News bullets and other important items:
- Tailback will be committee of two (Fitz and Smith) as long as there is production from the position, i.e. >100 yards rushing.
- No comment on Marell Evans’ status.
- Going to help Denard’s passing by passing on non-passing downs.
- Ran inside zone against SDSU because SDSU wasn't expecting it (per Taylor Lewan)
“Is this a hat day or a non-hat day?”
How come you guys are perfect in the red zone? “Why do you say that!? Doggone it. It’s just like that kiss of death, okay?
“We know we’re certainly not efficient yet overall, but that part of our game’s been pretty good so far, and hopefully we can keep it going. We spend a lot of time working on it, too. It is a point of emphasis. There’s nothing more distressing than getting the ball down there and not scoring. And you’re not going to score a touchdown every time, but you’re not coming away with something. It’s an emphasis, but the kids have done a pretty good job of finishing drives once we get to that point.” But you have scored a touchdown almost every time. “Yeah. There you go again.” Do you feel a smidgeon of pride? “Oh yeah. Absolutely. They’ve done a good job down there. One thing I’ll say for this football team -- we are not perfect by any means, we are not there -- but we’ve got pretty good will. We have shown over the past four games: we overcame some bad plays in the second half of last game; we overcame tremendous adversity at the Notre Dame game; we started slow in the Eastern game; but the kids have demonstrated some will, and there’s something to that, because a lot of times teams don’t have a great will and you tend to fold. We’ve shown no signs of that. Not yet, anyway.”
Can you talk about Denard’s progress as a passer? “Well, it’s a work in progress with our offense. That’s the thing … because it’s different. Now part of that, too -- and I’m going to take the rap for that a little bit. I’ve got to get him some better throws. I’ve got to put him in position to complete some more balls so he can gain some confidence and gain some rhythm. Get in a little bit of a zone. He’s a capable passer, you know, but as a playcaller you have to consider everything we’re calling in terms of the passing game. This kid really threw the ball well in two-a-days and threw the ball well in spring. He did. All his numbers were better numbers than now. I think game situations are different. As he learns about how to do this, you’ll see progress. Because he does have a good arm, and he has an accurate arm when he’s comfortable. But part of that has to be my responsibility to get him in better situations to complete some throws.”
A year ago he was really accurate. Is there a reason why there’s such a big difference between this year and last year? “I studied the players, but I didn’t really study that end of it. Some of it was that he’s been in the offense more htan one year. That helps. You’ll see the difference in a year. Instantly. I had Cade McNown at UCLA. The first year he was tenth in the conference in passing efficiency. His second year he led the country in passing efficiency. How do you make that much of a quantum leap? Is it all of a sudden a magic wand touched you and you’re an accurate passer? No. It’s undrstanding the offense. And it’s not just his understanding, but it’s everyone else’s, too. It’s all the growing pains that go with it. With that said, we still have to do better than we’re doing. It’s not acceptable regarding the passing game.”
Do you like how he’s targeting receivers? “Not all the time, no. We made a couple of bad decisions in the game. But for the most part over the past four games, he’s been pretty much on the right guy, okay. He’s still got a couple of deals. Most of them, he’s pressed a little. There’s people around him and he’s got to make the decision quick and there’s a sense of urgency to get rid of the ball. But again, as he gets more comfortable -- and I can’t emphasize that enough, guys -- all the quarterbacks I’ve had, they are all better the second year. Well we’re in a microwave here. We’re going to get this fast. We’re just going to keep working at it and keep getting better at it. And you’ll see by the end of the season, if he stays in one piece, that he will improve his passing. Almost every kid I’ve had has."
(more after the jump)
Is the will thing unique to this team, or is that common with every team? “No. Some teams fold. There’s a lot of teams I’ve coached that never would have won the Notre Dame game, and probablyw ouldnt’ have played like we played in other games. We show some flashes of excellence. I see some plays I get excited watching. And then we have those little breakdowns, just like we did in the third quarter, where it was a mess, where it was one bad play and another bad play. We fumbled and threw an interception. But in the first half, I’m liking what I see. We’ve had quarters and halves like that. This time it was earlier in the game, where in the other games it was later one.”
