Improve on last season's stellar effort, or risk facing a rapid decline.
You can get by one year with doing certain things and you can feel good about yourself and get a little bit complacent, the coach said. We have to understand that they have to get better. If you are not better, you are going to be worse. If we are worse, we are going to get a couple of good lickings.
If the players are taking cues from the defensive staff, that won't be a problem. After guiding the only unit in the nation not to allow more than 21 points in a game last season, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley and company helped Penn State land the most athletic recruiting class in school history. Then the focus changed to high school juniors.
Earlier this week, rather than take a well-deserved break before the crunch of spring ball hits, the defensive coaches traveled en masse to the University of Miami to watch the Hurricanes practice for a few days.
Bradley went out of his way to say the visit to Coral Gables was not a big deal it was done more to pick up practice techniques than to soak up defensive schemes and that people should not read too much into it.
Indeed, if you want to read anything into the trip, it is that the defensive staff, heading up a unit with nine starters returning and one former starter coming off a redshirt, is not content to rest on its past success.
Thursday, less than a day after returning from Miami, Bradley stepped away from his hectic schedule to do a one-on-one interview with Fight On State's Mark Brennan. The Q&A was done in FOS Big Ten format, which, in honor of the numerically challenged conference, includes 11 different topics.
QUESTION 11: How are things going for you?
BRADLEY: They're going fine. Everything is where it should be. The winter program went well. We're in good physical shape to start the spring, and everybody is healthy and ready to go.
QUESTION 10: Was the defense as good last season as the statistics indicated?
BRADLEY: That's a question that's hard to answer. A lot of times when you're good, you have to be lucky. We stayed healthy, we got a couple breaks. Some guys made some great plays in spite of some stupid calls [by Bradley]. That's the truth. They've got to bail you out of some things. But we'll find out.
Everybody talks about it, but that's last year, this is this year. To be honest with you, I tell people all the time, I don't care if we give up 50 points a game as long as we win every game. That's my attitude. It's all one group. It's not as if, well, you guys did OK, but they didn't. Because it's not you guys and us guys, it's we.
Statistics to me are stupid. If you look at us over the last three years, you'll find we had about the eighth-best defense in the country over the last three years. You put those numbers together, we're in the top 10. So it's not a one-year deal with us.
If we play like we did last year, we'll be the 65th defense in the country this year. We'll have to see if they're ready to take it up a notch. That goes for the coaches, too.
QUESTION 9: You had a lot of players improve dramatically last season, especially on the defensive line and at linebacker. Were they doing anything different last year than the previous year?
BRADLEY: I thought we did get better as the year went on. I didn't see many games where we lacked consistency. If there was a time I sensed a little bit of a letdown, it might have been in the Northwestern game. It's the only time I ever thought we looked tired and without a lot of zip.
But I have to give them credit for the effort against Indiana. Right on the goal line, they could have packed it in and gone home, but they didn't. It shows a little bit about what kind of pride they have, and they showed a lot of people where they are headed. They didn't pack it in. We're a 2-7 football team, there's 20,000 people in the stands. You have to give them credit for digging in and playing well.
QUESTION 8: Joe said there were some things the defense did last year that people may not have been ready for but that they may be ready for them this year. What was he talking about?
BRADLEY: There's always little things we do. And there's no question, they're gonna study us a little bit more to figure out what we're doing. We got away with a couple things that well, I'm not going to tip what we were doing. But we're going to change some things, too, so if they want to work on what we did last year, then good luck.
QUESTION 7: Where does the defense have to improve this spring?
BRADLEY: The biggest thing with this defense is stopping big plays. We did a great job stopping the big play last year, but we have to learn how to do three things: We have to learn how to play faster; We have to do a better job when people go toe to toe with us; And we have to do a better job on some of our pursuit angles that led to big plays last year that were obviously things that we can correct.
