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Conversation with RA about spring practice

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Spoke to an under-the-weather Coach Rob Ambrose on Thursday afternoon to discuss all things spring, heroes and goats, etc.

So why did they start so early?

There's a whole lot that goes into this. If you look at us and some of the competition, we're as fast as anybody we play. We're smaller than a couple of teams we played and that doesn't really help. Couple that with that over a decade, I tried to make the spring game an event and it hasn't been that well received. Not by a large portion of people. So, we just decided to focus on practice and getting better. We're improving their health. Had a bunch of guys that were injured and they wouldn't be able to practice anyhow. When we practiced, really wouldn't have mattered. The earlier we got it done, the sooner we're not doing it anymore. It takes its toll on your body. From April 1 to August 1 we can lift, eat, sleep and study without getting beaten up or beating each other up. We still get the work in and get the lessons that need to be taught. I talked to a couple of guys in the business about it and they were confused. I explained what we were doing and why. They thought I was nuts and a genius. I wouldn't be surprised if the 10+ coaches I spoke to, five of them would do this next year. Outside of 1-A football, the day of the big spring football game doesn't exist anymore. If you think about it, the worst day of football that we have is the spring game because we practice before the sun comes up and its cold. Even when we do it later, they never play after 12pm. We get the spring game and it's usually hot as hell. It's good for about a quarter and the rest is disgusting.

On future spring practices being this early
Depends on where we get to. Seriously, the most people we have ever had here was 2,000 and that was when we brought about 150 recruits and their parents. We've tried tents, barbecues and bull roasts. Alumni football games. The Duquesne game was a disgusting mess. Unless you play in a swimming pool, there's no way to simulate a monsoon. But, if you watch the FCS Playoffs, every single game was played in bad weather, cold and nasty. So the earlier we do it, the closer we are to those type of conditions. You either prepare for it or you are surprised by it. We have to learn to play in that. North Dakota State gets to play inside the whole way and then they get to play in Texas when it's over but everybody else doesn't have its luxury.

On injuries 
(Nose guard D2 transfer) Vinny (Shaffer) was hurt doing an agility drill. Was just running the ladder in January. That was very disappointing. (a lot of players were either limited or held out including DeBerry, Shaffer, Caleb Smith, Brandon Shuman, etc.)

On defense
An odd man front. We've been able to put pressure on the quarterback the last few years with the people we had and the schemes we presented but we have not covered very well. So we spent a lot of time in the spring on that. Defensively, we did a much better job on the back end in the spring.

On new coaches
We're still finalizing the tight ends coach. Human resources is a challenging bear to wrestle sometimes. We'll finally have our final staff completed by the end of the week.

Every time you add a new voice, the attention level changes. Different teacher, voice. Kids tend to listen a lot harder. Some new things and kids picked it up well but many things are similar. Little word change here and word change here. The learning curve wasn't that big of a change.

New leaders?
Robert Heyward. He's the guy and proven to be the guy on the field and off. Shane Simpson, Tom Flacco. Bryce Carter is becoming a leader. Aaron Gryzmkowski. When he talks, everybody stops and talks and listen. DeBerry and Yeedee, but both are hurt.

On backup QBs
Uneven. We had some good days, bad days and a whole lot of inconsistent. Tom (Flacco) looks good. It is a fight for the backup spot and it's anybody's game. You would have though Ryan (Stover) would have locked it up but...Tristan (Harris) played well. Tyler (Raines) played well. Jeff Miller played well in spurts but he also got crushed by San Diego in February vs. Mid-Atlantic (weather). That's a big change and one that gets used to. The quarterback-center exchange, we had more of those issues in the last two years combined. Imagine if you make it to the second round and it's 28 degrees, raining and snowing. It's cold and wet. That's the first time we've ever done it. 

On RBs
Shane had a good spring. Kobe had a good spring. AP (Platt) had a great spring and Yeedee (hurt) was on the bench. It's a good problem to have. We've done a better job in how we use them and how much we use them for their skillsets. We spent some time in the spring working on their weaknesses. Losing Yeedee hurts, but getting AP back helps. Always looking (for transfers). Yeedee has the ability to play like it but we're still looking for a bigger back. We had a couple on the line this year. Guaranteed third and two guy, gonna get it every time. We lost out to cost of attendance. We're still working on it.

On FBs
Luke (Hamilton) was the guy. Perk (Bryan Perkins) was the guy. He played center in the spring and did a good job. Much more comfortable at center than fullback. Luke had a great camp and then hurt his foot. Played late in the season a bit. This has been the first time he's been completely healthy since he's been here. He's shown very good strides. He's going to help us on offense and special teams.

