"This is about that point they're getting ready to make that turn away from training camp practice and get more into game mode and get ready to kick this season off. Which I know our guys are very, very excited to do. Especially with such a big first game that we have to start the year off, on the road in Houston against a team I think a lot of people picked to win their conference. I know they're a top-15 team nationally. So it's a great challenge for us, it's a great honor to be asked to play in one of those games to start the season off. I think that's pretty special, I think it shows where our program has come over the last couple of years that we get the invite to play in a Kickoff Game against a top national team, that people think so much about to put us in that game."
"So we're excited about those things and I know we're excited to get the season kicked off and underway, let our guys transition from the hard work of practice into enjoying the rewards of game day."
What are your expectations of Geoff Collins' defense? "Defensively for us, one thing I always look for and I base it off, is we have eleven guys running to the football every single play. And in running to the football they're doing it with great effort, they get there with mean intentions, and they're really excited as a unit about being at the football. And they play with that passion, they play with that energy, they play with excitement. I guess as Geoff would put it they play with that ‘swag' out there on the field. That's what you look for in a defense."
"Schematically there's no perfect defense, no one perfect scheme out there. It's that your guys believe in what you're doing and we're putting our players in a position to be successful. But those players go out and play hard and execute at a very high level. And that's really what my expectations for our defense are."
What gives you confidence this defense can approach the turnover ratio of last year? "One of the things you do when you play an attacking style defense, when you're coming after people and you have guys running to the ball good things happen to you. When you look at turnovers, how turnovers are created, it's not always the first guy getting the ball that creates the turnover. The first guy might knock the ball out, might tip the ball up; it's the second guy that gets the turnover a lot of times. That's an important deal for us. I think turnover ratio is one of the huge statistics we look at for us, whether or not we win games. And it's been pretty statistically accurate I think during my career here, the turnover ratio."
"But that's a three-phases ratio right there. That's offense, defense, and kicking game involved in that turnover ratio. So I think defensively they have to do a great job of turning it over; offensively we always have to do a great job of protecting it; and kicking game we have to give ourselves that advantage of creating a turnover in the kicking game and being sound so we don't have what would result in what would be a turnover such as a blocked punt or a silly penalties that kind can result as almost turnover effects for us on the field."
Why has LaDarius Perkins been so good for you? "I think Perk has really bought into our program. I guess since I've been here with the exception of one (year) we've had a 1,000-yard rusher every season that I've been the head coach. Except for the year Vick (Ballard) had 970-something and missed two or three games."
"I think Perk is a guy who has really bought into our program. He got to come in, redshirted when he first got here even though he was a high profile player he came in and redshirted behind some pretty good running backs with Anthony Dixon who is I think the school's all-time leading rusher, he got to learn how he did it. He got to watch Vick Ballard, another NFL player, and he was sharing reps with him. Then when it was his turn to step into the spotlight I know there were a lot of questions about is he big enough to be an every-down back, can he handle it? He's just shown that he has in his development, his growth throughout of his career of a guy who redshirted into a role player, into a starter, into a guy everybody counts on to be one of our star players this season. That's the development of a player."
Did he have to change your mind about him, from a guy put on the edge that he could handle it? "No, I got to see him in practice every day. I got to see him as a scout team tailback as a true freshman. That was never a deal. In perception and reality creep in, you look at a guy and say OK, the perception is this. But the reality of a guy like Perkins is he weighs 190 pounds, about there, so he has size. He's not a tall skinny 190 pounds, he's a short, thick 190 pounds. So he had the size to do that. He works at pass protection, works at all the little things the right way. So I've never really had doubt he could be that every-down player for us."
