O-Line Talk with Tom Freeman

There are questions a-plenty to be answered with this Stanford Football team, but the most pressing are staring at us from the offensive line. Nobody knows that better than interior line coach and run game coordinator Tom Freeman. He sits down with The Bootleg to talk shop about what his charges have shown in their two first games, what buttons he wants to push, and what could happen Saturday against Oregon.

How much film have you watched from last year's Oregon game?

We've watched the Oregon-Stanford game more from a breakdown standpoint than evaluating our players, per se.  What's in the past is the past.  Hopefully with their normal matriculation, they are bigger, stronger and better in their technique from having played more.  They struggled last year, but when I say "breakdown," I am talking about breaking them down from an Xs and Os standpoint, like you would any other game.

What is the biggest challenge that Oregon presents on their defensive line?

Size and experience.  #96, [Haloti] Ngata - he's played an awful lot of football.  They have some experienced players up there, and they're big and talented.  That was a heck of a ballgame they had with USC until it got out of hand there a little bit toward the end.  Fresno State spread them out and got a couple plays, but by and large, they have nice sized guys.

Does Oregon present a more traditional defensive front and scheme, whereas Navy and Davis did less traditional things you had to prepare for?

Yeah, what you see from Oregon we will see down the stretch, throughout the conference.  A lot of their stuff is the same, front-wise, that we will see.  Navy was a 3-4, which you don't see very often - maybe once or twice a year.  Davis ran an old fashioned pro 4-3, which you don't see much anymore.  But what happened against Davis had nothing to do with where linemen played.  It had to do with how we played.  And give the Davis kids credit; they made plays when they had to.

Walt Harris made the comment after the Davis game that they must have seen things from the Navy tape which revealed weaknesses they were able to exploit...

Yeah, they did.  I'm going to give their coaches and their players all the credit.  They were ready to go.  Everybody has some Achilles heels, but can you find them, expose them, and take advantage of them?

Those weaknesses that Coach Harris talked about - those are Achilles heels that you guys have to accept and work around, or are they correctable?

Some of them are correctable, and some of them are inherent to what you do within your scheme, too.  They did a nice job X-and-O-wise, and physically, too.

Do you feel it is just a matter of time before this line clicks?  A lot of these guys have experience...

You have to stay healthy, and that's the age-old cop-out.  But gosh almighty, when those kids got hurt and banged around, we played a number of kids out there for a variety of reasons.  We played two centers, four tackles and three guards.

Do you feel that in particular Brian Head's status in an out with injury, his being the senior leader and the guy who makes the calls, has been particularly difficult?

Oh, sure.  And of course, Brian did not do anything in the spring either.  Brian brings great fifth-year senior leadership to the table.

If you lose Brian at some point, do you go to the next guy at center or do you do a shuffle on the offensive line?

We've done that.  Tim Mattran went in last time and finished the game.  It'll depend on how it goes.  Alex Fletcher has - and he was even before Brian Head was injured - has always taken snaps at center.  He would go into this game as the #2 center, yes.

If he slides over to center at some point, then Ismail Simpson plays at that vacated guard position?

Yes, Ish would be the next guard in.

Has he made progress?

Yes, Ish had a very nice camp.  I was very pleased with the progress he has made.  He was a little banged up injury-wise, but he had a good camp.

What specifically did he do from spring to now that is so much better?

He got in shape.  I think he got in better shape, even though he did miss some time with injuries early in camp.

Is there anything positive from the Davis film that you can point to?

No.  Zero.

As a coach, do you just have those games sometimes, or is this one of the bottom games you have had to break down in recent years?

This ranks with losing to Oregon State, 59-0, in 1976 in Hawaii.  This was horrible.

How did the rest of the season fare after that?

That was our second to last game.  We lost to Nebraska the next week, 68-3.  Had we played as well as we did against Nebraska in that 68-3 loss, we might have beaten Oregon State.

So have the last two weeks just been agonizing?

Yeah, and then have to go recruiting.

What message do you give with a straight face to kids?  Your team is being talked about nationally, but not the way you want.

Well, we need players.  [laughs]  That's the positive spin you put on it.

With the players that you do have here, what do you build off of?  Where is the hope on this offensive line where fans can look for the rest of the year?

