Off-Season Talk: Todd Howard

In our continuing series of off-season interviews, defensive line coach Todd Howard talks about his players, the guys he thinks will step up next season, some potential position changes, and more...

You've had some challenges at UCLA, with players that were undersized, under-strength, under whatever. This year, it's another challenge, but a little different. Experience, obviously, is a factor … guys who have played, even started, but not fully established Pac-10 players.

‘'Well, I mean, you've got Datone (Jones), who was a starter last year and is going to come back as a junior. He's experienced. David Carter played some backing up Brian Price, so he's experienced. Damien Holmes, you know, got some playing time last year so he's going to have some experience and I expect him to be better. The only spot that is going to be inexperienced, really, is the shade with (Justin) Edison, who is going to be a redshirt junior and is going to in as the starter for the spring. But, you know, he has pretty good football intelligence and I think he's going to do fine.''

What have been the issues with Edison? It takes some time to grow into it physically, I know, but he's going into his fourth year in the program and hasn't had much of an impact yet …

‘'I think in high school he was primarily a basketball player, so he didn't have the football strength when he first came in, but he's caught up. He's been working extremely hard. But when he came in, you know, he just wasn't strong enough and so it took him some to catch up with the other guys.''

I just saw him downstairs. He's like a lot of guys this offseason, really made some improvements …

‘'He's been working hard. And we won't have to worry about having short guys now. The starters going in are going to average about 6-foot-3 and change. You've got Datone who is almost 6-5, David Carter is 6-5 ½, Edison is almost 6-4 and then, you know, Damien Holmes, who is going to go in as the starter on the open side, is 6-3.''

So, you got that going for you …

‘'Yeah, and we have some guys coming in who I think have excellent potential.''

With David Carter, he's played some a little bit, but as we've talked about in the past, he's always been that guy who you think, ‘Man, if he could only do this or that …'

‘'Yeah. If he can put it together … You know, he came in and he was an end, and then we moved him inside and he's kind of grown into that position. He has the ability to make plays and I'm going to be really excited about his potential and what he's going to do this year. I mean, he has the prototypical size that NFL clubs like and if he can play the whole season, I would say he's going to be a mid-round draft pick, because if he can play the whole season he's going to make plays and they're going to like his size. If he plays the whole season and plays well, shoot, the sky is the limit for him.''

Getting him to play with the proper technique has been an issue. Talking to him, he's committed to it now. Does it seem to you like he's going to take to it?

‘'Yeah, I mean, he's doing a good job with his hands and he's listening. He's a fifth year senior – he's been here every year that I've been here and I think it's his time to be a leader because he and (Reggie) Stokes are going to be the elder statesmen of the group. I expect him to have a good year.''

The pieces there, then, are glued together?

‘'You would hope. I think they are. It took me two years to use his hands consistently, and then last year he was real good with his hands. I think the fact that he's going to be inside and is going to be a second-year man inside, everything is going to come into place for him. Like I said, we had him on the outside his first few years.''

With Datone, I know you had a lot of expectations for him, even thought he could be a double-digit sack guy last year, but he was inconsistent …

‘'As a sophomore, the thing about being a sophomore, especially when you're as talented as he is, is you're kind of stuck halfway between trying to do it right because you're trying to play technique football, and then you're trying to be productive at the same time. A lot of times, it takes away your instincts. I knew that could happen. He didn't make nearly the plays that I thought he could make with his talent, but I think this year it's going to all fall into place for him. He's no different than I was, and I can relate because, my sophomore year, I started, but I couldn't make plays. I was always trying to do what the coach was telling me and your instincts, they're just off. But the next year, you know, everything just clicked and I think the same thing is going to happen for him.''

So last year you think he was in that middle ground area, kind of stuck …

‘'Trying to do it right and not being as productive because you're not playing free, your instincts are not in tune with your ability. And I knew. I was hoping that he would be able to play through it and have it not happen, but it more or less did.''

With the depth issues at tackle, is Datone strictly an end for you?

‘'He weighs 275 pounds and, it's good on his part, he can play any of the four positions and be good at it. You know, shoot, he runs a 4.6 40-yard dash and he could possibly be 285 by the time the season rolls around. He's a big, fast, strong guy, the kind of guy you can envision on Sunday for sure.''

So, how do you balance those two things?

