Hello and welcome back to the CAA TODAY for the 2010 football season. I’m happy to be back and sharing with you my experiences and thoughts on the games. The head coaches and selected players gathered for the CAA Media Day at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore and shared their thoughts for the upcoming season.
I had spoken to eight of the 10 coaches while I was preparing team profiles for the CSN 2010 yearbook. I took this opportunity to catch up with Delaware head coach K.C. Keeler and James Madison head coach Mickey Matthews.
Below is the Q&A I had with both of them regarding their respective teams.
Interview with Coach Matthews:
TT: At the end of spring practice, what made you feel really good about your team?
MM: Last year (2009) we had more question marks at this time than we have had in many years here at JMU. This year we have fewer question marks than we’ve probably had in five or six years. We have a lot of returning players that played very well in ‘09. The second thing is, we feel very solid about our quarterback. We think Drew Dudzik is a star in the making. He’s the unquestioned leader of our team. He’s a fifth-year senior who I think is going to have an outstanding year. He needs to stay healthy. We feel like Drew can have a banner year and lead us to a strong December run.
TT: At the end of spring practice, what gave you the greatest concern?
MM: We lost a lot of quality wide receivers last year. We have some young guys who are going to have to play at the WR spot. Depth is also a concern. Some guys are going to get hurt. We’ve had some crippling injuries at our place, and that probably cost us a championship two years ago when D.J. got hurt against Richmond, and we didn’t have any depth at the linebacker position. You gotta stay healthy to be good.
TT: Staying on the topic of health, are you going to do anything differently offensively to help Drew stay healthy?
MM: We’re not going to run as much option as we have in the past, we’re going to throw the ball more. Drew’s a better passer than probably Rodney Landers was or Justin last year. We’re going to run some option, but nowhere near as much as we have run it in the past. We’re going to throw the ball more.
TT: Last year after the Maryland game you stated this was the youngest team JMU had ever fielded. Do you still feel that way today?
MM: We have gotten a year older. Last year we had three safeties who hadn’t played a down at that position, and now I think all three of those guys are potential All-Americans. Our entire team is much like our safety position in that everyone is much more experienced. Last year, we were three plays from being 9 – 2. In this league it’s a short walk between 9 – 2, and 6 – 5, and we were a prime example of that. Last year we had the best defense we’ve had in 11 years. We went 6 – 5 because we weren’t very good in two positions, quarterback and runningback.
TT: That leads to my next question, after the Villanova game you weren’t very happy with the blocking of your runningbacks. What improvements have you made in that area?
MM: We experimented with Griff Yancey at safety last year. We moved him back to offense in mid-season and he injured his foot causing him to miss the rest of the season. Griff had a great spring at runningback. Jamal Sullivan played great at Maryland and again at Liberty until he injured his knee. He never regained that form he had in the first week. So I think both of those guys along with Scott Noble have grown up. We’ve got to play better at those two positions if we want to be where we want to be at the end of the season.
TT: Were you able to pick up any transfers during the offseason that could the team?
MM: No, we didn’t take any transfers. JMU is a very hard place to get into academically. We don’t take anything below a “C.” A lot of transfers are not real good students, so we don’t take many transfers. JMU is a hard place to transfer into. Down through the years, we’ve taken a minimal of transfers. We have one kid who transferred from West Point two years ago. The NCAA ruled against him last summer. He was devastated and we didn’t say a lot about it. Spring of ‘09, he was our second-best defensive lineman. He wasn’t eligible to play last year and he’s a brilliant student. He’s close to a 4.0 student. He’s just going to play one year as we’re going to petition the NCAA to let him play. His name is Nick Emmons. You’re going to hear a lot about him because he’s a good football player. He’s a big defensive tackle, 6’4, 270, and he can run. That’s one transfer, but he’s been with us for over a year. We don’t take many.
TT: How do you feel about your offensive and defensive line play coming into this season?
MM: Good, it’s the biggest group we’ve ever had. We have a couple of guys who haven’t played a lot, and they need to play. Theo Sherman is a four-year starter at offensive tackle. I think he’s the best offensive tackle in the league. We’ve got some good players up front; we’ll just have to see. Gerald Brown has played on and off for two years. He’s the other tackle, who is 6’5, 300. We’ll just have to see where he is. This is the first time he may have to line up for 70 plays. We feel good about him. Everyone’s always replacing people, and we have more returning players than we ever had.
TT: How would you describe this team?
MM: Everyone at James Madison took it for granted we were going to be in the playoffs every year. It was a reality check for us last year. It was the first time we haven’t been in a national championship hunt in a long time. It was a dose of humility. Our team had to take it, our fans had to take it. It can happen to anyone. If it can happen to North Carolina basketball, it can happen to JMU football. By the same token, we knew we had some young guys. Losing is not an option at our place. We had a very good winter and spring training season. So I’m anticipating we’re going to have a very good team this year.
Interview with Coach Keeler:
TT: At the end of spring practice, what made you feel really good about your team?
