Talking Texas Tech LBs with Coach Spavital

Texas Tech linebackers coach Zac Spavital sat down with for an exclusive interview at the Texas Tech Football Training Facility on Friday morning. Spavital joined the Red Raider staff in January after serving three seasons as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma and most recently, six seasons coaching defensive backs at Houston.

JJ: I know a lot of people are interested in the spring evaluation period. For you personally, how do you go about it, what are you looking for and what's your process when you go visit these schools?

Spavital: Well, we try and do a good job before the evaluation process starts and try to get a good list of kids who kind of fit our mold and fit our criteria of what we are looking for at certain positions so when we do get out there we can utilize the athletic periods of these high schools and even their practice time to where we can, I guess you could say, cut time and really dip in and see if that's what we want and if the video matches the person.

JJ: Do you feel like going to these practices is the best way to see them or do you prefer the highlights?

Spavital: I do not prefer the highlights, I prefer the in-person, because if you see a guy with your own eyes that's a little bit more accurate than a 15-play HUDL video.

JJ: How often do you get tape, actual tape on players, not just the highlights?

Spavital: Well, the good thing is with HUDL now most of the schools have their games on there so it gives us the ability to watch. You know after we watch the highlight, more often than not, we watch game video, you know see how they go through a game, how they handle the ups and downs and things like that.

JJ: You mentioned the criteria, what y'all are looking for. What are you looking for in linebackers?

Spavital: You know linebacker is a difficult position at times, because in

Zac Spavital

high school football now sometimes the best players aren't playing in the box at a linebacker position. We try to build a list of guys that actually played linebacker on highlights and on video and then obviously they have to meet a size and athletic requirement. Then we build another list of guys who are bigger athletes. Maybe they are running backs, they are a defensive end or a big safety and we kind of use our best judgement from there to see if they could fit as a possible linebacker.

JJ: How many linebackers are y'all looking at taking with this class? Do you have a set number that you are looking to sign?

Spavital: Two or three. Right now. That's a safe number, but things change all the time and sometimes you come across a guy who can play two positions possiby, so that's probably a safe number to look at.

JJ: Is that both inside and outside and does that matter much to you or are you just looking for 'backers.

Spavital: For linebackers. The game the way it is now, the whole true Mike linebacker is only against really big personnel teams and you don't see that very often. You try and survive with guys who can play in space, guys that can play both almost.

JJ: How's it going for you with linebackers? I spoke with Coach [David] Gibbs a couple weeks ago and he said basically one of you had to coach linebackers and you were younger and had more energy, so how's it going at the new position?

Spavital: It's been good. It's a new challenge for me, but you know I was very  fortunate to be around a really good linebacker coach that I GA'd (graduate assistant) for at Oklahoma, Brent Venables. He gave me enough of a foundation, and obviously I already know the defense, but it's been a good transition. I think it's been a good transition for the kids, too. It's a little bit different philosophy, I think they are coached a little bit differently than they've been in the past and I like it. I really enjoy it, to me it's a really fun position to coach.

JJ: What's been the biggest difference? Is there a big difference between coaching linebackers and DBs?

Spavital: You know what at certain positions in certain formations it's very similiar to coaching a DB, but with the in the box guys, just the training, the eye training and the run-pass support that you're involved in is the big difference. Obviously, there's a certain physical part that they've got to meet compared to a defensive back, but those are the parts that are fun. You know I think we got a good group of kids who are buying in and adapting to it, too.

JJ: I wanted to ask you about a couple specific guys. I'm going to start with [Micah] Awe. He's a guy I actually covered in high school at Mansfield Summit, back in the day when I was at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He was just a monster and I suspected he would have seen more playing time by this point, but now he's a senior and appears to be the guy. What has he shown you since you have been here? What kind of player is he in your mind?

Spavital: He is an extremely intelligent, physical football player. I think he's got a skillset that is somthing that's hard to find. I have been overly pleased with how he's handled himself this spring from just a leadership role to taking over the defense, to learning it; the ins and outs and being able to comfort the people beside him, when he's out there on the field. He's just one of those guys who sees it and he can think while he's out there and I think that helps everybody around him. 

He's got a good skillset athletically, he can run, he can tackle, he can play many positions, he's very versatile and I'm extremely excited to see what he does this season.

JJ: Is he the guy at linebacker who probably doesn't come off the field if y'all go in nickel and dime?

Spavital: I do not see him coming off the field. He's able to play multiple spots and you know, if something crazy were to happen you can fit him in there, plug him in a spot and he wouldn't miss a beat.


JJ: What about Dakota Allen? He's a guy who came in with a lot of fanfare and Coach [Mike]Smith told me before he could have a special career at Tech if everything  falls into place with his potential. How was his spring overall?

Spavital: Spring was good. One thing we were able to do with him, we were able to put him at one position and let him really grind it out and work through it. He is a bigger bodied guy, which is something we need for some of these opponents we are going to be playing. I'm extremely excited about him. Just like anything else with young guys, the one thing you have to worry about is just the actual experience of playing linebacker and then just their physical body type. He's really working hard right now to change his body and to keep getting stronger and faster. He's also putting in the time and effort to know the defense and compete this fall camp, which I think he will be able to.

