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Monday, January 9, 2012
By Ron Cherubini
Staff Features Writer

Lincoln Riley reflects and looks ahead

A Freewheeling Exchange with ECU's Offensive Coordinator

By Ron Cherubini
All rights reserved.

View the Bonesville Mobile Alpha version of this page.

Lincoln Riley
(ECU Media Relations File Photo)


Q&A with Brian Mitchell
Pirates get a breather after stiff trials
Q&A with Lincoln Riley
Rompza: Smallest Knight has big night
ECU-UCF Photo Gallery
Audio: Lebo, Paul and Morrow Postgame
Final Conference USA Bowl Scoreboard
UCF, Jordan the Younger get Pirates' attention
Big-play athlete Crump plots path to ECU
Golden Eagles duck East Carolina upset bid
A little hype, good or bad, can go a long way
One-on-One with...
(ECU Media Relations File Photos)

Bonesville features writer Ron Cherubini conducted one-on-one interviews with East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley (left) and Pirate defensive boss Brian Mitchell (right). Links to the wide-ranging Q&A sessions:

Lincoln Riley Q&A
Brian Mitchell Q&A

With the 2011 season fading into the rearview mirror, East Carolina's players are ramping back up for next semester and the hard-pushing of Camp Connors till spring ball starts. Signing Day is just around the corner and football, never far from the forefront of the Pirate Nation's collective consciousness, is edging back into the headlines.

It's as good a time as any to check in with ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to get a sense of what he's thinking as 2012 begins to take shape. A bit of a reflection on last season and a some insight into his perceptions right now about the players he will be working with in the upcoming campaign would seem in order.

The 2011 season might best be considered one that, in absence of wins and a bowl game, provided an abundance of perspective for the young and talented OC. It was a season that, without a doubt, was a disappointing one but it was also a campaign that revealed a number of things offensively, that should bode well for the near future — 2012 — and beyond.

Last season Riley experienced what his colleague, defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell, had to painfully endure in 2010 — an inordinate number of injuries. The attrition left the offense unable to settle into a rhythm and the result was an unusually high number of turnovers. Turnovers were way up… offensive scoring was significantly down... and we the results were apparent.

But in the face of that adversity, there were a lot of positives. Like the emergence of some real stud — and young — wide receivers. Or… depth on the offensive line. Despite the injuries, the offense cut its penalties down drastically. Though its production was down, it wasn’t down by much and the Pirates, young guys aside, were equally devastating in the red zone and improved third down efficiency.

Coach Riley was kind enough to engage in a lengthy one-on-one, off-season interview and was forthcoming with his thoughts on 2011 and on the future:

Bonesville (BV): Hi, Coach. Can you take a moment to reflect on last season? Didn’t quite go as scripted as you found yourself living some of Coach Mitchell’s 2010 nightmare.

Lincoln Riley (LR): Well, it was tough. I mean you’ve put in a lot of work both the coaches and the players and you to the point (at the season’s beginning) where you think you can do some good things. You know, it’s a part of the game… certainly you don’t imagine it will happen to the extent it did with us… we lost 14 players for a total of 41 games… that certainly makes it tough. It is a real challenge because you always expect to have a few (major injuries) but you don’t expect to have quite as many as we had this year. It makes things tough because you end up having to play some younger guys who maybe aren’t ready — maybe they are — but you find out some positives, too.

It didn’t make us better then, but having gone through it, it makes us better now getting those young guys experience. When somebody gets injured, you know, everyone moves up a spot so somebody’s role increases. Guys like Reese Wiggins, and Zico (Pasut) and Josh Clark and I could go on down the list, but there are lot of guys who ended up playing a lot of snaps — Derrick Harris being another one of them — than they were probably going to.

BV: So, from a forward-looking perspective, last year’s misery could be this year’s joy…?

LR: Like I said, it didn’t make us better during the season, but it will benefit us down the road. Consequently, originally heading into this year, we were going to be an offense that maybe didn’t return as much experience (losing Dominique (Davis), Lance (Lewis), (Michael) Bowman, (Joe) Womack). Now all of a sudden we return just about everyone who was playing for us at the end and that is exciting now. Of course it was disappointing then because we didn’t play as well as we expected, but there is always a positive in it for those guys who are returning really hungry and now with a lot more snaps under their belts. It bodes well for the future.

BV: Do you get the sense that the guys who are coming back see it the same way, heading into 2012?

LR: I met with the offensive guys after (the last game) and I told them… I said, ‘The older guys — our seniors this year — had to go through a hard time this year. We had injuries, we didn’t accomplish our goals, so the championships and wins we talk about now are in the future and are your responsibility now.  The seniors had to endure the injuries and the tough things that go with. Now that you guys have all this experience and the tools to win, we better make sure that we work and get everyone doing their part to make sure those seniors can go off having contributed (to championships).’

Those guys are heavily responsible for the success I know we are about to have.

BV: Sticking with the topic of last season, as a coach, you too are a competitor. How do you keep your composure when you have lost so many key players and see some of the mistakes and have some of the opportunities to win go by without the success?

