so quickly?
HALI: It's been like that [snapping his finger]. In high school, you go through the whole year going to school. This semester-to-semester, thing, it's going by like that. Before you know it, it's five months away.
MB: So I have to assume you're pretty charged up for your last year.
HALI: I'm just trying to prepare as best as you can prepare, regardless of what the obstacle will be. We have to prepares as a team and just be ready to go.
MB: What are your thoughts on Coach [Larry] Johnson?
HALI: He has this motto that he plays his best players. He looks all of us in the eye and tells us he loves all of us, and sometimes he has his favorites. But if you come to practice, and prove that you can play hard and play smart, he'll play you. That's been his motto. It's what he sees in practice, that's what he goes by. If you don't do it in practice and he's never seen it, he's not going to trust you out there, so he won't put you out there. Some of us probably don't get it. Some of us do. I get the point. You want me to play hard, you want me to play at full speed.
MB: What are your thoughts on Tom Bradley? Does he have a lot to do with [the defensive line], or does he let Coach Johnson do what he needs to do?
HALI: Coach Johnson runs the defensive line. Tom Bradley calls the plays. Coach Johnson still calls the stunts.
MB: What do you guys have to get done as a team in spring practice?
HALI: We're probably ahead of our game right now because we've never started this early thinking about the season. Usually we do that in the summer. After listening to NFL players, they watch film all year long. That's their job. I'm like, some of the colleges go through the same process. They get into that routine and are successful. It's always a good thing to be prepared.
MB: What NFL players were you talking to about that?
HALI: Oh, I didn't talk to players. It's just from watching ESPN. They say we watch film, all day.