What were your initial impressions of the secondary after the spring game?
“After the spring game I thought—I still believe we’re young and talented, but there’s quite a ways to go. Quite a ways to go. On the outside, the young guys were still very critical of the technique we play, especially in our man coverage. So, they’ve got a ways to go even though they should be in high school. We’ve got to change their habits, if you will. So we’re happy, but lot of room for improvement.”
Last week Brian [Smith] was saying that Keith is coming along a little bit but that he was pretty hard on himself, like he’d pick up something, maybe wouldn’t get it again the next time, and was pretty hard on himself. What have you seen out of Keith?
“Yeah, Keith has always been hard on himself. Keith is a competitor, and that’s one thing I always like about Keith. He works his tail off. You gotta remember, he played at quarterback at high school. We brought him over and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna make you a cornerback’ in a system that plays press-man 90% of the time, so it’s not an easy thing to do and it’s a tough technique to learn. That’s what he’s trying to do and I think he’s doing it very well.
“I thought he had a heck of a game Saturday. Played really well, was very aggressive, had some nice tackles. He’s come along really well.”
[After THE JUMP: On winemaking, which is not a metaphor. We talked about making actual wine. Also defending fades, but wine, too]
I was going to say Saturday he looked decent. Where have you seen the steps of growth from him?
“Well, I—my goodness, we get so many reps and I just see in the technique part of it probably things that the eye doesn’t see but the eye in the sky sees, and we get to rewind it and play it slow and just watch the little things that he’s doing wrong in his technique, so that’s where he’s got to improve at and that’s what.”
Did you learn anything about the group Saturday from being in front of 40,000 people or whatever? Anything to glean there?
“No, nothin’. You know, a little disappointed in Ben in the end. Just think he got—played a lot of reps, played the most of all the corner group. I think maybe when you get a little bit tired and you start losing concentration and his technique started to wane and he gave up some plays, but it’s good for him, too, at the same time because he felt bad after the game. He really felt bad and I said, ‘Hey, that’s the first time here.’ It’s a great experience for him.”
“Yes. Yep, Big Ben. Yep.”
Was that Keith’s best practice of the year to date, would you say?
“Yeah, I would say it was. He really played well. In the right spots all the time. Line up well most of the time. Yeah, definitely.”
Some guys are hard on themselves and improve. Some guys are hard on themselves and then maybe never fully get there. In your experience--
“In my experience, most of the guys that are hard on themselves, in the circles I’ve been around, they get better.”
With Keith, have you been able to gauge?
“Yeah, I think Saturday he got better. I think today, he was a little dinged up and he practiced the whole practice, three-and-a-half hours, so that says it all.”
You guys obviously do a lot that counts on the cornerbacks to lock guys up in press man. Do you have to do anything to protect some of those young guys a little bit more now or is it kind of sink or swim for them?
“No, it’s not sink or swim. We’ve got a long way to go. Those guys being here getting all those reps in practice right now, they’re going to walk in here in August and be like, Hey, that’s pretty good, pretty easy. I think this time would be the hardest on ‘em. Once we get ‘em in August I think it’ll be like, you know, just getting that work under your belt, so to speak. Now you’re comfortable in the situation. I think it’s gonna be fun. [Inaudible], Big Ben and Ambry.”
Were there things you were able to do with Jourdan and Channing that you won’t be able to do now because of experience?
“Experience? Probably, but we’re gonna do everything that we did with those guys. We have to. We play man. We need to make all the same calls, all the same adjustments with those young guys as with those old guys because that’s what we do. We’re not going to stray from what we do and we’re going to find the guys that are going to be able to handle it. And like I said, I think because of this experience, all this time in practice, all these reps, they’re gonna get there in August and they’re gonna be so much above just the freshmen coming in. It’ll be very helpful.”
Do you still have Brandon Watson?
“B-Wat? Yeah, yeah.”
Is he playing all positions in the secondary or--
“No, we just have him at corner, and he’s had a really good spring. He probably was the most consistent of all the guys, and I think his experience lends to that.”
Are Lavert [Hill] and David [Long] still out in front or not so much?