Offensive line
On center: Cole (Cheripko) can do it, Cassels, Grzymkoski could be really good at it. They all got practice at it. Cole would be at center if we had to do it today. Whether it's center ur goard, Cole will start next year. Grimmy and Cole played all five positions this spring. It makes you a really good offensive lineman. They are better because of this experience. We'll bring at least two if not three (new players). We have a good idea of who they will be, but can't tell you. We'll go from having a limited amount of bodies in the spring, until when you come back in the fall, you will see the biggest group of offensive linemen we've ever had in all the years you've covered this team. The difficulties we had in the previous 15-20 years have gone away a little bit. We haven't had the kind of success I have wanted continuously, but we have had a great degree of success. That has changed the perception of this place in the recruiting welll. Linemen have always been a challenge. 

Cole could play and start at right tackle and be fine at 290. As long as you can get the job done, there's no cookie-cutter stuff anymore. Kids are just bigger. We built those guys (Pike and Harris). The opportunity to recruit bigger human beings that are farther along the projects are now available and that's pretty cool.

Desire played well. Big and strong. Needs to get quicker. Really smart. He grew faster. He'll likely be in the two-deep but not ready to play starter. Cassels is a three-position backup. John Mullins wasn't getting the most out of it on the D-line. He ran with it. Very strong and very smart. His technique is raw. Has good length. He's never played offense in his life. He showed more potential in 2 1/2 months on offense than on defense in almost three years. Randall Harris was a great player but he was a bad defensive lineman. He was a miss. We had to convince him to move to offense. Randall was fast and quick. Mullins is strong but has some meanness. Not as fast as Harris. Right guard or right tackle. 

Too many unknowns. We have a bunch of guys coming in. Some of these aren't finalized yet. 

On WRs
Noah (Staub) had a good spring. More invested in himself. We have had teams with multiple good receivers. As an entire group, I don't know if we've ever been this deep and talented. (On Daniel Thompson) I give a lot of credit to his HS coaches. He walked in the door knowing some fundamental things. He came in ahead of some guys. The fact that he was greyshirted coming in January and not last fall? He got to come to practice and games a little more in the fall. He got to watch guys. So when they came in, he knew what we were doing here. Pretty impressive. He has all the physical attributes. He is not shy. He doesn't mind contact. Most freshmen don't want to block. He'll throw his body around. He has very good hands. For a guy, who has not been here, he'll make mistakes but he won't repeat them. That's a testament. Academically, he didn't figure it out early in high school. He's killing it right now and I couldn't be happier. 

On Street
He didn't have the best spring. He was hot and cold. Then got sick. He can play. I saw what I needed to see. Had a chest cold for a long period of time. 

On Greaves
I did some research about last fall, he missed about 62% of his practices. He had a little bit of a better spring but not where we expected him to be right now.

Caleb Smith and Hunter
Recovering from shoulder surgery but tests through the roof. Played a little bit last year. Excited to see what Rut (Rutkowski) can do. D'Ago Hunter is going to help in some way. Works at it and knows it. There are freshmen that come and they have talent but can't figure it out. Give his HS coach credit. He is a one-time learner. The dudes are that short never catch the ball outside of 10 yards because it's too hard to hit him. They are never catching the ball over somebody's head so they are a disadvantage the farther away they get from the line of scrimmage. Not as much with him. He catches ball downfield as good as any of the other guys. In the 25+ years I've been doing this, he's the first (small guy) to do it. He doesn't play like the typical short, small receiver.

J'Alen Elliot
Had a great fall. Was killing it on the scout team. Killing us. Started out slow in the spring but then got better. He's in the mix to compete in the fall. 

Logan Justice.
Had shoulder surgery. Lucky if we have him in the fall. 

On tight end
Collin Hirschman had an ok spring. Got dinged. Big upside for him. Jason Epps had a great spring. Top 5 of the entire team.
Epps knowledge as a quarterback, size and athleticism. Can catch the ball and run with it. He's learning how to block. Myles Wright has a big upside. He makes too many mistakes. He's gotten better. Have to line up right. It's one of the hardest positions on the planet. The ability to block and catch is challenging. Chris Clark is the prototype body for tight end. I want a guy that is between 230 and 250, blocks like a stud and catches everything. The guys that we have right now, athletically are getting it. I'd be hard-pressed to bring a wide out in but a tight end? Possibly.

On defensive line
Vinny should be ready for the summer. We are recruiting guys that will not graduate from where they are until the end of spring. We did get Marcus Bowman and he is a big pickup. He is a strong, strong human. Because of where we have been with injuries, everybody played everywhere. They lined up as a pass rush DE, four-I, and nose guard. (One player added to the mix)

DL Jesus Gibbs
Looked good. Sadly, lost a family member in the spring. He's been a great addition to the group. For whatever he is now, he's still just 18. He's a puppy. He's a five-star SEC freshman that they didn't want to lose. He's a 3.7-4.0 GPA. 