‘'Well, as we go into spring ball, you know you've got Datone and Damien Holmes starting at the ends, you've got David Carter and Edison … those are the projected starters. But, after it all shakes out, you're going to play your best four. And whoever my best four guys are going to be are going to start. It could be Datone, Damien Holmes, David Carter and one of the freshmen that's coming in, you know? It could be Cassius Marsh. I'm going to play the best four, and those guys are going to come in and compete. If some of the young guys come in and are real good ends, we could move Datone inside. We're going to try to figure out how to get the best four d-linemen on the field.''

So if one of those freshmen ends are ready to handle that …

‘'Yeah, we're going to start the best four and then the next best four are going to be backups. We basically have an eight-man rotation with the starters playing probably 75 to 80 percent of the time and then the backups coming in and, you know, playing the other 20 percent.''

From what you've seen from the incoming freshmen, who do you think can have that type of impact right away, to the point guys are moving around like that?

‘'We're going to have to have one of those tackles come in and play, whether it be Cassius Marsh or (Sealli) Epenesa or Wesley Flowers. Marsh tells me that he weight 280, and Epenesa is at 310, Flowers is at 265, so he may be the furthest away. But one of those guys is going to have to come in and be able to play, just to help us with depth. I know they're working very hard. I know Cassius, you know, we talk on a weekly basis and he's telling me what he's doing. His goal is to come in and start, as it is for the rest of those guys. Those guys want to come in and play and if they're ready to play they're going to play. There's no doubt about it.

‘'Then at the ends you've got Derrick Bryant, (Owamagbe Odighizuwa), all those guys, they're prototypical defensive ends coming in. Who knows, if they come in and they're ready to play, then we make some changes. I think for the first time since I've been here, including the freshmen guys who are coming in, I've got four or five guys out of the whole group that can possibly play on Sundays. It's not like it used to be where you look at them and you say, ‘They don't have this or that.' You look at them and you say, ‘OK, they look like they can play on Sundays.' We've gotten bigger and we've gotten stronger. We've upgraded that whole group.''

So an Owa or Bryant, Josh Shirley, one of those guys can push Datone inside?

‘'Yeah. All of those guys, you know? These guys are athletic. Owa and Bryant, they both weight 240-plus pounds right now, which means the days of having a 230-pound Bruce Davis and a 235-pound (Korey) Bosworth, not to say those guys weren't good football players … you know, we're bringing in guys that have the same athletic ability, but are just bigger.''

How about Keenan Graham, where does he fit into that?

‘'Graham had an excellent offseason. I mean, he's going to push Damien Holmes. I'm not counting him out. He works hard. He's already stronger than most of the guys up front. When we look at the list, the testing that we just had recently, I think he was No. 3 out of all of them. So, that's pretty impressive.''

Not bad for a guy who couldn't eat solid foods for a month …

‘'Shoot, he weights 240-plus pounds. He's strong. He's athletic. He's fast. He's almost a 4.5 40 guy. When you get those type of guys, and he's just a redshirt freshman, so you can just envision what he's going to be like three years from now. You know? He's going to be a beast.

‘'And then we've got Nate Chandler. Nate Chandler is 6-4, 290-something pounds. He ran a 4.6 last year. So, I mean, who's to say that he's not going to come in and be a beast. We were very happy to get him and we're going to see if he can play some defensive football. I'm excited about it.''

When he was at tight end, or offensive tackle, did you see a d-tackle in him? Did you watch him and kind of wonder about him, think, ‘We need that guy over here?'

‘'Well, I just knew that he was athletic. And, I was shocked last year when I saw that 4.6 40 time. I thought, dang, that guy can run. When you've got a big athletic guy like that, you have to find a place for him to play. That's what football coaching is all about. At Texas A&M, you probably remember Richmond Webb. He was Dan Marino's left tackle. When Richmond came in, he was a couple of years younger than me and when I left A&M, they hadn't found a position for him. He played a little defense … you know, they didn't know what to do with him. Then I go to play and play in the NFL and when I came back, he was a top 10 pick. They found a position for him – bingo. Then, of course, the rest is history.

‘'That's one thing you have to do in college football. When you have big athletic guys, you have to figure out where he can help you, where he can help himself. So, hopefully, this will be a move like that for Nate Chandler.''