Meeting with players at corner do the names of Banks and Slay get brought up, or do you want them to be their own guy? "Yeah, they have to be their own individual. They get brought up into this a standard has been set for us. The standard of play at this position is for you to go be a NFL player. The standard of play on the defensive line is Pernell McPhee, is Fletcher Cox. The standard of play at corner is John Banks and Darius Slay. The standard of play at running back is Vick Ballard and Anthony Dixon. So I think the standard gets brought up. But guys have to be their own players. We can't replace Banks or Slay, because the guys have are different body types, different skill sets, different experience levels. So we can't say OK you get to be the next guy at that position; you have to become the best you can be but this is where the standard of play and what our expectations for you are at that position group. That is where it gets brought up more than hey we need you to step into those shoes and replace that player. We need you to be the best player you can be and this is the standard we have at that position."
Do fans confuse that by saying Jamerson Love be the next John Banks? "I think fans on the outside always say that. I mean that's always part of it. Just at every position, OK who is going to be the next whoever? And inside you don't have that. That guy was special because he had his own set of tools. The next guy to come along can have a little different set of tools; it's not going to make him any less special. Anthony Dixon, you go back to running backs, who is going to be the next Anthony Dixon? Well, Vick Balard came in and was pretty good in his own right even though he was a different player. He left and who is going to be the next, Perkins comes in and he's a different player but also very successful. I think the standard is set what we expect out of the position and then each player becomes the best he can be to accomplish that."
How much is Kendrick Market improved? "Kendrick is a guy that did a little bit of everything for his high school team, played a bunch of different positions. He's kind of settled in at safety for us. Again as a player development, here's a guy that was involved in special teams last year. This year we expect him to be kind of a special teams star and a role player on defense for us. And then he is going to step into a starting position on defense."
"That is that player development of him. It's a guy that believes in the program, does everything the right way on and off the field and you see this tremendous growth of this young man developing and in every aspect of his life. I think football carries over to life, Kendrick is a guy you succeed off the field, you see him succeed on the field in that he understands hard work is going to make him successful. And that's what we've been able to see."
What percentage do you feel Tyler Russell will be under-center, and what went into this change? "I think there's a lot of things, there's a lot different reasons that go into it. One, when you look at playbook and what you're going to use each year; you use about 70% of your playbook and how it adapts to each player that you have. Some of the things we do are better from under-center than from the shotgun. So if we're going to incorporate that part of our offense into it with a Tyler Russell we want to get under-center with him because the play is a little better from under-center maybe than from the gun."
"And the overall percentage for the season, there's never a number to me I want to be this much under-center, or this much in the gun. It's where we execute things. We run a lot of the same plays from under-center that we do in the shotgun. One of the things we go back and evaluate, are we executing it better under-center, or are we executing it better in the shotgun, and why? And making sure it's not oh well, three times a guy went the wrong way, that's not a good evaluation. When you look at the play executed well how is the timing of it, how is whether it is run or play action the fakes off of it, the complements off it, are we getting better results from under-center than from the gun. And we kind of go from there."
Talk about adding Sleepy Robinson to the staff? "You look around the league and I think we may have the smallest staff in the league overall as far as personnel-wise. But it was an opportunity for us in recruiting, we wanted to add a recruiting position. The great thing to me, when you look at high school coaches coming into that position, guys that can have a keen eye and have been around high school football a long time so you can look at a player where he is now and where he is going to be down the road four or five years from now which is the key for us."
"When you go evaluate a prospect for us these are things we feel are really good traits to have in a young man. And these are things that in a kid from Mississippi that four years down the road… John Banks over at East Webster High School, we can see the finished product four years down the road. He might not be the diamond right now but you can see that he is going to become one in the future."
"And obviously to have that in a guy that knows the state of Mississippi really well, that has been around, has a lot of ties, really really cares about this University and understands this University and the traditions and the pride here at the school helps a lot. When you look at coaches, we come in and I mean I've been invested here four and a half almost going on five years, completely invested in this University. Where in other guys we have in our building with Rockey Felker and Sleepy these are guys that have been invested in this University now for 20 and 30 years. You know, just making sure we have that in people who know and care so deeply about the University over the long haul its great having them on board."
