We're coming up on the third year working with Coach (Norm) Chow and this offense. I think people were expecting some huge explosion last year even though the offense as a group was really young at some key spots, but do you see it coming in 2010?
‘'I, we, definitely see it coming. You know, I was actually just up in Coach (Reggie) Moore's office and we were looking at our top three receivers compared to Alabama, North Carolina, there were some other schools, LSU was another one, and we're up there. We were No. 1 out of all those schools in the top three receivers overall.
‘'Definitely last year I think we saw our passing game come alive a little bit. There were definitely times where we struggled, but I think a lot of that was we had a young offensive line, we had a young quarterback … What I think what kind of hurt Kevin Prince last year was getting hurt early on and he didn't really quite get that rhythm going. But we saw sparks of that throughout the season – what he's capable of doing and what we're capable of doing.
‘'I think the addition of – I'm not sure of everyone we got in the recruiting class – but I know we got some good running backs and that's going to help along with the running backs we have here, then a year more experience for most of the guys on offense and then Prince having that year of experience. I think definitely next year you'll see an explosion from the offense. I always feel like, even though you learn the plays, it takes a year to see what it's like running those plays in a game and everyone who is coming back on offense is going to have that year of experience.''
When you say you looked at the top three receivers compared to Alabama, LSU and those schools, you're talking about returning receptions, yards …
‘'Yeah, Coach Moore had a sheet of those four schools or three schools I think it was – North Carolina, LSU and Alabama – and us and he had the receptions and receiving yards of each receiver, of their top three receivers. We dominated it. We were up there. And that's pro-style offense, you know, that's not the 1,000-yard receivers from (Kansas) or anything. But it just shows that we are getting some progression done on offense. We're definitely doing some damage, now we just have to do it on a consistent basis.''
You mentioned coming in as a freshman, taking a year to really ‘get it' and all that. I know there was some frustration with some guys last year, but you were able to do it … you played your first year here. Did it just come easier for you, or were you running around out there thinking you knew it?
‘'I think what helped me my freshman year was knowing every position. As a receiver, there are three positions that we play and most guys when they come in learn just one and it might take them a while to learn that one. For me, it just came natural so … the way I got to play early on, Marcus (Everett) when he got hurt we needed (Terrence Austin) to go here and they were moving people around, Gavin (Ketchum around) and I was just filling the empty holes. If they needed an ‘F' for one play, I could go in and play ‘F.' If T.A. was out after returning a kick, I could go in.
‘'I think definitely the younger guys that we have – Morrell (Presley), Randall Carroll, Ricky (Marvray) – they're going to be amazing athletes. For them, it's just learning the playbook and I think, like you said, my first year I didn't know everything. I knew where to go on routes but it's not what is written down on paper in a game, so I definitely had my learning experiences my freshman year. I think after a year of becoming comfortable with things and learning how things work, you get an edge to you and that's why they usually say, your biggest improvement is in your sophomore year, during your sophomore year.
‘'I think the young guys, some of them might not have played as much or had as many catches as they wanted, but they learned and that's the most important thing, learning and carrying that to this year.''
You almost have to learn, to realize, that there's a lot you don't know before you can actually ‘get it,' right? Because I'm sure guys come in thinking, ‘I can run by everybody … I've been doing it the past four years in high school so I'm going to be open.' But …
‘'It definitely is overwhelming and that's what gets a lot of freshmen. It's hard to do something spectacular as a freshman, to just go out there and dominate. The guys are bigger, you're going against faster people, and it's not like in high school … in high school, if it says ‘Curl route, 12 yards,' then you run a curl route at 12 yards. Here, you know, if the defense slides to Cover 2 you have to adjust your route, if it's man you've got to run something else. There's so much you learn so fast … I think that's why, when people say we had a young offense last year, it truly was a young offense, and that's why there's going to be a huge step in how much better people get this offseason.
‘'That's why I'm excited, I know the coaches are excited, to see how much better our offense is going to be next year. Especially with the addition of Josh Smith – we have a receiver who can just run by people; he's had that experience at Colorado. Then you've got the younger guys with a year of experience so, you know, I think it's going to be something amazing next year.''
What are the biggest factors in making that offense more dynamic next season? What has to happen?