With Denard’s passing game, is it physical, mental, or both? “Yeah it’s all of the above. But it’s understanding what to do and having your brain tell your feet how to move and get yourself in position to make the throws. And the decision-making process. The thing you find with the passing game, and every great quarterback will tell you this -- they’ll say, as you learn and understand it better, it slows down. And there’s nothing happening in front of you anymore, it’s all happening out here … until you get that comfort level, there’s still stuff happening in here, you know what I mean? Particularly an athletic quarterback who feels like he can bail himself out of stuff, which he can, he’s very capable of doing. You’ll see as he goes and he understands what we’re trying to do more, it’ll be more of a pseudo seven-on-seven situation where he’ll feel what’s in front of him, yet he’ll be always focused on what’s going on out beyond the field.”
You said teams are doing different things to defend Denard. Is there a common theme to what they do? “I thought there was until this week. Rocky did it a little different. He started the game in some man-to-man coverage, and then we broke an option on him, and they pulled it in a bit. It changes. They’re adjusting like you’re adjusting. Rocky Long is a hell of a football coach, now. He’s not going to keep making the same mistakes. Most of the people we play aren’t. You’ve got to see what the battlefield strategy is, and then make your adjustments as you see fit.”
What was the theme you saw developing before San Diego State? “Well most people were locking up our receivers and try to sink a guy in to play Denard so they could play Denard partly with the front and with an extra player on top. And that’s a good way to play him if you don’t have the weapons to exploit that and you’re not throwing the ball well.”
What did you like from the speed option? “A guy that can run 4.3 with the ball. That’s a little scary to the defense, that kind of ball carrier. Plus it just forces them to defend more. We’d had that play for a while. That’s not a new play. We just hadn’t sprung it in games. It’s just, if you talk to most defensive coaches, the option is a concern. I know way back when I was on defense, it was one of the first things we had to address.”
What do receivers need to do better in order to help the passing game? “Oh it’s the same deal. We have certain routes called. We’re stopping when we should keep going. Some of the adjustments are not clean, you know, and it’s screwing him up too. It’s not all Denard, like I said. It’s partly playcalling -- I have to do a better job of that -- and our receivers not making the proper adjustments. The passing game -- major synergy there. They’ve got some chemistry in there. He’s got to be there at this time, and I’m going to give him the ball at this time. If he’s not, I’m going to reset and throw up to this guy or blah blah blah. There’s just so many pieces that have to -- I call it meticulous precision. I think that’s redundant. But you know what I’m saying.”
Is that why Hemingway isn’t being targeted? “All of them. Everybody. Roy, Junior -- we should be catching more passes. And we will. We talk about it everyday, but today it was huge. We want to take this step with our passing game this week. We really do. If we don’t, and we win and we do what we have to do to win, we’ll work on it again next week and eventually we’ll get where we want to be.”
What do you mean when you say you’re going to give Denard some easier throws. Are you going to give him easier reads? “Not necessarily easier reads. We’ll work within the offense. But throwing in situations that aren’t necessarily passing situations, which we’ve done some of. Giving him some throws that he can complete, and not forcing them. And because people are up on us with regard to stopping the run, you’ve got to take some balls down the field. You have to. That does not cater to high percentage throwing. And I tell him, if you throw the ball down the field, if you hit half of them that’s pretty good. That’s not bad. Now what about the other throws? The throws that are underneath the defense that give you a chance to do some run after the catch, a little pitch and catch stuff, and sometimes they don’t even give you that. Against Notre Dame, that was going to be hard to do because they were all crowded in there and you weren’t going to pluck at them. But certain teams you can pluck at them a little bit. Those ones that will allow us to do that we have to take advantage.”