“Uh, yeah. Lavert is very talented. Dinged up a little bit. Played eight plays in the game Saturday. David: practicing well, but he’s young, too. He didn’t get a lot of plays at the middle and end of last season and we redshirted him, so he didn’t get a lot of action. They’re very talented young guys. Very talented young guys. And every one of them has to learn that this isn’t a comfortable game, and you’ve got to be able to play uncomfortable.”
With Jaylen Kelly-Powell, Don was talking the other day about how you guys started fooling around with him and used him in the slot a little bit as a nickelback.
What allows you to be able to do that with him?
“He’s very quick. He’s a very quick player, real quick-twitch, and you need that kind of guy in the slot. And his size, where we’re at right now, it’s tough to fit. But he’s still playing safety. Still playing safety. Just thought we’d give him another opportunity at another spot and he’s handled it very well.”
How much easier is it to take guys who are basically seniors in high school and you said you have to break their habits; is it any easier to break their habits when they’re that young versus coming in and inheriting a couple sophomores?
“Yeah, well, I think it’s pretty much the same, you know. At least when they’re at the college level you are coached a little differently than you are in high school. And let’s face it, those kids are really, really good players, so they probably got away with a lot of things they did on their own. Just like J-Lew; J-Lew did something that wasn’t into what we did—you don’t fix something that ain’t broke, right? So it’s just kind of the same thing. Each guy, you’ve got to tailor certain things they do differently and so it’s harder coming out of high school in my opinion.”
Jordan Glasgow was saying the defense is faster than it was last year. Are you seeing that, generally speaking?
“It is a fast group. It definitely is a fast group.”
And how is that manifesting? How are you seeing it?
“I just see—I see it as they’re learning to be fast. They’re fast running laps, they’re fast running all our 6 AM stuff. They’re fast competing in that fashion. No doubt, fast group. But when they’re learning, it’s a little different. You’re thinking instead of reacting, so the brain is slowing down the feet. But when they get this, they’re gonna be very athletic and fast.”
When you say they’ve got to learn to play uncomfortable you mean banged up?
“Yes, banged up. Yeah.”
So they’ve got to play through some of the aches and pains.
“Absolutely. Absolutely. We had a couple guys with those things. They’ve got to go away quick.”
Ambry seemed to be able to stay with his man in a lot of the situations he was in in the spring game but still got a little clutchy-grabby. How has he progressed so far?
“He gets it. He wants to get this so bad, but it’s just as it goes, they forget about it. Right out of the gate we’re good with the technique, but then as the game goes you’ve got to keep grabbing them: hey, come back here. You know, this is what we do. We’re not back there anymore, you’ve got to come up here. So you’ve just got to keep coaching them, and that’s what we’re here for. Just keep coaching and coaching and coaching and beat it in. But when he gets it it’s beautiful. It really is. He’s got a lot of talent.”
Ideally how many guys would you like to have rotate in there?
“As many as you can. A lot, yeah. I’d like to have four or five. We play a lot of DBs and they all gotta do the same thing: cover.”
You gave high praise to Lavert Hill before spring camp on the radio. You mentioned he was a little dinged up. What does he do so well?
“He’s a natural. He just has natural ability. But that natural ability doesn’t do anything on the wood. You’ve got to go out and play, you know what I mean. He’s got to come out and play. He’s one that’s a little uncomfortable right now and we’ve got to get that straightened out. Very talented young man.”
I just remember watching him in high school and he takes risks. Does he still have that same mentality as far as making plays on the ball?
“Yeah, that’s why he’s good at what he does when he’s playing. He’s natural at finding and fitting on a player and finding the football.”
Have you ever coached a group that has this little experience?
“Oh, I know. Honestly, no, not really. When I was in Philly we had a young group my third year there, second or third year there. Across the board, this is young. Really young.”
Do you do anything to adjust to that?
“I think that’s why Jim’s doing what he’s doing, too. With these four-hour practices, we’re not four hours of killing a guy. It’s four hours of just getting reps and playing football, calls, formations, getting all that thinking under their belt, so to speak.”
So the term wide open, you could say this is definitely a wide-open competition right now?
“Absolutely, 100% wide open. It’s fun.”
You have a son living in Rome or Italy?
“I do, I do. He’s up in Piacenza. It’s up north, between Milan and…what else…Bologna.”
So you’ll have to make a side trip.
