Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel on Matt WIlhelm

Denis Savage, of Chargers Update, spoke with Ohio State National Championship Head Coach Jim Tressel about Matt Wilhelm a linebacker the San Diego Chargers took in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL Draft. Coach Tressel treaded lightly when discussing the middle linebacker battle about to ensue in training camp.

The interview was done just days before PJ Mays got his release papers from the Chargers.

Coach Jim Tressel was a coach at Youngstown State before joining the ranks of National prominence with Ohio State and delivering a National Championship to the school. Tressel directed the Youngstown State Penguins to four Division 1-AA national championships and qualified for the Division 1-AA playoffs a remarkable 10 times before accepting his present position as head coach of the Buckeyes.

Coach Tressel wanted an update on PJ Mays after I told him I spoke with the guys over at Youngstown State. I told him he had nice hands out of the backfield but faced an uphill battle.

"Good he is a nice kid. He can catch the ball now," said Coach Tressel.

What can you tell us about Matt Wilhelm as both a player and person?

"Matt is a tremendous leader for us. Very, very dedicated. He is one of those guys who is in the weight room all the time, he is in the film room all the time. He was, now I know this is a cliché, but he truly was a coach on the field.

"You could run a play once and get him but you couldn't run a play the second time. He could call out what we were going to throw, what we were going to run. He knew our offense better than we did. He has got good range, good movement and I think you will really be pleased. He plays the pass extremely well. He is just better than most middle linebackers. I think he has the ability to play inside or out and I think you are going to like him."

Wilhelm was an All-Big Ten Conference first-team selection as a senior starting every game, leading the team with a career-high 121 tackles (79 solos), with three sacks for minus-15 yards and a team-high 20 stops for losses of 49 yards. He also deflected three passes, intercepted two others and had a pair of forced fumbles.

Should we be concerned about the ankle surgery he had prior to 2002?

"He didn't miss a snap in 2002. His vertical jump, since we have only been here two years, his vertical jump has gone up six or seven inches in two years. We feel that is one of the greatest power indexes and he has trained extremely hard and I think he is going to make your football team in my opinion and he is going to have a good career."

The injury we speak of is a right ankle sprain that required reconstructive surgery after the 2001 season and caused him to miss spring drills in 2002. He also missed one game and part of a second game at the tail end of the 2001 season. Other ailments that have surfaced include a right shoulder stinger (Oct. 2000), a partial medial collateral ligament tear in his left knee (Dec. 2000) and a lower back strain (May 2001) that pestered Wilhelm. Wilhelm started 34 of the 48 games he played in at Ohio State.

Obviously you have a great team over at Ohio State, who did the defense revolve around last season?

"Well we were real strong up the middle; we had two senior linebackers, two senior safeties and a senior defensive inside player. And really those five players, who were all drafted in the top five rounds were just the core of our defense and they all played a lot fo football here and had their moments when they were young and learned a lot of lessons and Matt Wilhelm was probably the X and O leader and probably the emotional leader was Mike Doss our great safety."

Were you surprised at him being picked up in the fourth round?

"I thought he might go in the third. You know how things go with positions and so forth. The thing that I like about him and I talked to the NFL Head Coaches about was the fact that he played so many big games and I don't think there is a substitute for that. He has been on the stage as big as any stage he will ever be on (referring to the National Championship Game) and it doesn't faze him a bit. He's very focused and has a great ability to diagnose what is going on and a great communication with people around him coaches and players. I think you are going to be happy with him."

What is it about his game that makes him so good (shedding blockers to make a tackle, eluding them all together, right positioning)?

"Both according to what the defense calls for. He is very disciplined with where he is supposed to fit within the defensive package and who he is supposed to cover or where he is supposed to cover. He knows what everyone else around him is supposed to be doing, therefore it is real easy for him to understand why he is doing what he is being asked to do and very teachable."

Wilhelm recorded 266 tackles (180 solos) with eight sacks for minus-41 yards, 44 stops for losses of 126 yards, three interceptions for 25 yards in returns and four forced fumbles during his career at Ohio State. His 44 stops behind the line of scrimmage rank sixth on the school's career-record list.

Can he be too aggressive and run himself out of plays?

"No I don't think so. I think any good defensive player, every once and a while, is going to overrun somebody or jump a route. His film grades were always very, very high. He is one of the more disciplined guys that we ever had here. The thing that I like about him is the fact when transition happens, change is change. He was probably as crucial as anyone, not embracing change, cause I don't know that anyone embraces, but in allowing change and making sure he was in the locker room saying, ‘Hey you guys I know its different, let's go. Let's have a little faith.' And for that I will never forget him."

Was he used on special teams?

"Yeah he was on our most important special teams in my opinion, our punt team. He was a crucial member of our punt team. He was a backup on our kickoff team, you know we had some young guys we wanted to run down and get their head gears turned around a little bit. Of course he was on our field goal block (team). He was on our punt return team according to what we were doing. He knows that is something he is going to need to shine on in San Diego."

What does he need to do to become successful in the NFL?

"Well, I don't know. I am a college coach. I can pretend that I know the answer to that, I don't. I know that if you got a lot of guys like him on your team, you are going to have a chance."

He is in the midst of a battle for the MLB spot, could he start right now?

"I don't know. who he is going against?"

I explain that Wilhelm will battle it out with Zeke Moreno, formerly of USC, and Carlos Polk, formerly of Nebraska. I also tell Coach Tressel that Marty Schottenheimer is not averse to starting a rookie over a veteran as witnessed last season by the insertion of Ben Leber into the lineup.

"It won't be for lack of understanding the game. He will have a fast transition. Now it will be a matter of preparing himself physically. The guys we played against were pretty physical; the guys you play against are even more. He will learn the scheme and I think that will be an advantage."

That battle will have to sort itself out in training camp.

The Hula Bowl, which was held on the same weekend as the NFL's Pro Bowl has been switched to January 17th. Ohio State's Jim Tressel, coach of the 2002 National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes and Ralph Friedgen from Maryland will coach the 2004 game.

Denis Savage can be reached at safage@cox.net

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