‘'We've got to establish a vertical threat, I think. I don't think we've established that we can just go by people and get the deep ball. I think Josh Smith coming along is going to help, and I think Kevin Prince having that year and more confidence just to … even though we might have a (defensive back) on us … me and Nelson (Rosario) will go up and make a play on the ball. That's going to help. And then getting a running game where we just pound it down the middle, pro-style offense Coach Chow wants to establish the run first to open up the pass. If we're able to balance each other with a solid run game and then a decent passing attack, the sky is the limit for us with all the talent that we have coming back. That's going to be the biggest thing, establishing that vertical threat and establishing a solid run game.''
Were there point last year where you thought that should have been happening or did you realize, you know, you're really not able to take advantage of this, this, this?
‘'I know there was definitely some frustrations last year, but you know what, you have to realize that we were working with a freshman quarterback - it's not like you can just go out there and be like, all right, throw it up or let's go deep. You have to get him some confidence, hit some completions early, and you can't really worry too much about that. When you start worrying about that, that's when you start to get frustrations among the team and having a young team you don't want that. We never questioned any of the play calling, never questioned anything that we were doing. We just knew that we had to get better at what we are doing and that's going to be the big thing for us.
‘'Like I said, the run game, we've got to establish a run game that's a threat consistently. We had times last year where we were gutting people with the run game, but we have to establish that consistently. Another thing is, in the passing game, they knew that was one of our biggest threats so they took a away a lot of the stuff we wanted to do – they took away the vertical game, especially after that Oregon State game when we were going deep on them. They started taking that stuff away, so we had to start hitting the intermediate and the lower stuff. But, if we establish a solid run game, they're going to have to bring people up into the box and then we can hit stuff deep.''
It's pretty tough to hit something deep when the safeties are camped 20 yards off the ball …
‘'Exactly. We had a lot of DBs playing off of us or even if they were up on us, they had safety help over the top and a lot of people took away that vertical game from us.''
The group, like you talked about, has a lot of guys coming back. Josh is a big addition. When you look at where those guys were at the end of the bowl game and where they could be at the end of the spring and in the fall, starting with yourself, where do you need to be?
‘'For me, personally, the biggest thing I'm going to work on is a lot of footwork stuff to get quicker in and out of breaks. I want to be that guy that's a solid possession receiver, that's going to catch everything, run solid routes and if I need to run slot, be able to adjust and be a quicker kind of slot type guy, or if they have me outside, split out, be able to work one on one with the guy.
‘'For me, the thing I need to work on is a little bit of everything, and helping the younger guys. I think Nelson is going to be fine, Josh will be fine. For the younger guys, with Morrell Presley, I think he has a chance to be our biggest threat just because he's a mismatch, no matter where you put him. If you put him at tight end, a linebacker isn't going to be able to guard him. Then outside at receiver, he's bigger than everyone. For him, it's getting that confidence, getting some plays early on. We need to take advantage of our skills. Every receiver/tight end has a different threat and if we can find a way to utilize all that, we'll be deadly.''
Morrell, if he's a tight end or if he's in the slot, he's a lot bigger mismatch than he is outside. He's not going to run by a lot of guys if he's out here, but if he's here or if he's here … Moving outside fulltime (after Ketchum sprained an ankle an ankle in camp) didn't help …
‘'I think he's back at tight end, and our tight ends slot, and that's just where he's going to kill people. If they're in a nickel package, then they have small corner on him. If they're in a regular 4-3 then they have a linebacker trying to cover him … it's trouble.''
Like you said, that's one of the things you really couldn't take advantage of last year …
‘'Yeah, and that's one thing, I think the coaches are going to start trusting the younger guys. They've had that year. The younger guys are going to earn that trust by showing they know what to do, by making plays in spring ball and in fall camp. It will be good, it will be good for the offense.''
In terms of improving your game, where do you start?
‘'A lot of it is just getting more explosive. What kind of hurt me last season was I had that surgery on my shoulder so I missed this whole period. I picked up in summer, and once in summer I was just trying to get back the strength I had before back. So right now, for me, it's get more explosive, getting bigger. I can definitely tell I'm putting a lot more weight on right now, and it's learning from the mistakes, watching film. For me, it's going to be a lot of mental stuff, learning little nuances of how to run certain routes, how to get open, ho w to get separation. I'm just working all that stuff, becoming more elusive, more agile. That will just allow me to get open, create separation, make bigger plays. So, really, I've got to learn from what my weaknesses were the past two seasons and then expand on that.''