What do you say to Denard in game when you sense that he’s not comfortable passing? “Oh well, every time that he comes to the sideline, he goes straight to the headset, and we talk about the last series and what we did. Any mistakes, any things that were done well, you know. He’s a little bit of an unflappable kid, now. He got frustrated because he’s competitive, but I don’t sense that he gets shaken or rattled. That’s not really much in his demeanor. Everybody has times where you’re not feeling good about the way things are going, but I don’t see Denard Robinson turning into jello. That just doesn’t -- I don’t sense it on the headset. I don’t sense it in my everyday interactions with him. He’s a pretty cool kid.”
Did you think you’d be running option more by now? “No. No. We’ve done it the way we’ve planned it. And there’s more. Like I said, we’re in the Big Ten now, and there’s going to be more stuff that we haven’t done.” On one of the plays, did he audible into the option? “No. He checked the play. He decided which way it should be run. We give him that flexibility, too. He can do that. He does have the ability.”
Denard’s comfort running vs. Denard’s comfort passing -- are those separate or do they feed off each other? “A little bit of both. You have to do them both. He is a great running quarterback. He’s going to do that. But to be a great passing quarterback, it takes rhythm. Rhythm. Feeling it a little bit. I talked about the three-point shooter that gets hot and the rim gets bigger. There’s just something to that. When the guy starts feeling it. It doesn’t happen right away.”
What’s the tailback situation? “Well you know what, if we can do what we’re doing. I told you, and I’m sticking with it -- I still prefer a guy that can tote it and go. But if we can produce over a hundred yards rushing from our tailbacks between two guys, I can live with that. As long as there’s productivity at the position, and we’ll get into a little of that now, I’m not going to complain about it. It’s just not my preference.” So is it just Fitz and Vince Smith? “Well it was last game, and until somebody else steps to the forefront, it’s going to continue to be. Both those kids have done a pretty good job the last couple of weeks. Both those kids have -- our tailback play has bene pretty decent. Because Denard’s such a featured runner in our offense, I don’t know if the tailbacks are ever going to get huge numbers until we just jump into the I formation and start doing that every play, which we’re not doing as long as Denard’s the quarterback -- not every play, anyway. If we can get that kind of productivity every week, that’d be pretty darn good.”
Talk about Marqueis Gray and whether having Denard helps you simulate him? “Gray is a very dangerous quarterback. I’m not going to say he’s Denard, but the guy has the same kind of mentality where he’s going to run the football. He’s a big strong kid as well as having pretty good speed. If there’s nothing open, and if there’s a rushing lane, he’s going to take off scrambling. That always puts pressure on a defense. That games that we’ve watched of him, I’m impressed with it. The kid can make some plays. They’ve got an offense that you have to be ready for and you have to make sure of what he’s playing at a high level because at any time he could break it, just like [Denard].”
Talk about shifting the D-line pre-snap against SDSU? “That was totally what we wanted to do. We’ll always do that. Defensive structure, when you technique players like we do, where one person’s always an end, and one person’s always an open side end, and one person’s a three-technique and a nose, they’ll align according to a formation. When they traded their tight end, then we traded our people. I was very pleased with the way our guys handled that. I know sometimes it looks like chaos out there, but there’s always time for them to get set and we addressed that the week before, and the guys did a very good job of getting set, and got set with urgency. That’s what happens sometimes, they try to get you -- the whole purpose of that is to try to get your defense to not get in a perfect stance or not get in a perfect alignment, and our kids did a disciplined job of that. I was proud of them for doing that. ”
Is consistency on defense a concern? “Well there’s a lot of concerns, you know, there really are. Any great defense is going to come out every series and play at a high level, and they’re going to play with great technique, and they’re going to play sound defense, and that’s been our M.O. so far, is we haven’t really play-in and play-out played like we’re supposed to play. I think another really big concern is we have to get better on third down. You can’t always pressure on third down. We have to develop a four-man pass rush where we can get to the quarterback at a consistent level with four men and then be able to come with pressure. And that’s what we’re working on. But third down is a big concern for me. That’s the two most important phases in my mind are third down and redzone. We’ve got to get better at third down.”