On LBs
Chiz had a phenomenal spring. (R-freshman Chizurum Umunakwe). Has a prototypical NFL body. He's ridiculously fast. He's about 220 and not an ounce of fat on him. Chasing the ball, he'll be one of the top three guys running down the ball. He's in the top 10 fastest guys on the team and he's a linebacker. He's not stiff. Have to give a lot of credit to Christian Dixon (5-11, 225-pound junior). He was close to being kicked out of here and cleaned up his act academically and socially. He had a very good spring. Keon Paye had the best spring since he's been here. I told him if that you played like this your entire career, you'd be a first-round draft pick. He was awesome. Keon, Robert and Chiz had great springs and Dixon followed along. DeBerry was out due to shoulder surgery. He's a rush guy and Malik Tyne can do it too. We're going to put the best 11 guys on the field. That is what we have to figure out.

On Safeties
Brought in two jucos in Stanley Davis and S.J. Brown. They've done a good job but they are picking up things as they go. Our expectations were high though for Coby Tippett and we weren't getting results from him. Based on his freshman play (they had huge expectations for him and then struggled as a sophomore). The guy who was Coby Tippett last year? You'll never see him again. Had an awesome spring. Jamal Gay, in retrospect, we should have played him more last year. He has length, speed, and brains. Is not scared. Doesn't make the same mistake twice. Those two have raised what we thought was going to be a huge issue into a plus. Now I feel pretty good (about safeties). If we played a game today, they all would play. Gay has no fear in tackling. 

The whole back end has improved (in terms of communication). Maybe it's the new coaches. Some of are. Maybe it's saying we sucked. We didn't talk. The communication was better this spring than the entire fall. Lyndon Johnson moved to safety coach. Nate Brown is the cornerback coach. 

On corners
I'm pleased. It's not a finished product. There's strong growth. Jirhe Love played just one year of high school football and is raw but is very talented. Troy Vincent is back for his 15th year of college football (lol). It's nice to have him. Brandon Shuman was injured most of the spring. Gillette looks awesome. Robert Javier reminds me of Tye Smith with better hands. I love Tye but he couldn't catch the ball. There are other guys in the mix. That position, you need to be confident but not delusional. You are going to make mistakes. Jirhe doesn't have the experience. He's beginning his third semester of college. This is moving in a very positive direction. There's still lots of places to look for guys that can make us better. We have good guys and we don't have massive holes. On Troy, it's a lack of consistency. That's been his hindrance throughout his career.

On Summer
The analogy is war. I did a bad job last year of where we were coming from. These kids wanted to make the playoffs. They wanted their respect back and they worked really hard. I helped support that. But set the finish line at the playoffs. That's wrong. You have to set the finish line at January. Because of it, we worked very hard and we achieved the goals that we had. But physically we were beat going into the playoffs. We limped in because we worked very hard on our armor in the offseason but once the season started, we didn't. We just slowly wore ourselves away. Now that we've changed the finish line a bit, we now know we have from April 1 to August 1 to build it. We have to build more armor than they did a year ago to go farther. But then there is that along with we continue this in the school year. Not that we built the armor so go and fight. It's we built it and now we have to take care of it so we can keep fighting longer. So to tweak from what we've done a year ago, leadership is good, team is good, they are very together. They work very hard. There is a little bit of immaturity but the leadership is working on that. We just changed the calendar. Last year was a shock to the system about staying for the summer. The mentality has changed. 

Expectations change
We can't sneak up on anyone anymore. No matter how much we were winning, people were thinking we weren't what we were. Villanova didn't see us coming, but they will this time. You can say the same thing about everybody. We are moving back to where we used to be.

On Flacco
He pulled a hamstring but he is fine. Can you play two sports in college? Unless you perfect one of them. He's a great athlete. He can get even better. He's a Doug Flutie/Fran Tarkenton type of guy. Might have an opportunity to play football or baseball at the next level.

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Interesting.  I will say that having an early bye week last year coupled with the first home game not coming to the last day September hurt, along with having to play 4 top 25 teams the last 4 weeks. The bye this year is after Florida and we have 1 more game. But the travel schedule is tough this year.

Respect that he admitted, the goal was the playoffs and that may have had something to do with the "let down" in round one. But man, if you can't get up and prepared for a playoff game, the message isn't being heard. The weather sucked, but it sucked the entire game. The other team made adjustments at halftime, we did not, and they just ran the ball down our throats.  

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Definitely have a lot riding on this year with Flacco, Simpson, receivers, and company. 

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Thanks Mat. Always appreciate these updates. Sounds like RA is going to be brining some FBS transfers after spring semester. 

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I'm a little puzzled by RA's comment about TEs. He only mentions Clark in passing and the says, "I'd be hard-pressed to bring a wide out in but a tight end? Possibly." Does he really think we need help there? Is Clark not the clear starter/star we expect him to be?

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9 minutes ago, TigerFan54 said:

I'm a little puzzled by RA's comment about TEs. He only mentions Clark in passing and the says, "I'd be hard-pressed to bring a wide out in but a tight end? Possibly." Does he really think we need help there? Is Clark not the clear starter/star we expect him to be?

He just meant that we have inexperience there. Look at the guys after Clark. They are all guys who have not played or played sparingly. Clark isn't really an everydown guy and this is his last year. They aren't desperate for a TE if Myles Wright lives up to his potential.

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