"They’re a good football team. I’m very impressed with them defensively. They play a four-man front and there are several individuals on that team who stand out. They are very good and we have some concern with the defensive ends know numbers better than I know names. 94, I believe it’s Vince Browne. 98, Corbin Byrant The corner, Jordan Mabin, is very good. Linebacker 41, Quentin Davie. Those guys stand out defensively. Offensively, their center 65, Ben Burkett. Don’t quote me on these names here. Left tackle 75, Al Netter and their quarterback, Dan Persa. We recruited him a little bit here so we know him. They are very well coached and very disciplined. Their receivers block well as well as run very precise routes and their quarterback is very athletic so they are a concern for us defensively. Obviously they are very well coached by Coach Fitzgerald. I think this is his fifth year and he’s done a great job. He played there and knows what Northwestern needs so he has done a tremendous job. Of course we had a common opponent in Auburn. They played Auburn in a bowl game and beat them. It came down to the wire so they are a very big concern of ours stopping that offense and trying to move the ball defensively. They’re not very complicated defensively but they are sound and a very fundamentally well-coached team. So that’s kind of where they are. I’ve never done this before so tell me what you need now."
Every coach I’ve talked to has a checklist for the season. Have you made on and how far down the list are you?
"Every day we try to check off several things and cover every situation that can occur during a game, even playing in overtime. We’ve had one overtime session and hope to get another one this week just for experience. We did not do coin toss but we plan to do that because I want them to know what our plan is and whether you take the ball or play defense. Those are some simple things they seem when an official asks you out there and then you’re stuck, so we try to get them prepared for everything."
How much of a relief will you feel getting a game under your belt?
"It will be a tremendous relief. It’s been so exciting and so much fun going out there everyday and watching our coaches coach and our players practice. The tempo has gotten better everyday. We’ve had some bad situations that we came back and corrected but it has been a lot of fun. Of course everyone has asked me how I’m going to do and what I’m going to do but you don’t know until you get there. I’ve been going out on the field for a long time but I’ve never had that sole responsibility where you have to make the call so it will be a lot of fun. I have really good coaches around me that will help me with that decision. I’m looking forward to it."
Is Warren Norman’s status for Saturday still up in the air?
"Still up in the air. He did not have much swelling today which is a great sign so Warren says he’s going to be ready and that’s what I generally go by. Of course we’ll let our people have a say in it but Warren says he’s going to be ready."
How does [Dan] Persa compare to [Mike] Kafka?
"Good question. He may be a little more athletic. Throwing the ball is still a question mark but I think they’ll have that answered and ready to go. I haven’t watched a great deal to compare but that’s kind of what I’ve been told."
Do you have enough film on [Dan] Persa to get a grasp of what he will do?
"We do. Our defensive people feel pretty good about it. It’s hard to create that same situation in practice obviously but we are trying. We’re going against each other. Our numbers dictate what we can do and can’t do at practice so we basically have to go best-on-best when we prepare each other, so that’s a good thing too."
You’re offensive line doesn’t have as much experience as you would like going in. Does that change how you game plan if you had a more experienced line than what you have this year?
"Yeah, it limits some of what we can do but we feel that we have seven or eight guys that we can count on and they have the knowledge to maybe do a few wrinkles that we haven’t done. We started working on them in the spring and have gotten a little bit of work at it but some of it will have to be basic, particularly in a long yardage situation."
As the game gets closer, are you constantly thinking to yourself, ‘am I forgetting something?’
"Yes sir, I always do. I did that as a position coach. When you have five up there you always wonder if you have turned over every stone. It’s nothing new actually; it’s just a larger scale now. As Tandy Rice told me, “delegate, delegate, delegate. You can’t do it all.” That’s some of the best advice I’ve got since I’ve stepped in this seat."
How is Zac Stacy’s health? Is he at 100 percent?
"He won’t be 100 percent, but he should be healthy enough to give us a boost. None of them will be quite 100 percent yet, even Kennard [Reeves] hasn’t gotten back to how he was when he started camp because of a hamstring. You are always a little weary until you turn loose."