When you rush four, how important is it to have Mike Martin? “It’s really important because whenever you’re rushing four and they’re sending a tight-end out, for example -- somebody’s one-on-one, and you’ve got to win the one-on-one matchups. That’s what we’ve got to get better at so that whoever that one person or the two people are that are one-on-one, they’ve got to get to the quarterback. Sacking the quarterback isn’t what measures your pass rush, it’s harassing him and getting to him right when he throws. We haven’t had enough of that where we’re hitting him right when he throws, and we’ve addressed that.”
You’re third in the nation in forcing turnovers. Does that tell you that something’s working? “It tells you that your guys are running to the football. Is there luck? I don’t ever talk about luck. If you’ve got guys around the ball -- Ryan Van Bergen, for example, that play that he made really epitomizes what you want to be as a defense. You don’t ever want them to break, but if you watch Ryan on that play, from the time he attacked that blocker until the time he caused that fumble, he never let up one time. When you watch linemen run to the football, you’ll see a change of speed. In fact we use that as a way to measure whether it’s a loaf or not. If you change speed running to the football, that’s a loaf. Ryan Van Bergen went full speed all the way, and right next to him was jake Ryan, and right next to him was Jordan Kovacs, and there was a bunch of other guys coming. That is what we have to do. We’re not a good enough defense right now to think, ‘Oh, well this guy’s going to get it tackled.’ We’ve got to keep doing that. The turnovers, that’s been a real bright spot, and it’s because guys have been there, and we’ve got to keep doing that.”
Is Craig Roh still progressing? “I believe Craig Roh is making a concerted effort to get better every time he goes out on the field. I think a lot of our guys on the defense are going out there everyday in practice and every game that they’re playing in, syaing I’ve got to get better, and this is what I’ve got to do to get better. And Craig, you can see by his production, he’s starting to do that. That’s how you have to measure guys who are in certain positions. Mike Martin, for example, the job he did in that game in the middle of that defense was one of the big reasons we were able to stop the run at times. We still didn’t stop it as much as you wanted to the whole time, but Mike Martin -- and he may not get as much production -- but there’s other guys that have to get production because of the job he’s doing. Craig Roh’s at a position where he’s one-on-one a lot. That’s why he’s considered the rush end, the guy on the open side. He has to get production. If he doesn’t, then our defense is not going to be successful.”
In Western Michigan game, Alex Carder had a few key runs from the quarterback position. How do you use that lesson to defend Marqueis Gray? “Well … and in the Notre Dame game. In a couple of our overload blitzes that we put out there, as a coach you’re saying, ‘Come on, drop back and pass right now, we’ll kill ya.’ They’re not stupid. All of a sudden they see four guys on both sides, they check to the run. Obviously we have to have in our package, when we do get a check, to be able to check back. We’re working on that. We can’t allow those kinds of runs. There’s no question about it. But at the same time you can’t sit back either. We can’t play a defense of what-ifs. We want to be the attacker, and then some of those things we can tweak and we can help ourselves to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Jake Ryan has been used in blitzing situations. Is that part of his position or is that just his skill set? “Jake is also on our starting Wolverine package, which is against the big boys. Jake just happens to have a lot of ability in our minds and he’s one of those guys that has speed, and he has a lot of aggressiveness. He’s playing in both of those packages. When you’re fast and you’re aggressive, you’re going to have the opportunity at times to do that. Jake, at the end of that game, I wasn’t real happy with. I think that’s where he has to really take over, when he knows it is pass, and we’ve addressed that. ”
Blake Countess! “Both the young kids … but Blake, I tell you, he’s got a lot of grit. It wasn’t too big for him out there. He came out and made some plays. We’re looking for him to get better and better each week.”
