“How we doin’? Everybody have a good summer? It’s over. At least for me. Really like our guys. Really high character group. It’s fun to go to work every day. We’re only three days in. The first two days you’ve got your pajamas on; you’re just running around in your shorts and t-shirts with the headgear on. Did our first day in uppers yesterday and got to see how we’re gonna be. Lot of learning to do. Huge learning curve.
“Trying to establish tempo and pace with this new practice schedule is interesting because in essence you really have one more week than you used to have, so that has to come into your thinking because you obviously want to get the guys all this information but you don’t want to jam it at them too fast that they can’t retain, and you actually have a little more time to install, get prepared and so forth.
“But you don’t want them bored with it either, so you have to keep them going at a reasonable clip so that they stay engaged and they learn and they participate with great energy mostly mentally; you know they’re going to do that physically. Good start the first three days. Excited about it.”
You’ve talked about maintaining the aggressive, attacking style of your defense even with losing so many starters. Realistically, does there have to be some dialing back with so many young guys or is it too early to tell?
“We really can’t tell. I think it’s a great question. I’m not trying to dodge it, but regardless of how we’re gonna go about doing it, because there’s several ways to do it, we’re going to be aggressive. I mean, that’s just the way we play defense. Now, we may do that different ways. We may play different concepts. Obviously you have a system. It needs to be flexible enough so that speed can get on the field and based on where that speed comes from positionally that your package is flexible enough that you can utilize those talents.”
In Chicago, Jim was talking about Kwity [Paye] and Luiji [Vilain], kind of raving about them on the outside. He mentioned them as outside linebackers and defensive ends. What have you noticed out of those two so far?
“Well, I’ll give you this: I watched pass rush yesterday—pretty good. Very good start. Luiji: extremely explosive, comes off the rock. Was really impressed with how well not only does he come off the rock but how well Kwity used his hands. Those guys are very talented guys, as Coach has alluded to, and we’re going to give them every opportunity possible to get on the field in some roles.
“Now, can they learn it all concept-wise? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean they can’t contribute and develop confidence and then have their role broadened as we move forward.”
[More after THE JUMP]
Obviously you’re going to have guys compete everywhere, but is corner your most interesting battle for you? Is that what your read is right now?
“I think every position is. There’s battles going on. I think the corner thing is paramount in our thinking. Coach Zordich I have tremendous confidence in his abilities to analyze, provide technique and concept. I love those guys. I mean, all of those guys have a chance to be good.
“Coach gave me an early birthday present or something; Drake Harris had a nice interception yesterday, and I love those guys when they put their hands out and they’re nice and long and then he goes out and high-points the ball. Fun to see. Hopefully he can continue to take steps, move forward, learn the concept, and play fast, because that’s the biggest piece. Okay, I know the concept but it’s like mud, stammering around. It’s no, quick twitch, move forward, make adjustments, technique and fundamentals, play fast, all those things. But all of those guys have a chance.
“Really like ‘em all, to be honest. I think Brandon Watson and Keith Washington, then you’ve got the Lavert Hill, David Long, you’ve got the Ben St. Juste, you’ve got Drake; it goes on and on. There’s a number of guys there. Right now, as you alluded to, we’re gonna try to find out who the top two and really three guys are. Looking at Jaylen Kelly-Powell and seeing if he can help us in some of those packages as well utilizing his coverage skills.”
Couple of the players have mentioned this season Khaleke Hudson maybe being off the radar but potentially being one of the best players in college football. He’s got some big shoes to fill going into Jabrill’s shoes, but what have you seen out of him and how likely is that ascent?
“Well, I love him. I mean, he’s a very physical guy. His learning at that position’s been outstanding and he’s competing at a high level. He hasn’t played a minute on defense yet, so going from that point to one of the best players in college football is an extremely high jump. I’m just very happy with his arrow. Some guys’ arrow is flat, some guys’ arrow is down; his arrow is constantly going up. He’s a really coachable guy. He’s fun to have in the room, and don’t forget he can play some safety as well.”
With the corners, can playing aggressive help them quicker because they’re putting some of the onus on the offense instead?