"We do. His x-ray looked good today. He got a new x-ray. He’s really doing good and he’s adjusted well. The main thing is that he makes sure he’s got his orthotics taped and everything."
You named Larry [Smith] the starter. Was that an easy choice and do you expect him to lead the team?
"It ended up being an easy choice because of injuries and it seemed to sort itself out. His experience is just greater in this system than the other guys. The guys thought that Jared Funk was nipping at his heels but as you game planning the speed of the game increases and the decision making becomes critical and that’s where Larry [Smith] won out in the end. Of course Jordan [Rodgers] didn’t get a chance to show us his skills because of a hurt shoulder but hopefully he’ll have an opportunity to improve and work his way up the ladder."
We saw [Ryan] Fowler, the place kicker, seemed to top out at 42, 43 yards but he’s been kicking a little farther than that. What seems to be his limitation going into the season?
"Well that’s a great question. We’ll have to determine that but so far we’ve been kicking at 42 yards with ease so he’s expanded his realm there, so to speak. I’m not so sure we can’t back up to around 50 yards now. Our goal is inside the 40 we make 100 percent of our field goals, knock on wood, and during fall camp he’s done that in fall camp. The only mishaps have involved a snap or a hold or different things so he’s been pretty consistent and that’s great to see and he’s still young as well."
What do you think you’re emotions will be Saturday night when you lead the team onto the field?
"I’m going to have to keep them in check, that’s for sure. I’m going to have to try to stay calm because I get pretty emotional before games. Coaching the offensive line, you have to get jacked up but you also have to think and that’s what I tried to explain to the offensive line all these years. It is a game of emotion but a guy moves six inches it changes what they do and so it has to be a controlled emotion and that’s where I have to be. I need to be a lot calmer. I’m not nervous, I mean, what the heck, I’ve been doing this a long time. We’re going to go out and get after it and have some fun and try our darndest to win the game. It’s kind of the way I’ve approached the media. I give you guys an honest answer and I don’t worry about what I’ve said. Everyone seems to think that’s a new idea but that’s all I know to do. I’m not smart enough to tell a lie, I just have to remember what I said. I have brothers and sisters coming who normally wouldn’t leave the outskirts of our little town so it’s going to be pretty neat."
Left tackle is usually reserved for a veteran since it is the most important spot. You have a red-shirt freshman in Wesley [Johnson] over there. Can you talk about his progression to get there and your confidence in him?
"That’s a great question. Wesley [Johnson] has matured beyond his years and I’ve been very fortunate to coach a lot of smart players. I’m not talking about reading, writing, and arithmetic. I’ve got a bunch of them. I’ve had doctors and lawyers and all that stuff, but they couldn’t break down a football play if their life depended on it, but they’re good surgeons and lawyers and all that stuff. But when Wesley [Johnson] walked in here, he had the advantage of living down the street and he came over once to practice and he kind of knew what was going down. He would come and watch us practice several times a week after his season was over and after he made his choice. It really amazed me because he knew, and he knows exactly what to do. You only have to tell him one time so that made it a lot easier for him to play. We could have played him last year, quite frankly. We dressed him out and took him everywhere. That’s how mature he is. Now, physically he’s put on 40 pounds and he’s in the 270 pound range right now. In laments terms, I would describe him as a guy who would fight a chainsaw and he would run it wide open. That’s just how tough he is."
Trying to improve the offense from last year, you have Larry [Smith] coming back with more experience from last year. Do you like the receivers that you have over what you had a year ago?