In getting separation, being able to work out and become more physical, I would think that would be a big help, being able to handle guys more physically, to use your body more effectively …
‘'Definitely. For me, I always feel like I'll catch every ball. The biggest thing for me is getting open … getting open isn't just, you know … the quarterback isn't going to throw you the ball if you don't look open, so in order to get more passes you have to look open, you know what I'm saying? So you've got to get that separation. But I feel like me, Nelson, even if we have corners on us we'll still make plays, But, you know, you have to get open still.''
How is Nelson Rosario? Is he getting in the work?
‘'I just saw Nelson. He actually was going out there to get in some foot work. Right now he's in track and football. But Nelson, he has a chance to be an amazing wide receiver with his size, his speed. But he's definitely working. We both have things to work on. I think this year from Nelson you'll see a big explosion, I think you'll see a big increase in everything.''
What makes you think that?
‘'His physical ability. He's so tall. And for as tall as he is, he's quick. That's what gives a lot of people problems. They try to get up and jam him, but you can't, he's too long, he's too quick. And then he has amazing hands, made some spectacular catches. He definitely has the potential to be an explosive receiver, and he wants to be … you can tell he wants to be. He's smart, he knows the playbook, and he got that confidence last year that he kind of needed. You could tell in the bowl game, he had a little confidence to him and I think that's what he needed. Hopefully, that will carry over to this season.''
That confidence you think was the missing piece? I mean, you watch the guy and you think, spectacular athlete, great body for a receiver, but …
‘'I think he needed to just … he knew what he could do, I think he kind of needed to prove what he could do just to have that edge to him. And I think he did that.''
He has an edge to him now?
‘'Yeah, I feel like he has that edge now, so we'll see. I'm excited to see where he goes this year.''
So, you think about the elements that you can put on the field, it's what you want in terms of taking a forward step as an offense … How about some of the younger guys, you mentioned Ricky Marvray …
‘'I think what Ricky is going to bring to the table is, if you've ever seen him in practice, he loves football. You know, it's not that we don't have receivers now that love football, but he's one of those guys that he's going to go out there and call out one of the defenders and smack him in the mouth. I think we need that in our wide receivers corps. We have a lot of guys who will make plays, but we don't really talk smack. We need that dude that's going to get everyone else out there talking, competing, hitting the DBs. That's what Ricky is going bring – he loves football – and I think his passion for football will spread out to all of us. He's going to go downfield, he's going to try to block, and like I said, he's going to try to ear hole some people. He's going to bring that physical aspect to the wide receivers and when the other receivers see what he's doing out there, they're going to jump right in. No one wants to be left behind. It's kind of like, when I see Nelson make a play, I'm like, ‘Ah, shoot, I'm going to go make a play.' I think Ricky will be that sparkplug for the wide outs.''
Getting back to the dynamics of the offense, in the spring, with the guys you have coming back, the experience level and having Kevin hopefully healthy the whole time, you would expect to look a lot different than you did at the end of the season?
‘'You know, I definitely think from a passing game standpoint, yeah. Losing T.A., that's huge. But we still have weapons. I don't know if we're going to replace him totally, but we'll definitely have someone step in and try to fill his shoes. But, you know, now that the younger guys are older, we have new weapons, we have a new arsenal. From a passing game standpoint, yeah.
‘'Linemen, losing (Xavier Sua-Filo) was huge. So, I think, our line definitely needs the spring to grow. We've still got a little growing to do on the line. But I think the guys who have been there, like Mike Harris and Kai Maiava, (Jeff) Baca, they're so much bigger, so much stronger, know so much more, that it's going to help. I definitely think, like you said, this spring will look a lot better than last spring.
‘'I heard a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, spring looked bad last year,'' but this year should be a different story, just from having that year of experience with everyone.''
So what you're saying is, the ball won't be hitting the ground …
‘'It shouldn't be. We started throwing, we shouldn't be rusty or anything.''
Kevin's arm, it's back pretty much where it was?
‘'I've seen him getting treatment on it – he's always going to be getting treatment on it. I don't know exactly what he did to it, but I know what he did last year was amazing for his shoulder being so bummed up. But I think it's good now. He's lifting and all that. … Now he just needs to learn how to slide and get out of bounds and we'll be good.''
Off-Season Talk: Embree on Offense
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