I think he might be kicking himself at the end of the year, thinking, ‘Why didn't I do this sooner?'

‘'Yeah. Well, I mean, it's never too late. He's going to be a junior so we have two good years with him Who knows? If he can come in and get it done, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine Datone Jones, Nate Chandler, David Carter, maybe Cassius Marsh. All four of those guys are at least 6-4 across the front and all four of those guys can possibly play on Sundays.''

What are the question marks with him, coming over from offense?

‘'He's had some injury problems – soft tissue, muscles, things like that. We're just hoping he can stay healthy. There's never been a doubt about his athletic ability, but if you're always injured, you can't play. Hopefully he can stay healthy and start to produce. It's certainly time.''

There's a different mentality to it, as well, though …

‘'Oh, yeah, defense is a little different mentality. Because of our numbers, we've had some guys go from offense to defense and they always say, when they get ready to start practicing with me, they mention how much of a different pace it is. And it is.''

Is Holmes also a guy that you can see inside?

‘'He weight 270. I mean, yeah, he can play inside and I know Datone and Damien, they don't want to think about being inside. But you're going to play the best guy s and I don't know what they think is so bad about playing inside. Brian Price was Pac-10 player of the year playing inside. There are plays to be made inside. And, if you do aspire to play on Sundays, and you have the ability to play any of those four positions across the front, then you make yourself more marketable. I mean, a guy that can play all four positions is valuable versus a guy that can play only end.''

Yeah, I mean, if you have the skills and athleticism to play end but you can also line up inside …

‘'Then you're more valuable to the team. I've been in the NFL and when it comes down to keeping that seventh or eighth guy, then it's, ‘Well, we'll keep this guy because he can play all four positions.' You have that eighth guy who can only play one position, you ship him out. So, you know, we're going to do what's best for the team and if one of those guys had to move inside then they may bitch and moan, but I'll talk them into it if that's what happens (laughing). We'll put them in position to make plays, though.''

The way you've worked out some of those size and strength issues in the past, you have to be pretty excited about the spring ...

‘'I'm always excited. First of all, it's football and just to see how the young guys have matured and how they've gotten better … it's exciting. I've always liked challenges, man, and one of the reasons I came to UCLA was to try to make the d-line here, not just the best d-line in the Pac-10, but in all of Division I football. It's always been a challenge – that's what I like about it. It wouldn't have been as much fun for me if when they called they already had the great players and were already established. I wanted something to put my stamp on, coaching a position, and working with the guys and I've had that here. As far as I'm concerned, the job has been very fulfilling.''

You think about the success that your group has had with the limitations that you've had to work with, it must be nice to get into a position where you have those 6-4, 290-, 300-pound bodies …

‘'Put it this way, we've got some guys that you can envision playing on Sundays and they're not going to be undersized, they're going to be as good as anyone else's - physically, athletically and all that – and it's fun. It'll be fun for a change getting off the bus and walking with some guys who are bigger than me. For a long time I've been the biggest guy, you know what I mean?''

Moving some guys around, that seems like an interesting thing to work out. You have so many ends, so many good ends coming into the program right now …

‘'Yeah. But the thing is, you know, a guy that comes in, say for instance Owa, you come in at 6-3 and some change and you weigh 245 pounds. Every year you're going to gain 10 or 15 pounds. So in four years you're 290 or 300 pounds and you're solid. I mean, Datone is 275 pounds and he's solid. He kind of reminds me of Kevin Carter, who is a guy we had in St. Louis, and could play end and tackle. When you looked at Kevin Carter, he had no fat on him. Just solid as he could be. And when you bring in guys who are athletic and when they gain weight they don't lose any speed, then you've got something special.''

Datone, you can see him really blowing some people up …

‘'His goal, he wants to be Pac-10 defensive player of the year. That's what he's been working toward and we'll see what happens. I think this is really going to be a breakout year for him. I think, you know, with the experience he had as a starter as a sophomore, that's going to benefit him. And I feel like, when he's more comfortable, he's going to be more instinctive and make more plays.''

That comfort level pushes him over that edge …

‘'Exactly. When you're getting your experience, there are things that happen to you that have never happened to you before, and you just have to put it in your memory. OK, when this happened to me, when it happens again I'll be able to play it better. That's kind of what he went through last year.''

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