What do you expect of a Nickoe Whitley and a Cedric Jiles this year? Nickoe is a fifth year senior, I mean this is it for him. You expect big things He's a guy that to me has been a very solid player throughout his career. But now in his final year you expect a buy to even take that next step from just being a starter to being a star or a all-conference type of player. In the complete game for him, I know he's a big hitter, he sets a tone in the secondary back there. But just the complete game in coverage, in playmaking, all of those things is huge."
"Cedric is a guy who was able to redshirt last year and comes back this year and now is the opportunity. We've got to stay healthy. The growth, the development, get on the field and become the player we expect him to be. When you look at the young guys he's going to have an opportunity with the guys leaving to get roles in the secondary. But I think a lot of that is going to come to start on special teams, find out and understand the speed of the game, and develop into the player we think he can become."
What has the addition of Deshea Townsend meant? "Just being from Mississippi, he's a guy that's from the state, grew up here and went on to have tremendous success at the next level. Most of these kids, that is their dream. They'd love to go win the Super Bowl, they want to have long NFL careers, and here's a guy that has done that. Came out of Mississippi, from South Panola High School, goes on and gets a college degree playing in the SEC. He has the opportunity to move on to the NFL, has a stellar NFL career, wants to get into coaching because he loves the game of football. He's passionate about it, you see that on the field and in his coaching style."
"And when he talks, how great he is at relating to these young kids. These are kids that are looking--make Deshea feel bad, they're saying hey 20 years ago I was in his shoes. Deshea it may be 15? Or 20 if they're a freshman, 15 if they're a senior! But they can look and say hey, he was able to do it, he's explaining how he was able to do it to them. And beyond just his coaching on the field and his ability as far as explaining to them life skills and how if you can follow your dreams. I mean, to embarrass him, he doesn't run a 4.3 and he isn't 6-2, all of that stuff. He worked hard, did things the right way and took care of his business, was able to have a successful career. And that's a great message to pass on to young men in the state of Mississippi."
Do you feel better about offensive line depth, is that still an issue? "Well no, you're always nervous. You want to have the ability to have eight. You want three tackles, three guards, two centers and if you have that you feel comfortable. But you want to have eight every single week. So as long as you stay healthy I feel great about the depth! Because you've got the eight guys ready to go."
"It's when injuries start to strike that who is the ninth, who is going from ninth to eighth? If we have two injuries who is going from tenth to eighth? That is always a trick deal for you. I feel pretty comfortable with eight right now, maybe even nine which is a good thing to have. You've got the one in the bullpen possibly, we might get an inning or two out of Tobias (Smith), right? You know, bring him in and get an inning. I make sure we check his weight every once in a while, he's trying to slim up and it's make sure you keep your weight on in case we need an inning out of you. But that is where you want to be comfortable. I would obviously love to be ten, twelve deep. But as long as you're always feeling comfortable about the eight guys ready to go play in a game you're going to be OK."
You've talked about Russell taking more charge of the offense this year, what is the difference? "I think it's different because last year he was going in the season as the starter for the first time. I mean I know he started games before but he was ‘the guy' starting going into the season. Well there's a lot that comes with just that responsibility. That's old for him now. So being the starter, not a big deal. Getting ready for the first game, not a big deal. He's played a first game in a season before. He's had some great games, he's had some bad games, all of that stuff."
"So I think when you're dealing with him now it is that you're trying to get tot that graduate level of being a quarterback. Of running the show every snap of the game, you know what I mean. Of what you demeanor at the line of scrimmage is telling the defense on every play. Can just your actions and just your demeanor at the line of scrimmage can you tip or disguise with doing that, compared to just being hey I'm a starting quarterback, I know what to do, I'm out here executing, I know the offense. I'm running the whole show. And he's the one keeping the tempo of the offense going. He's the one that when it is going accelerate things, but struggling let's slow down and make sure you're coaching this guy and keep our pace where you want it to be, that type of deal."