JJ: A lot of people want to talk about Mike Mitchell, because of the star rating and the hype. Point blank, how did he perform in the spring and what would be your evaluation of him?

Spavital: Everything was positive on Mike from me. You have to understand he hasn't played football in a couple years. He's very raw. They played him at an outside position at Ohio State and we brought him in the box more knowing that he'll have the ability to play outside the box, too. We put him in some situations where he hadn't had a lot of reps lately, but I tell you what, from start to finish he got better, he's doing some good things and I'm excited about just the many options that he brings.

JJ: Who else stood out in the spring from the linebacker position?

Spavital: The two I would say are Malik Jenkins, he's not quite as polished as Micah yet, he's younger, but he's very smart, he's a versatile guy who can play multiple positions. That was something where there was a couple times this spring where he played three positions and functioned very well. He's still working on his body in taking him to the next level, but he showed some really good things this spring and I look forward to seeing him in the fall.

Then, the other guy would be Kris Williams.

JJ: Yeah, y'all moved him, right?

Spavital: Yeah, from rush (end), but we wanted to do it earlier, but we had some injuries and so we kept grinding with him and the playbook out there, then we force fed him some reps there at the end. He's a very, very explosive, powerful guy and definitely think he'll have a role. We have to keep grinding him with the playbook and going, because he hasn't played much in the box  linebacker, probably since his freshman year. But, I'm excited about him Those two are guys that I think I look forward to helping this fall.

JJ: What do y'all need to accomplish as a position group this fall? Because, really, when I look at it the position was a major problem last year and there's not a lot of experience, obviously. What do y'all have to do between now and September?

Spavital: I think the parts I have been working with more than anything is they have got to understand why we are calling the defenses that are called and I think if they understand that a lot of the teaching we are doing is why coach Gibbs is calling this, what are we trying to stop? We're not going out there trying to stop everything. They had kind of got into that, where they felt like they had to stop every play. Being a linebacker, it is the position that when you are not playing good defense is the one that is looked at the most and it's criticized the most. I think if we can get it to where they learn this little assignment and what they're trying to do, then continue to work the fundamentals of the game I think that you'll see a little bit of improvement there.

JJ: You mentioned a different philosophy y'all have brought to the defense. What is your philosophy?

Spavital:  You mean scheme-wise?

JJ: I mean, I understand you don't want to give away details of your scheme, but what is the philosophy that maybe you preach?

Spavital: You know honestly, first thing is first, do your job. Then we kind of work the who helps each other out. If you do your job this guy can help you out. It's just how we build it together into one piece and it becomes one concept. The other thing is that our coaching philosophy is a little bit different than in the past here. We're not trying to go out there and scream and yell, we want them to understand what we are trying to accomplish and if it's not being accomplished that's when they know they aren't doing it right. If they can distinguish what's right and what's wrong and what their job is and if they did it or not. That's when you can see results. 

JJ: I have noticed a change, especially with up-tempo offenses, that I have been able to be at practice for that there is not as much in-practice, on the field instruction where they will stop everything, but it will be more back in film study. Is that something y'all do? 

Spavital: We do more than what they have done in the past. We have periods that Coach [Kliff] Kingsbury has allowed us to do and stop and coach. To me that's important, because the more you coach them throughout practice and in film, the more you cover, the better they get. You can't always rely on hitting every practice correction on tape, you're going to have some times where you could miss something like that. Those periods I think are critical and Coach Kingsbury has been great about letting us have those.

JJ: I asked you some recruiting stuff earlier, but you were the recruiting coordinator at Houston, right?

Spavital: Yes.

JJ: How has your function in that regard changed here? How involved are you in that area here?

Spavital: I would say there is a huge difference in the support staff here at Texas Tech then what was at Houston, so that title was just something that because we had limited funds and weren't able to have so many guys. To me, there's a huge difference in our communication and in our support here where everybody's on the same page. Not that we weren't at Houston, but more importantly, we have more guys being able to direct and communicate to each other to where you can go be more, I guess, efficient in our recruiting titles. At Houston I was more involved in the actual daily structure of where everyone was going and what was being said which is something I'm actually happy to not have on my plate anymore.

JJ: Ha, I bet!

Spavital: But that's a credit to this place. This staff is, both off the field--the support staff--and the coaching staff is very driven. They do a great job of communicating and keeping everybody in line. I have been very impressed compared to other staffs I have been on.

JJ: Has there been a surprise or what would you say has been the biggest surprise since you have been here? It can be with the school, the town or anything.

Spavital: Well, I mean the school support is unbelievable in my opinion. One thing that I have noticed that throughout the state it's huge, it's not just West Texas. I mean I have gone through Oklahoma, Louisiana, Houston, Dallas and East Texas and you're gonna find somebody every day that has a direct tie to Texas Tech. That to me just shows you the possibilities of this place and how big Tech is and how exciting it can be when we get going next season.


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