The defense started out with a lot of injuries and inexperience this season. How does it look now coming out of the bye week?
"We're a little bit better. We still have some issues. We had a good bye week. We got back to some fundamentals and got some things done that I thought were very positive for us. But we're still not where we need to be. We still need to develop some areas and getting stronger and healthier in some places."
Who are the main guys who aren't healthy enough?
"Right now, C.J. Niusulu is not 100% in my mind. He's playing and doing some things, but he's not 100% healthy. Kenneth Lombard went down with his shoulder. He's a critical guy for us right now in our rotation inside. Hopefully he was a little bit better today and he'll be back. The ends are getting healthy. They are where we need to be. Where it's really hurting us right now is at linebacker. With Aaron Whittington and Justin London being hurt, we're trying to jumble some guys around in some different positions. There are a couple of guys playing two positions. It's been tough on some guys right now, but we have to do it. We have absolutely no depth there in certain places, so we have to do that. Secondary-wise, it's been hot and cold. Jarrad Page missed all of the bye week because of concussion. So you lose three days of practice right there. Dennis Keyes has a shoulder injury. He's not completely dressed. It's really hard to get some continuity right now. We're really struggling that way."
Did you think you'd be better the Monday before San Diego State, after the bye week, than this?
"I was hoping a couple of guys would be a little further along than they are. But you know what? You just have to keep going. Unfortunately, that's the hand we're dealt right now. We'll go. The guys that are here are working and trying to get better. It's just the continuity thing is really a struggle for us right now."
It seems that London is so key, not only because he's the middle linebacker, but with him out, it seems like it really exposes the lack of depth...
"There's no doubt that Justin is a real key guy, even just from the standpoint of leadership of the defense, and really taking command of the huddle. Wesley Walker has jumped in there and done a solid job. But he's still feeling his way around that position, since that wasn't his natural position, where he had really worked. So now all of sudden you're trying to stick some things on him, and he's still a little unsure. It really hurts from the standpoint of just getting guys line up."
In watching a game for a fan, sometimes it looks like the defensive ends are getting sealed and it's their fault that the opposing running back is getting loose to the outside. But in your defense, the assignment for your left defensive end is the gap inside the right offensive tackle, correct? So sometimes it's not really the left defensive ends responsibility, but a linebacker or safety?
"Exactly. Depending on the defense. Every defense has a different ‘force' player. Sometimes it's our ends. But a lot of times it's not our ends, depending on which way they're attacking. It's either a linebacker or a safety, like you said, or possibly even a corner. So the ends, their biggest issue has been getting cut off on the backside. When the play has gone away from them, when they allowed the ball to cut back. In the Illinois game, that's where I thought our biggest weakness was at end. We're getting better there. They're starting to get understanding. But again, it's everybody working together. You can't put it on one position."
So, many times when it looks like it's the ends fault when a run breaks to their side, it's not.
"You're exactly right. It's not."
Where do you want to see this defense develop as the season progresses? Will the defensive line rotation be cut?
"Obviously once you can get your guys healthy and you can get them repetitions and they can start playing on a consistent basis, that's going to help us a lot. I'd like to see that as soon as possible. This game this week would be a great game for us to come together as a defense, and really start building toward what we could become. We are still playing hard, we're just not playing smart. The tackling for the most part has been pretty solid, but when you're making mistakes and a mis-tackle jumps in, you're going to have a few, it really kinds of multiplies your errors. That's where we're really hurting ourselves right now. But as I said, I thought we had a good off week. We're trying to simplify our plan, because of guys having to switch positions, to get them to really understand, so they can go play hard. The worst thing you can do is have guys thinking and not knowing what they're doing. That's number one. But there's a fine line – how simple do you get? The other team lines up and knows this is what they're doing, that we can get after them. So you try to balance that off. That's what we're working on right now. Trying to simplify to where we can execute better but not to the point where we're sitting ducks."
Given the state of the defense, how much can you use blitzing and zone blitzing and risk putting too much pressure on your cornerbacks?
"It really depends on the team we'll face. We thought we could really do that against Washington. We thought we could match up with their receivers. For the most part, we did. We gave up the one long pass for the touchdown on third down. Besides that, I thought our corners really took away their wideouts and really did a good job. But you have to pick and choose your spots when you do that. Our corners are solid, and they can play with some people, but it really depends on the offense and what kind of attack we're going to face. I didn't think that, in that game, they could beat us with the pass."
Along those same lines, how much can you employ against San Diego State?
"San Diego State is a whole different ball game. The way their attack is, they're so spread out and so pass oriented, what you fear there is you get too concerned about the pass and forget about the run. You still have to stop their run game. And you really have to put pressure on this quarterback and make him throw the ball on time. They have good receivers. They throw the ball downfield. They're going to challenge you. They're a big-play team. So I really feel our goal is not to give up the big play. Maybe not be as aggressive in some situations on the corner because you don't want to allow those guys who are used to throwing the ball downfield to get those opportunities. But you have to take some chances too."
So you must take into pretty heavy consideration that they have good receivers, while they've also lost to offensive linemen and their best running back...
"They haven't had Lynell Hamilton all year, and they have two backs that are pretty solid. They're not Hamilton. He's a tremendous player. But two very good backs. One (Michael Franklin) is a real shifty guy, and one (Brandon Bornes) is a big, strong guy like Lynell, but not as fast. They feel pretty strongly about their running game, enough that they feel comfortable to redshirt Lynell for sure. But the receivers are their strength, and the quarterback is a year older and playing better. The offensive line, they have to be concerned about it. It's kind of an even matchup with our defensive line, really. It's kind of the first time I feel that way. Maybe we actually have an experience advantage there. So we'll see what happens."