Alex Fletcher Interview

His string of starting all 20 games in college was snapped last Saturday, and his ailing back remains questionable. But after the win at Washington, we had a chance this week to sit down with redshirt sophomore Alex Fletcher. The fiery center told us how he feels about Walt Harris, the fairness of offensive line criticism, what winning means, T.C. Ostrander's upswing, Michael Okwo and more.

You started every game last year as a redshirt freshman, and I'm sure that instilled a lot of confidence in you.  What has your road of progress been, as a continued learning experience, this year?

"It's funny that you say that.  Coach [Walt] Harris named Tim Mattran a starter at the end of last year.  Obviously I'm asking, 'Coach, why am I not a starter?'  'You you have a lot of things to work on.'  'Coach, I started 11 games.'  A lot of it is that he has pushed me and hasn't handed me anything.  Because I haven't been handed anything, I think it's been an extra incentive and more motivation to work even harder.  I wasn't guaranteed a spot going into spring ball, though I started 11 games previously.  I wasn't guaranteed a spot going into fall camp.  I wasn't guaranteed a spot going into the Oregon game.  You know, he has really, really made me work for it.  That has made me, I think, a way better player.  'Coach, what am I doing wrong?  I'm not starting.'  'Well, in the past, when I haven't handed you anything, have I made you a better player?'  'Yes.'  'Then what are you complaining about?'  I think that's the biggest thing.  I think Coach Harris and I have a really special relationship, and he expects a lot out of me.  He doesn't give me things easily, and I think that has made a huge difference in how I've played this year."

Can you elaborate on some things where you have significantly improved your game over the course of this year?

"I can go on with how much I have improved from last year.  Pass protection is night and day.  Getting lower and playing with a lower pad level; I think that's been huge.  Calls - last year when I played center, during the course of the game I wouldn't make the right call once or twice.  I really don't think I've missed a call this year, and that's been huge.  The mental game has been completely different.  The game is so much slower to me.  The improvement that I've made has been so dramatic, and I think I've been improving every game.  I look at the tape from the Oregon game, and how much better I have gotten every game.  It's just unfortunate that our record doesn't show the improvements that some of the guys on this team have made."

"It's funny because the difference between a first-year player and a second-year player is so dramatic.  We've had to start all over again because we've had so many first-year players in this system.  I think that once these guys get in the second year...  Look at Richard Sherman coming out at the end of the year, compared to when he had zero catches a bunch of times earlier in the year.  I think that because we had to start over - like Matt Traverso is out, we have to start over with Jim Dray as a first-year player - it's happened a lot, and guys made mistakes.  Mark Bradford is out; you put Richard Sherman in.  Evan Moore has been banged up; you put Austin Yancy in.  That's back to first-year players and back to making mistakes again.  Every game is a new experience for them.  That's where we have taken a huge step back.  You look at it, and there's nothing you can do about it beside looking at myself and finding ways to improve.  There are many guys in this offense who have improved.  Allen Smith has improved dramatically.  Jim Dray gets better every game.  Erik Lorig gets so much better every game.  But those guys are still making first-year mistakes.  That's not coaching or anything.  That's being a first-year player.  You have to be patient because I was there once.  It's not easy being a first-year player.  You're only as good as the guy next to you, and we all have to grow together."

Walt Harris is known, and Tom Freeman also, for being a 'tough love' coach.  How is it being a player in that environment?  How is that for you?

"For me, in the heat of the moment, I get very upset.  But when I look back on it that night or the next day, I really appreciate it.  I really do because of how much I have improved as a player.  It has definitely brought the best out of me as a player.  I have the personality where everything they say, I take to heart.  And I take it so personally that I will not make that mistake again.  I take it so personally that I will watch hours of film and try to find a way.  I watch other centers around and try to pick up little things that other guys do, too.  But in terms of Coach Harris is and what Coach Freeman is, it has been nothing but positive for me, and it has definitely brought out the best in me."

This is the second time this season you have had back spasms.  Have you ever had that before this year, and do you feel like you can work with the training staff to put that behind you?

"Absolutely.  What has happened is that I have aggravated it during lifting.  What I need to do is be smarter with my lifting, especially during the season.  It just flares up on me.  I definitely need to be smarter with that, and I definitely need to work on my core [strength].  I have a lot of things to work on in the off-season to prevent this back thing from happening again.  It happened during the bye week, and that didn't really affect me.  But when it takes me out of the game - you know I started 20 straight games.  I had never missed a football game in my life.  To go and view the Washington game from the sideline is not where I wanted to be."

We have asked Walt Harris each week about T.C. Ostrander's growth.  You have a unique perspective as the center.  You see it in the huddle; you see it at the line of scrimmage; and you see it on film.  What have you seen in the last three and a half or four games from him?

