Photo By Hillary Ehlen
A sit down with the Bison head coach to unpack his first year on the job.
The Dukes are on your three-yard line with the game on the line. James Hendricks makes a break on their pick play and intercepts the pass, sealing the national championship. What is going on inside your head before, during and after that play?
There was plenty of chatter on the headsets about if we wanted to be in zone or something where we had a visual on the quarterback. Since the ball was at the three, it would have been a long run in our minds. Coach Braun did a great job because he said that if they ran the ball and got tackled, the game was over. It had to be some sort of quick pass. The best thing we had at that time was playing a version of cover zero with the safeties in the middle of the field.
They ran a route concept that we had practiced over and over. You’ll hear some people call it a pick flat and they motioned a wide receiver across. James [Hendricks] knew exactly what they were running because of repetition and preparation. They had ran it earlier in the day and the quarterback overthrew his target. I think this time, the quarterback thought his target would be so wide open that he took a little bit off the football and put more air on it to avoid overthrowing it. James came off and knew exactly where the quarterback was going to go with the football and made a huge play for us.
My feeling was that I never thought we weren’t going to win the game at that time. I thought we were going to have to make a big-time play. Being a defensive coach, I was really excited that we got to seal another national championship with the defense being on the field.
Following the game, in the postgame press conference, James said he left his guy uncovered to go get that interception. As a coach, how does that make you feel?
One of the things we say over and over within this program is production overrides. If you’re making plays or setting yourself up to make plays, that overrides making a mental mistake or not being technically perfect on a snap. We don’t want to coach the playmakers out of these kids and for James to have seen the play so many times in practice, probably against the same coverage and to have seen it earlier in the day, knowing the ball needed to come out quick, what a huge play. Once again, production overrides.
There was this narrative surrounding this team that it could be a year where you lose two, three games. It seemed like this team played with a big chip on their shoulder every week. Did you see that in your guys as the season progressed or was that a mentality you saw from spring ball onward?
I probably tried to perpetuate that mentality a little bit. I knew we had a very inexperienced team as far as game experience goes coming into this season. I knew we had a very talented football team though too. I felt one of the best ways to keep these young kids focused was to continue to challenge them to be better and be at their best. When we had to go on the first big road trip or when we went to Youngstown where we have never played well and got a huge win.
Those little things to continually challenge them and try to elevate their standard was big. A race to maturity is something we talk about a lot in this program too. We needed our young guys not to act like freshmen but to act like seasoned vets. As the year went on, I think you saw us get better because those kids bought into the mission that it was us against everybody a little bit.
How do you self-assess yourself through year one? 16-0 and a national title look great on paper, but how did you progress as a head coach over the course of 16 games and what have you learned the most in the first year?
Some of the clock management things early in the season. There are so many variables and so much stimulus over the course of a game whether it’s the play on the field, the clock, the refs. Having 16 games under your belt, you become more familiar with your surroundings. Being able to communicate with your coaches quickly and give them the details they need too.
Also, trying to eliminate distractions, I don’t want to be a distraction for our coordinators. I want to interject when I see a spot where I can help, but I don’t want to take away from what they’re doing because they both do outstanding jobs. The communication part and how I fit into it was probably the biggest thing I took from this year.
Where do you see this team and this program grow over the course of the offseason leading into spring football?
We have to continue to create depth. I thought we had good decent depth this past year, but I think we can continue to develop it. One of the mainstays with Code Green is playing numerous defensive linemen. Just because graduation happens, doesn’t mean that ends. Who is going to be the sixth and seventh and eighth guy that will play for us next year? We need to able to create depth in the defensive backfield. There are things on special teams that we’ll continue to rep from a technical, fundamental standpoint. How can we get some new young guys out there on special teams too?
We always want to develop leadership as well. Who are going to be the new James Hendricks and Derrek Tuszkas and Ty Brooks and Zack Johnsons and all of our seniors, who will be the new faces that step up? It’s a player-driven organization, we’re only as good as our players are. I know they’re excited to get back in the weight room and start looking ahead to next season. It’s shocking that we’re closing in on spring football already, but I’m excited about it because of the new faces that will be involved. Seeing those guys develop and try to get themselves situated on the depth chart will be exciting.