KK: A couple of things. I thought that the offensive line made the big jump that they needed to make from last year to this year. I felt really good about that. Pat looked sharp, the growth of Pat Devlin, which is such an important part of being successful in this league or any league. We felt really good about that. We brought a young man in by the name of Andrew Pearce as a “Gray Shirt.” It was the first time I had to see him in the spring. He really showed that he could compete at the runningback spot for playing time this year. I thought there were a lot of good things on offense. I think we have the best group of receivers in the league. Maybe not the #1 or #2, but 1 – 6 are so deep. Collin Naugle had a very good spring. So the TE position looked solid. I think the concerns are more on the defensive side of the ball. We feel good about our secondary. We have Marcorelle back and we brought in Kyle Hunte from Northeastern, and we have all our starters back at linebacker. We have an All-American and a kid with “all-conference” ability in that group. The D-Line is that concern. Three of our starters sat out this spring. Irvin Titre broke his leg in spring ball, Siddiq Haynes sat out with a shoulder and Chris Morales sat out with a knee. So that’s a little nerve-wracking because we all know how important that front is to having a great defense. I think we have some talent there, but we have problems keeping those guys healthy.
TT: The kid that you picked up from Rutgers, is the plan to play him at D-Line to help you out there?
KK: Absolutely. We recruited him as a defensive lineman out of high school. Matt has a lot of ability, 6’4, 280, and he runs a 4.8 in the 40. We just need to see if he can get back in tune with the defensive side of the ball.
TT: You spoke about the defensive line being a concern; were there any other concerns at the conclusion of spring practice?
KK: The other thing was, for the last couple of years we’ve not done a great job at kicking the ball off. It’s really affected field position for our defense. We have a young man coming in, Sean Baner, who we think has that strong leg, who can put the ball on the two-yard line or in the end zone on every kickoff. That was a concern going into spring, but we feel that worked out with recruiting. The defensive line was the biggest concern. We all worry about injuries. Last year we missed 45 starts due to injuries whereas Villanova didn’t miss a single start until the playoffs. Staying healthy is going to be a big key for us. I like the senior leadership on this team, and I really like the fact that we have a poised senior at quarterback with some experience under his belt.
TT: In addition to Matt from Rutgers were you able to pick up anyone else to help the team out?
KK: We really didn’t take a lot of transfers. We picked up Quincy Barr from Hofstra, Darryl Jones, safety, and Kyle Hunte, linebacker, from Northeastern after those schools dropped their programs. Matt Hardison was the main guy that we took.
TT: How would you describe this team?
KK: I really like the senior leadership. It’s a group that gets along well, great chemistry. They’ve even remarked at how close they are when I’ve had meetings with them. I think there’s a lot of expectation. I thought last year that going into the season that we could be a top 15 team or a top 10 team. Unfortunately with all of the injuries we had, we were still there at the end trying to make a playoff spot. I think this team has the same kind of expectations. I think we should be a very good football team that has a lot of challenges real early in the schedule. We play three of the top 10 teams in the country in our first five games. In our first five games, we’re going to find out a lot about who we are.
TT: Last year it was your plan to have Baker run a lot of your “Wildcat” package. Is there someone else you have designated to run the “Wildcat”?
KK: No. It’s the same thing if you ask Andy (Talley), Matt Szczur was going to run your “Wildcat,” now who’s going to run your “Wildcat” if Szczur’s not there. Matt Szczur is special, Baker is special. With Josh Baker, I think we counted 50 times we’ve used him in short yardage either in spring ball or training camp and he didn’t get a first down one time. I remember one time he bounced it outside and I got after him, and he replied I’ll never do that again, if I can’t get one yard by running over someone, just shoot me. That was Josh. So, we lost our version of Matt Szczur, and when that happened there was no other version to put in there. In this league, we all play with a lot of the same players, but it’s those special ones who separate us, like a Matt Marcorelle, like a Josh Baker, like a Pat Devlin. So when we lost Josh, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do to turn the tide of our offense.
Question by Kevin Tresolini (Wilmington, Del., News-Journal): What’s the status on the appeal for Josh Baker?
KK: Initially Josh was denied, an appeal has been filed, but the NCAA has yet to render a decision. I called Josh and told him he needs to contact the NCAA directly as a student athlete and demand an answer.
TT: Will the offense be different in 2010, than it was I 2009?
KK: Yes, the offense and defense will be both different. Every year there’s tweaking that take place. At the end of every season you do that regardless of whether you won a national championship or if you failed to have a winning record. You evaluate every play, player and coach, and try to determine what worked and what didn’t. Last year we were a defensive back coach shy. I lost my DB coach to UMass, and I didn’t replace him. My defensive coordinator, who was also coaching my DBs was in the box on game day. I really missed having a DB coach on the sidelines. Thus, I went out and hired a DB coach this offseason. I think there are some things offensively that we tweaked that I’m really excited about. A lot has to do with us being able to run the ball better. That’s been my mantra to our offensive staff. You’ll see some revamping of the offense and defense, but that happens every year.
The remainder of my time I spent discussing recruiting with players and coaches. I’ll submit those interviews in the coming weeks.
Feel free to write back with any comments to CAATODAY@YAHOO.COM
It’s my pleasure to be back in the saddle sharing the CAA experience with you all.
This is the CAA TODAY signing off.