"It's amazing what rep's do.  When Trent [Edwards] was the quarterback, Trent got the majority of the rep's.  T.C. is suddenly the first string quarterback, and he's suddenly getting the majority of the rep's.  That has made a huge, huge difference in the way T.C. Ostrander has played.  T.C. was so calm last week; I've never seen anything like it.  I think that against USC, I definitely saw some great things.  The checks at the line, knowing where the safeties are, knowing what coverage they're in.  The only way you learn is through experience.  I think he is getting better every week.  There is no question to that, and I'm sure the stats don't lie either."

The offensive line is criticized so much by the fanbase and the media.  Can you give us your perspective on where this offensive line is better this year that people don't appreciate?  Also where this offense has struggled a little bit?

"I am aware that the offensive line is always criticized.  This offensive line is head and shoulders better than last year's offensive line.  Last year's offensive line won five games.  We've won one game this year.  That's frustrating, but you also have to look at the fact that last year when we beat Arizona State, we had negative rushing yards.  You look at that kind of stuff, and we've put together some games.  The thing that is frustrating to me is that a lot of the things that determine how good an offensive line is: Do you have a 100-yard rusher?  On many occasions this year, Anthony Kimble and Toby Gerhart have combined for over 100 yards, but obviously they are splitting carries.  I think that this offensive line is head and shoulders better than last year.  When Chris Marinelli came in, there are a lot of things that he needed to learn.  Once again - first-year player.  There are a lot of things that he does well and a lot of things he will do well, but once again we're dealing with a first-year player.  That definitely causes a hiccup because the first couple of games are an acclimation period.  But that kid is going to be a very, very good player."

"I think it's all about being on the same page.  The first three games, I'm pretty sure we had the same five starters.  I thought after the first three games, 'We're going to be very solid this year.'  Then guys start getting injured, and chemistry gets messed up a little bit.  We need to get on the same page.  We started off the season on a very strong note, I think.  Against Navy, I remember Trent had all day to throw.  Against San Jose State, we didn't give up a sack.  That was a milestone, and we had 180 yards rushing.  Against Oregon, I thought we played a great game.  But when you have first-year players in the system, you have to be patient.  A lot people don't realize that there is a lot more to the offensive line than just the offensive line blocking.  There are backs who have to block.  Tight ends have to block.  We need to get everybody on the same page, and especially in pass protection that's the case.  Also in run blocking.  You have to first-year tight ends, and you have a first-year running back blocking a lot.  It's just as hard for them to block as with the offensive line.  Was the crticism fair last year?  Absolutely.  Is the criticism fair for the offensive line this year?  I'm really not so sure.  But when you're 1-9, how good are you really?  How good are you, really?  We won games last year while not playing very well up front.  Unfortunately, with injuries or whatever, we haven't had the luxury this year to do that.  We need to play better for us to win, and we need to accept that."

Is this team ready to rally?  Can you describe what the new attitude and emotion for this team is since the win on Saturday?

"The win on Saturday was definitely great, but I don't think this team has ever lost its work ethic.  I don't think we lost our belief.  But we lost fire.  I think that was apparent when we came out into some games flat.  Why were we flat?  Probably because we had lost the last five games, and that's frustrating when you had high expectations coming into the year and you lose like that.  You know, this win in terms of a motivational standpoint, it's huge.  It's huge.  It gives us new life.  Winning cures everything.  Winning cures everything.  All of the negative times, you forget how good winning is.  That was the best win I've ever been a part of.  That was our first win of the season, and we hadn't won in 365 days or whatever it was.  That was the best win I've ever been a part of because no one thought we had a chance.  No one gave us a chance, and we did it.  We can use that to keep going and move on.  Hopefully guys mature, and that's it."

How did it feel last week?  Things were still rocky, and you have the Michael Okwo situation where he leaves the team and then Thursday he comes back to practice.  You guys have him on the field Saturday, and he's flying around.  The defensive front seven is doing their job.  What kind of rollercoaster emotion were those four days like?

"I never though Michael Okwo should have left.  It was obvious that Michael Okwo has a different perspective on what happened with him that Wednesday, and he kind of came to that realization.  But if you had a problem, all you had to do was communicate.  Everyone in this program is trying to win, whether that's Coach Harris, me, the equipment guys or anybody associated with the program.  Everyone is trying to win.  Everyone wants to win, and you can't lose sight of that.  That's our main goal.  It's all about winning, and that's all anybody wants to do.  I think Mike needed to realize that, but I also think that having him back was a tremendous spark.  He flew around the field and made plays.  It turned into a positive."


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