Marell Evans? “I don’t know what the ramifications of that are. I don’t know that.”
Are you pleased with front four play? “Because it was an improvement. Was I pleased? Maybe I misspoke when I said pleased. I was really excited about the amount of improvement that they made. I mean this sincerely. We have so far to go. So far. They know that, but I think there was some fire there. When [the game] started out, when [San Diego State] decided to take the ball, I think it said a lot about our guys -- you could see the look in their eyes. And we kind of emphasize that look in your eye, too, [which said], ‘Wait a minute, they’re going to take the ball here?’ Our guys kind of stepped up. But don’t get me wrong when I say that. We have to be better. We have to get better. They know that, and they’re going to work to do that.”
Is it fair to evaluate the defense based on points scored? “That’s the only thing that ever matters to me. You use other statistics always to see what you have to do to improve. The points allowed will grow if you don’t take care of those other statistics. If we can continue to be real, real stingy about letting them in the endzone, then we’re going to give our offense a chance. Like I said, the third down, the rushing defense, the number of sacks, all those other things, we’ve got to get better at. But keeping them out of the endzone is your number one goal.” But the measure of success is points against, right? “My measure of success is winning. That’s what I measure it on. I’ve never been a stat guy. I really haven’t and I never will be. I use them to see where we have to improve the most. The bottom line is win. That’s all that really matters.”
You haven’t given up the home-run yet. What do you attribute that to? “I wish you wouldn’t have said that. I really do. I think we have empahsized that from the very first day we ever met. You have to keep the ball inside and in front. And that was the very first thing we addressed the defense on the day we got here. We cannot allow the ball either to run through us for a touchdown or to go over our heads. That’s something that will kill your defense. Our guys truly understand that now. We’ve got to always work on that because it’s going to come up and bite you if you don’t. I think that’s the way Curt Mallory is coaching our guys. I think it’s our emphasis, and I think our guys are buying into that, that we can’t give up big ones.”
How pleased are you with tackling through four games? “The tackling, I think, has been fairly good. I go by missed tackles, and we haven’t had big numbers of that. Again, you’d like to go through a game with no missed tackles. But I think that’s because our guys are running to the football. We had some missed takcles in the last game, but hterew as somebody there to make up for it. We have to get better at that. We’ve got to be a team that -- all those little things that you guys are mentioned -- we improve on and we do. That’s us. Because we’re not the biggest, strongest, fastest defense, so we have to do all those things. And thank goodness that it’s only week five. We have to get better every week.”
What do you see out of Borges’ red zone offense that makes them 13 for 13 so far? “He has a really really good offense as far as I’m concerned. Some offesnes you can really get a tendency on. And you can just say, in this personnel group, they’re going to do this, and in this personnel group, they’re going to do this. Coach Borges, now, if you’re playing against him, just when you think they may run it, he’s going to throw it. Just when you think that he’s going to be in this, he’s going to spread out and be in that. I think that it’s because he’s so sound in every group, where some teams arent. He’s tough to play against.”
Does facing a mobile quarterback affect how often you blitz? “No. No. That won’t affect how often we blitz. We’re going to be an aggressive defense. I think what it does affect is the angles at which our players go. I think they have to be very conscious of that. Just like you mentioned about getting beat deep. It’s the same thing there. You can’t let a guy get outside. You can’t open up big lanes inside to let a guy run inside of you. That’s where this kind of quarterback makes it harder on you. If a guy’s not mobile, then you just say, ‘Go get him. We’ll run him down.’ This guy here’s like Denard in a way where, all of a sudden, if a guy rushes too high up the field, he’s going to break it up the inside. You can lose contain outside and inside. Sometimes you see those big holes open up -- that’s losing contain. That’s something we’re going to have to address. That’s going to be a big part of the game.”