“Let me ask you think question, okay? So, I’m gonna cover you, so I’m gonna go back here and then you’re gonna run all over the place and then I’m gonna go cover you. You think that’s easy with all that space on the football field? Or, I’m covering you and I close up and play with my hands.
“Up until 2013 I coached corners every year since 1983. I used to always do this just to see when we started getting into all the press concepts. The minute you said to them, Hey, you’ve got the option: you can go up and play press or you can play off. They’ll all immediately go [smacking sound]. Players know what they want to do. They want to accept the one-on-one challenge or let great players run around in space and try and chase them all over the field. I just say that’s kind of a common denominator.
“Guys that we’re involved with in recruiting, if there’s any chink in their armor or we sense any kind of waaah, [with] that aggressiveness that we’re looking for, probably not a good place to come in honest reality because we want guys that accept the one-on-one challenge and that’s just me. That’s what we’re looking for.”
Going back to the steep learning curve, your defense having a steep learning curve, does that concern you at all or is that a good challenge for the defense as a whole and a challenge for yourself as a coordinator?
“To be honest, it energizes you as a coach when you’re going in there and guys, you’ve got to teach them a concept. I think that’s kind of what we do as teachers. I think the bigger challenge is creating a picture and a vision for what you want the defense to be and then getting them to go buy into it. That’s the bigger challenge on a year-to-year basis. But to answer your question, new things are happening every day. Guys are coming in going, ‘What am I learning today, Coach? What are we doing today?’
“One of the best players I’ve ever coached, Kenny Tate, used to come in every morning, ‘What am I doing today?’ We played him one game I think at nine different positions out of the 11. Players love to be challenged. Concept, vision, style of play, so I don’t know if that answers your question but I think just that in itself provides energy for them to come to work every day, bring their lunch pail, and go to work.”
From the outside we see just one returning starter technically; I know there were others. As the guy that coordinates this, is whatever nervousness about that mitigated by the talent or do you lose sleep over how many new guys you have in new places?
“I’ll tell you what— this is legit now, that’s a good question, that’s legit. Who’s providing the leadership? That’s what we’re building right now. I see it. Again, I’d be nervous if I saw this: ooo, nobody. And I think that’s starting to happen, who’s going to provide the leadership. Mo Hurst, Mike McCray, Rashan Gary.
“That starters thing, you know, we had a lot of guys play last year. Tyree Kinnel played a lot. Rashan Gary played a ton. Mo Hurst? Okay, he wasn’t a starter. He was just one of the most devastating penetrators inside in college football. Just saying. Bryan Mone played a bunch, Chase Winovich was on the field all the time. It goes on and on and on. Devin Bush played a lot of football last year. A lot of it on teams, but a lot of it on defense as well, so I’m not as concerned.
“But who’s going to provide rock that when adversity introduces a man to himself is going to take the group on his back and go? I think that’s starting to develop and I think the arrow’s up on that. That’s the bigger piece for me is when adversity introduces a man to himself, who’s going to lead us back into a positive comfort zone mentally? That’s the bigger piece.”
How much is that front seven going to be able to take some heat off a young secondary, especially early on?
“You know, coach Mattison does a great job with the front four. Chris Partridge and myself, we’re responsible to get these guys to play fast. This is—everybody has a job. In the run game, all 11 players are involved in the run. Shoot, I chase the corners harder than I chase the linebackers in defending the run game. Coach Zordich and coach Smith have to get the safeties involved, and in the pass game it’s the same deal.
“The backend, as you noted with the corners questions, have a pass-coverage responsibility, but how fast we can get there, that has a direct correlation on if I’m the quarterback and I’m going back and [clap clap clap clap clap] wooo. I can be pretty good. I’m 62 and I can be pretty good, okay? Well, you go back and all of a sudden it’s [clap] woo. It all kind of plays together. It’s all 11. That’s why playing defense is such a big deal. That’s where 11 guys are going to be evaluated and talked about as one, defensively. That’s just the way it is. It’s the way it’s always been and we prepare them for that mentally. That’s the way it is.”