Can you talk about depth at the linebacker position? "It's something that we've wanted to grow. You look at some of the guys, when you feel two-deep kind of at least across the board that is very, very comforting. Having some depth at linebacker to me certainly helps in special teams for us. I look at it with those guys, that is where there is a lot of competition."
"You know everybody is looking for reps. There's only so many reps you can have in the course of the game. Even when you add special teams reps in there as a defensive player if you're getting 30 to 40 reps a game that is probably a lot for a defensive player. If I'm I getting my 25 reps on defense, I'm getting ten reps on special teams, I'd better make sure I'm competing to get those ten. And that depth adds to the competition that is out there and competition obviously leads to increased performance or better performance. That is what has been huge at that position, I think there is a lot of competition at that position to get snaps."
Is Kaleb Eulls getting close to the full package? "Yeah, Kaleb is a guy that works hard. One of the things, he's a guy that really cares, works hard on his fundamentals, works hard at being a better football player all the time. He knows his weaknesses and he works at his weaknesses constantly trying to get better. He does what he is supposed to do, where he is supposed to, in the classroom. As character, as a young man. His background story, in the news media that's so old now that we actually had him speak to the team and showed the video of him saving everybody on that bus's life possibly. Because a lot of kids never knew that even happened. But you see the character of a young man and the person he is. I'm always proud of everything he does in his life and it shows. He's going to be a success in his life during his football career and after his football career he'll continue to be successful."
What impact with freshmen have on this team? "We're still waiting and seeing. Right now they are surviving. Every one of the freshmen kind of look and say Coach, when you told me playing for you was going to be one of the hardest things I do in my life—because we set a pretty high standard here—they say I kind of listened but I didn't know that I totally believed it. Now I 100% believe in what you say of how hard this is."
"But that is the transition from high school to college game and what goes on for them. I mean, the investment. And the exhaustion kind of sets in for those guys right now. So they're trying to survive. When we get out of training camp, we have a big scrimmage on Thursday night; after that it really gets more into game modes. From that point on they're going to have a chance to kind of recover and make their statements to whether or not they are prepared and they are ready to play game one. And if not…One thing we're going to do is if guys are ready and can help our team well we're going to put them out there and be successful. If they're not ready we're not going to put them out on the field until we feel that they are ready to make a significant impact. Especially as freshmen, I love playing true freshmen but I also know for them we have to be careful that they gain the confidence they need to build their careers the way they need to."
How do you keep freshmen's heads on straight and not distracted by stories? "Like I said, they're holding on right now, you know what I mean? Right now they're up at 5:00am, 5:30 this morning. They come, they have practice, they have meetings, they have walk-through. They're trying to figure out technique, drills, they're doing it out there in 100 degree heat. Then they're being rushed inside to eat, hydrate, get in the cold tank, get treatment, get to meetings…and why aren't you in the gap you're supposed to be in? I'll be honest I don't think they have time to think about anything else at this point!"
"So the distraction is just trying to survive for them. But overall, generally speaking, with distractions one of the things that comes with all freshmen for us is that sense—and this is where it hits when they get out there on the field—all these guys signed in the SEC in February, right? On that day they are like national celebrities, they are the front-cover of every news story out there. And now they're just trying to breathe at practice. They're just trying to figure out whether the ball is blown or stuffed out there, they don't even know that!"
"So I think that distraction does become huge. That transition from recruiting that I am the superstar of everything to I'm fighting for playing time, hey I may even redshirt this season. And if I do redshirt this season how's that affect my career? When you look at guys, it doesn't. It's a great opportunity for you to learn, develop, become an even better football player. So I think those are the big distractions that really hit the freshmen. That reality of I was a superstar to I'm competing against 22-year-old that were superstars five years ago too; that are now a lot older, bigger, stronger, and faster. That adjustment is one that we're always very conscious of with those freshmen, because it is a transition for them. They call home and mom and dad and uncle and grandma are calling and ‘out here at our little high school you were the superstar, you were like the greatest player we've had in 15 years here. We have a lot of those guys on our team. It's that adjustment within their mindset that is always hard for freshmen."