“Yeah, yeah. My wife and I—he’s gonna come down a couple days. He’s going to school there. He’ll be done in December but he’s going to break away for a couple days and we’re going to go up there to see him, so it’ll be fun. Looking forward to that.”
What’s he studying?
“He’s learning how to make wine. He’s getting his masters in winemaking, yes.”
That’s a good connection.
“Yeah, it’s a great connection. It’s a hell of a connection. It’s a lot of fun.”
Is he going to stay over there forever?
“No, he wants to come home. I said, ‘What are you, nuts?’”
I don’t think there are any vineyards in Youngstown, are there?
[laughs] “No. He wants to come home, so god bless him. That’s just what he’s always wanted to do. His grandfather made wine, my wife’s father. Ever since they were little, yeah. Pretty neat.”
There are some great wineries up north in Michigan now. They’re getting better.
“Is there? I—“
You’re not into that?
“I am, I just—I haven’t left this place.” [laughs]
Has he given you the lowdown on Rome and what to expect?
“Yeah, we’ve been there. As a family we’ve been there, but he’s pretty well versed, yeah. It’s pretty neat. It’s a fun experience.”
When you look at last year: experienced, athletic. We’ve heard a lot about [guys] like J’Marick; Brian was saying J’Marick’s a really hard hitter.
“Extremely hard hitter.”
Other than the experience factor, is there going to be a difference? Is this going to be maybe a harder hitting secondary than it was last year?
“Hmmm. I don’t know about that.”
Any difference in style?
“I don’t think the style’s going to change, I really don’t. I think it’s just younger. I think the style will be there, the physicalness. It’s just right now we’ve got to get their experience level turned up a notch. I wouldn’t say one group’s more physical than another.”
Have you had any moments with guys where they’ve had that light come on kind of deal where they’re starting to get it, those kind of moments?
“Absolutely. Certain practices, certain periods in practice. A couple days ago we had a one-on-one session, it was at the beginning of practice and they’re fresh on the practice field and they got it. You can see it’s in them. We’ve just got to get it out of them.”
Have you tried any of your son’s wine?
“Well, yeah. The batch—I can’t open now. We can’t open for a little while.”
Has to ferment.
“Yep. Like I said, he’s been doing it since he was little. We have a nice little reserve.” [laughs]
You’ve been there a few times. Have you given the rest of the staff—do you speak a little Italian?
“I do not. My grandparents did but I do not. And a neat thing we’re doing too, the Zordich side is in Crotia, which is very close to where Alex is in Piacenza. We’re going to go over there to visit the Zordich family, so that’ll be pretty neat. Looking forward to that.”
Did you ever think you’d get that kind of opportunity in the football world?
“No, not at all. Not at all. We’re going to take advantage of that, and appreciate Jim letting us do that. Certainly taking the team but then letting us stay a couple extra days to take advantage of it.”
You got family in New Zealand or kids there or anything for the future?
“No, no, none in New Zealand. Just Italy, yeah. And Croatia, yeah.”
MGoQuestion: They threw quite a few fades at your corners on Saturday.
“Yeah, they did.”
MGoThePartWithTheQuestion: When do you teach your guys to turn on those, or do you teach them to turn on those?
”Yeah, we do. When the hands go up the eyes got to get back and hands up and through or hands down and out. Again, just gotta work on it. Keith made a nice play on the sideline early in the game and then Ben just had a little [bit of a] rough time. Didn’t get his eyes around. He’s just got to be more physical at that point, more violent.”
MGoOhISee: Just something that comes with--
“With experience. With getting beat hopefully. No, really. You get tired of getting beat and you’re like, Hey, I gotta change something, something’s got to change in my attitude at that point. Because he was pretty good up to that point and then just couldn’t close with his coverage.”
You mentioned how Jim structured practices. Is it different from a year ago?
“Not really. No, no, not really. Actually, we’ve had probably a little less—we had two or three more six hours practices last year than we did this year. It’s all the same for those guys. They’re getting their four hours in. That’s valuable time, valuable reps. We’ve had twelve practices, so in that sense you could say we’ve had 24 practices. It’s not all [inaudbile] a guy and killing him. At the end of practice we have what’s called a recognition period, which is basically a one-two walkthrough where you just line up [and] know your assignment.”
A step above a mental rep.
“A step above a mental rep.”