At times we'll have to be more disciplined. A lot of teams can go toe to toe with us when they get us on schedule: first and 10; second and 7; third and 4. Then they can play-action us and get the upper hand. If we keep teams in third and 10 or third and 11, those are the things we do well. One of the things we don't do well is when people just pound it and can stay on schedule. That's where we have some issues.
QUESTION 6: Joe talked about having to improve the athleticism of the team, and you obviously did it through recruiting. With that said, how important was it to get a guy like Justin King in for the spring semester?
BRADLEY: That's a bonus. I'm not a big guy on them coming in early. I think they should stay in high school and enjoy it. But from a selfish standpoint, from our standpoint, it's great because one of the things everybody overlooks besides the football is getting used to your teammates, the academics, the pace. Now they're coming in and they are not in awe of it, and you're almost getting a kid who's a sophomore because he's been through winter program.
Winter program is tough. They're not used to that coming out of high school. They work at it, getting into winter program is a whole different world. They learn how to lift. We then get to the point with academics where they are into classes, they know where the Willard Building is. Everything isn't new.
When they come back they have a core group of friends, they know most of the team. There's a comfort level. The kids have seen they can perform, they're not trying to show the kids again that they can do it. Now they're just excited to play for the season. It's not the first time they heard one of my stupid defensive calls or gotten a stupid signal. They've seen it, and they go, oh God. They're more secure in what they're doing. They've got their feet up underneath them a little bit.
You get them in the winter and spring and you can really take your time. Everything in the fall is rush, rush, rush. You've got the preseason, you've got to make a decision. Who are you going to work with? Now you can work late after practice and spend some time with them. You don't have that luxury in the fall.
QUESTION 5: So you count on Justin to contribute this year?
BRADLEY: Yeah, I think we count on him to play this year. I don't want to put any pressure on him. He's a good prospect. How much he plays, where, and how, I can't tell you that. But he's a good prospect and he certainly is a guy who is a good skill football player who can probably play a number of positions for us.
QUESTION 4: After last season there were a bunch of rumors about you moving on. Did anybody approach you? Were you looking at anything?
BRADLEY: I was approached by a number of people about a lot of different things. I don't think it is fair to get into it. But I was approached by a number of people. A lot of things that get out there, you try not to get them out there. But people do call and ask and present you with different scenarios. It's flattering that people think enough of you to call and give you those options.
QUESTION 3: Why do you stick around? I don't mean that in any sort of negative way. But what are the things about Penn State that you like that keep you there?
BRADLEY: I think a lot of it has to do with where this program's been, where I think it's headed. There's a loyalty that's been built up over the years between myself and Coach Paterno and Penn State. There are a lot of things where, you look around, and the grass seems greener. Then you do a little research and say, hey, it's pretty nice right here. It's a thing where you listen and try to learn, but you try to keep things in perspective with what you're trying to do with your life. There are a lot of variables that play into any decision. And it's not just football. There are a lot of quality-of-life issues that factor in anytime you go about making a decision.
QUESTION 2: What does your future hold?
BRADLEY: (Laughing) I'm trying to figure out what we've got planned for the first day of spring practice. The only thing I was worried about yesterday was how the heck we were going to get back from the University of Miami to Penn State. It was about 3:30 in the morning and we were driving back up the turnpike. I guess we did OK, because we made it back.
I don't know. Honest to goodness, right now I know what my job is and I'm just focusing on what we have to do to get everybody better for spring practice.
QUESTION 1: What were you doing at Miami?
BRADLEY: We went down there to watch them practice. Sometimes we go places and people read more into it than there is. Oh, they went here, they're going to do this. They went there, they're going to do this. We have some people we know down there, they know us. It's more of a chance to watch how people operate rather than X's and O's schematically. We heard they practiced well and wanted to see some things. You're just looking for a few things here and there, that's all. It's not a big deal.
We have people that come here all the time. A lot of times they just want to see your organization, they want to watch a couple things. Maybe you pick up one or two ideas you just didn't think about before. You're always looking for a better way. I think our way is good, the way we practice. But it doesn't hurt to get out and look at a couple of other people and then compare notes. That's all it is.