"We do. They are more experienced, they work hard and they have gotten bigger and stronger. Every one of them has added weight and strength and speed. Last year we had some unusual things happen before the season started. As a player, you prepare for your role and I think going in some of them thought their role wouldn’t be too much. I mean this is just me thinking, but now they know what they’re depending on. We would like to throw the football and they have done a tremendous job. For example, out of 200 something snaps the other day, the ball was on the ground five times. That’s a dropped pass, bad throw, over throw, fumbled ball, so that was encouraging and I think that was the first time that’s happened since we’ve been here. Even one-on-one. They might not have known it but we took account of all the passes caught, balls caught and it was pretty neat. It had gone down since three days before it was 29 so we’re making progress in that regard. We have a couple freshman you’re going to see play on Saturday. I’m thinking possibly 14 out of this class you’ll see on the field so it’s a very good class. They have size strength and maturity and they can handle it."
Is it important to set a tone? As a first-year head coach is it as important to get out of the gates and start your tenure with a win?
"I’ve been asked that several times but I would certainly not put that kind of pressure on these players for my benefit. The way I look at it we want to try and win every game and you can’t win them all unless you win the first one. We’re going to go out there and hopefully be prepared to play as best as we can play. I want to win at everything. Whether I pitch horseshoes with you or shoot marbles, I want to beat you. It’s just my nature."
This game is being called the 'Brain Bowl.' Did you ever think you would be in a game like that?
"Oh, I hope it doesn’t come down to me and Coach Fitzgerald, Lord have mercy. I have an education I just don’t care to use it."
You recently joined the Twitter world. Do you have any good stories?
"I tell you the truth, I don’t know much about it. I just need to thank Michael Hazel and everyone else around here for that. One thing they haven’t done is shown me how to do it on my phone. I don’t get to a computer, they forgot about that. I’m not a computer man. I like to get in the office and meet with people and watch tape and all that stuff so that’s the one thing they didn’t think about so it’s hard for me to get to. When I do I like to peck on it though, it’s fun. I had to look up the word ‘Tweet’ or ‘Twitter’ was and whatever it meant. I’ve had a few players we’ve had over the years that we’ve called ‘Chirp’ or ‘Tweet’ so maybe we started that, I don’t know. We might have invented that term. We have a coach down in South Carolina right now that we called ‘Chirp’ because he tweeted all the time. He was always chirping about something. Could be."
You’re a different personality than Bobby [Johnson] was. How have your players responded to that?
"I think very well. I like to interact with them and they know I mean business but you don’t have to be like that all the time and coach [Bobby] Johnson wasn’t and they were relaxed around him and yet when his eyebrow raised they knew exactly what that meant. I want them to feel like they can come to us, any of us. Me or any of the other coaches and they can and they know that. Some of the freshman, that’s a very difficult thing for them to do and I know it was for me as a freshman from going to see my professors to going and seeing my coach. But the modern generation is a little easier but the problem is they don’t know how to speak because they text each other when they’re five feet away and they e-mail. What’s wrong with getting up and walking down the hall and saying, “hey, how are you doing? This what I would like for you to do.” E-mail and stuff is so impersonal and I don’t know, I like the personal touch myself."
Going into the season you know you have a bye week. What sort of difference will that make and is that two week window a time for some other players to have a chance to come back.?
"It certainly is. We feel like it is going to be a tremendous aid to us because, for example, we have 85 young men on scholarship and 13 of them were in a yellow shirt. We don’t have a great deal of numbers here. A lot of schools have a lot of players who turn down opportunities to go to smaller schools to go play in the SEC and we don’t have that luxury because the expense but we do get a few and the few we do we appreciate them so much. We have awarded several scholarships over the years and hope to do more. They are important to us. To answer your questions, the fact we have an extra week to heal up. The other year we started out five and zero and we got a few people healthy. Then you have 30 days to prepare for a bowl game and you get everybody healthy and you beat a top ranked team in the country and everybody is like, “wow”, but it wasn’t a big secret because we got some people healed up and we got better. We had 30 days of practice. You have teams like Northwestern who has been to four bowl games in the last six years, now don’t hold me to that. But look at the extra practices that they’ve gotten with their young people. When you go to a bowl game every year you get an extra four weeks of practice and you can really improve a young man in that amount of time. They would be getting a lot better. That’s what we hope to do, get a string of bowl games together so our younger guys get an opportunity to get on the field."