They were two completely different lines, between Davis and Navy.  We hope that the line that played against Navy shows up these last nine games.  We ran the ball well and protected the passer fairly well back there.  For whatever reason, they did not play that well against Davis.

Did the injury situation during the game make it difficult to bring guys to the sideline and tell them 'this is what you are doing wrong'?

Yes and no.  The one to Jeff Edwards left us a decision.  We played both Ben Muth and Allen Smith there, and that was their first extended action for both of them.  It was hectic.  Anytime you lose a kid who started a lot of games, and put in redshirt freshmen...  Al McGuire said it best: "The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores."

Allen was in for just one play.  What happened that had him returning to the sideline so fast?

He had a mental error.  He missed an assignment.

Is that the same reason Josiah Vinson was pulled from the game?

Josiah came out for another reason, and we won't talk about that.

You said you have seen a completely different group between just these first two games.  So what buttons do you push as a coach when you have a Jekyll & Hyde offensive line?

Our biggest challenge right now is to instill some confidence in them that they can play like they did at Navy.  We looked like a football team at Navy.  That is our biggest challenge right now, for them to take the medicine.  Yeah, we played poorly against Davis.  You get 24 hours to celebrate a victory and 24 hours to cry.  Those 24 hours are long gone.  Let's go.  Time to play.

John McDonell and I, our thrust right now - here is the plan: if you execute the techniques and details of your assignment, play hard and all those kinds of things, let the chips fall where they may.  But you have no chance going out there and playing against the quality of opponent we have this week using made-up techniques and bad techniques.  Gosh almighty, you're just going to dig yourself into a bigger hole.

Is there any real way to build-up confidence during practices and a bye week?

Yeah.  Coach Harris gave us more time to go back and work on fundamentals and techniques.  That was the culprit - bad technique.  We are going to build this place on good fundamentals.  That was the great thing about having the bye week.  We were able to go back and coach generic football.

For a team to forget fundamentals seven days later, is that symptomatic of a team that just didn't care enough in their approach to that game?

I think that's part of it.  Give Davis credit.  Say what you want.  I'm sure our guys thought they could just show up.  Especially with how the game unfolded - all of a sudden Davis is making all the mistakes and we're up 17-0.  Then, the next thing you know we're in a ballgame.  I don't think our players were ready to go, as much as we were talking to them.  I mean, Davis is a good football program.  35 consecutive winning seasons, now.  I don't care who you are playing.  Thirty-five consecutive winning seasons.  Then when we let them back in the game, shoot.  I told them on the sideline, "Guys, you better put this game away, or the next thing you know you're going to be playing the Green Bay Packers out there."  We let them live, and bingo all of a sudden, they're ready to go.  As much as we tried to turn the switch back on, it didn't happen.

Could you see in the eyes of your players in practices leading up to the Davis game that there was the risk they could come out like that?

Quite honestly, no.  We felt like we had very focused, efficient practices.

With that being said, will it be a lingering question every Saturday morning what you are going to get out of your guys?

It's been that way every time I've coached.  That doesn't change.  If I could diagnose that, I'd put it in a bottle and sell it and be a millionaire.  There isn't a coach in America who knows how his team is going to play.

Did you know right away that day what was happening?

No.  When we scored two defensive touchdowns, those are two series where they get the ball right back.  We only ran like 19 or 20 plays in the first half.  We moved the ball pretty well in the first drive and dropped a couple balls here and there.  No, I felt pretty good.  I really did at halftime.  Everybody felt bad about the screw-up which let them make it 17-7, but I looked at my pad and we had only played 19 plays.  In a normal game you run maybe 72, so you expect to run maybe half of that by now.  You never got a chance to get in the swing.  I felt like we were kind of in control.  We knew by then that Trent [Edwards] was done for the night, and we felt good enough that T.C. [Ostrander] could do it.  Then for whatever reason, it became apparent that we were in a football game.

When guys run hot and cold like that, do you want to push the button of leadership within the offense?

Well, yeah, that's always there.  We have but one fifth-year senior on the offensive line, and that's Brian Head.  We don't have many fifth-year seniors on the offense.  There's a couple or three of them.  We don't have any fifth-year senior tight ends, for example.  J.R. Lemon is a fifth-year senior, but of course he's been on the shelf.  That would be your answer.  All coaches want the same thing.  They want consistency.  They want the same performance week after week after week.  That's what you want.  The sign of good teams is that they get a little better each week; you show improvement.  You hope your best game is your last game.  This is your worst nightmare [hand chopping up and down] - the highs and the lows.

Especially when you have a high in your first game...

Yeah.  Now, this isn't the Navy team of a year ago, but I give our guys credit.  We go back there - make that trip all the way across the country - to play in front of the fourth largest crowd ever to attend a game in Annapolis, and play good.  We don't have an off-sides; we don't have a delay of game - all of the kinds of things that you are afraid of in your first ballgame.  We looked pretty good.  We pop a kickoff return.  We pop a reverse.  The base run game averages five or six yards per gain.  Trent is effective throwing the ball.  That's what it is such an enigma that we come back in the home opener and forget everything in seven days.

Do you think this is going to be a team that plays to the level of its competition?

Yeah, I think that's inherent to most teams.  The really good ones just go out and mulch people.  When you are where you are, that's a real concern.  We were mystified.  We felt we had really nice practices - good practices.

So for most of that game, you didn't have Trent Edwards and you didn't have Brian Head for leadership within your offense.  You're hopefully getting Trent back, but let's say there are games down the road where you don't have Brian.  Do you pull any of your linemen aside and say that you need them to be Brian in the huddle?  You cannot have a headless leadership on the offensive line.

Yeah, we've talked about that.  We would like all of them to do that.  Coach Harris preached this at Pittsburgh - you don't have to be a senior to be a leader.  We had a kid who was a three-year captain.  He was an elected captain as a sophomore.  Elected three years in a row.  It doesn't have to be a senior.  One of those guys have to step up and say, "Guys, this isn't right."

From the personalities you have seen, who is the best personality to be that next guy?

That depends upon how you lead.  Are you going to lead by example or by yelling and screaming?  I'd rather have a guy lead by example.  The first guy who plays well this week, I hope.

And coming off Davis, you can't exactly say somebody is leading by example...

[laughs]  No.  Nobody did it by example.  Let's put it that way.  That game was typical of those kinds of games.  You have three or four pretty good blocks and then one block that leaves you 2nd & 9.  "Hey, that play should have been better," you're saying from the sideline.  You put on the tape and find out why.

What has the tone been like in practices this week?

Oh it's been good.  We really have had good practices.  I think our guys are embarrassed about that thing as any they have ever been involved with.  And rightfully so.

Did you have anybody on your recruiting trip who asked you about it?

No, thank God.  Though you talk about it with coaches.  Thankfully, in Colorado and Utah, some may not have even known about the score because of the time zone.  [laughs]  But the coaches are sports fans, and they ask you, "Hey, how did it go?"  We had one of those games that equals our worst nightmare.  By the way, the kid we are here to see can help contribute to avoiding these types of things.

The one youngster you are starting is Alex Fletcher.  Can you give a status report of how he is doing and what growing pains he is going through?

I like his energy.  I like his enthusiasm for the game.  He has to learn how to play the game.  That's what he doesn't have yet.  You just cannot play on enthusiasm.  Once he learns how to play the game, he will be a very fine player.  He needs to learn how to channel his energy.  He has to learn that there is more to the game than playing like a whirling dervish.

Leaving the scheme?  Leaving his block trying to go after somebody else?

Well, a lot of things.  It's doing too much on occasion or outthinking yourself on occasion.  Just generally being a freshman.

Have you seen plays in these first two games when he's done it right that you get excited about?

Oh, yeah.  He's got tremendous upside.  He's got a chance to be a very good player.  He cannot let his greatest asset become his biggest liability.  In other words, he has to learn how to channel his energies.  He's a strong youngster.  He's an explosive youngster.  He's got good balance.  He's a good athlete.  All those kinds of things.  Just learn how to apply it technique-wise.  By and large, he has not been a problem assignment-wise, which is always a problem with these freshmen.  If he learns how to play the game, he will be a really fine player.

A guard would match up against Haloti Ngata in this game.  So what is the forecast for how that might go down?

If he plays with some technique, he will have an opportunity to compete.  If he plays with no technique, which he exhibited on occasion last week, then he'll be in for a long afternoon.  Being a freshman and playing in his first conference game, we have to hope that he manages himself well.  But on the same token - and I've had this talk with Alex a number of times - I have to make sure I'm not stifling him.  We get him under control, and he'll be fine.

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