LR: Well… I know that the players look to me and react to what they are seeing from me, so if I go around making a lot of excuses and if I get disappointed and hang my head or show that I am frustrated, then that is the first thing they are going to do. We talk about adversity and that we have to be able to handle it. I thought that we had some phenomenal games where we demonstrated that we can handle adversity extremely well. The Central Florida game being one of the better games we played as a team and going into that without so many pieces. And, there were some times that we didn’t (handle adversity well). But this team… I was proud there wasn’t one play all year offensively where we didn’t play with great effort and that says a lot about our guys with the type of season we went through. The majority of these guys coming back — which is just about all of them — are very prepared for (adversity) if it comes around again. Of course, I was a little disappointed and I talked to one of my mentors who I have trusted for a long-long time and he said, ‘You do the best you can.' I think our players did that each and every week and these players will continue to do that next year and we look forward to having that group back and, hey, we’re ready to go (for spring).

BV: You consistently talk about the turnovers, negative plays, and penalties. Overall, you look at the numbers from last season and you are not all that off on a lot of the positive indicators and not as many negatives as you would have expected given the team’s final record. Share your thoughts on that?

LR: Sure. No question, the turnovers were a killer. You can’t be as good as we want to be and turn the ball over like that. I was really proud of how we cut down the penalties… our guys did a phenomenal job of that (nearly 50% improvement). Obviously, we had that rash of fumbles early. You try to come up with answers… some cases our guys didn’t protect the ball and other cases the other guys made good plays… having so many young guys who are inexperienced touching the ball it is understandable especially in today’s college game where it is like the officials don’t have whistles anymore. The referees know they always can replay it and get it fixed so the whistle’s now are basically non-exist. I think our guys need to adjust to that. We definitely have to do a better job coaching… we did a much better job with fumbles the second half of the season. We dropped some balls and had a few breaks go against us.

Definitely, the turnovers are going to be the number one emphasis going into spring ball. You start to look at who maybe is going to be the next quarterback and it will be the guy who turns it over the least who is going to have a darn good shot it because that is something that we will be placing a premium on and an area in which I am going to do a better job coaching. I have already made the point to the guys who are coming back that we are going to play the guys who don’t turn the ball over because we have a chance to be a really good team and we are not going to give the other team extra possessions. We did that way too much this year and it is something we must improve on.

BV: I mentioned the statistical comparison from 2010 to 2011… that straight look at stats tell you much?

LR: They do tell you things. The numbers do not lie. The numbers tell you that we were still an explosive team that can put up big numbers any time we are on the field. Looking at the numbers, we were pretty good in a lot of the categories but the one that really stands out it is the turnovers and that is really important because it impacts the other important one, which is scoring average which we were down this year. Turnovers really deflated us. Ruffin (McNeill) did a study on those numbers and there were also a lot of positives. We know there were… look, there were a lot of games where we played extremely well offensively and there were a lot of young guys who made a bunch of huge plays. I don’t want to discount those positives… numbers certainly tell the story of what we did right and what we need to work on.

BV: One last question on last season. Can you address the signal stealing topic… give us the final word on that flap?

LR: (Laugh) …some of our guys don’t know our signals so… The fact is that it is always a thing, especially when you run a no huddle offense that you have to use signals. We went through the same (flap) at Texas Tech. There were a few plays — a couple of specific plays — where somebody said they thought they saw a signal even though there is somebody standing there wide open that we didn’t get the ball to for whatever reason. (The signal stealing) is more of an urban legend, a chasing ghosts thing. Nobody has our signals. If the defense can get our signal right before the play, get into the perfect coverage, know where (QB) reads are and anticipate his decision making, then they are so much better than us, it doesn’t matter. We change the signals now and then, too, so I seriously doubt anyone is effectively stealing our signals.

BV: Shifting to the 2012 season, how are you feeling about recruiting this season and the recruits that you guys may or may not bring in come that first week in February?

LR: I feel fantastic about it, Ron… fantastic. We pretty much have all of our commitments already… most of them aren’t public yet, which is probably a good thing for us. There are couple of spots we are looking to fill and have some candidates who will be visiting in the next few weeks. You know that is one thing about this staff, it recruits so well. Of course then also there is Ruffin who is just dynamite in these kids’ houses… just as you would expect he would be. Really, this is probably the first staff I have been on that everybody just recruits hard. We have been grinding on the road since the last day of the season and have never slowed down. You can see it paying off too, as we are getting some phenomenal, phenomenal kids that if we can hang on to the kids we’ve got right now, this can be a special, special, special class. I am excited for signing day to get here and I think it is going to generate a lot of excitement (for the fans).

BV: Can we talk personnel… in detail? Anyone who followed Texas Tech during Mike Leach’s tenure knows that it is possible to have a system where you have a new quarterback each year, but consistent, nation-leading output each season… without drop-off. You find yourself looking for the next standout starter for the 2012 season. Does Rio Johnson head into spring as the top quarterback to beat or do you reset everything?

LR: We will reset it. We need to find out where each of them are now. We told them before we broke (for the holidays) that we expect everyone to work hard and that we expect it to be apparent in spring ball who wants it the most. Like we do for any position, we are going to see where each guy is and narrow it down quickly to the guys who look like they are ready to go. I could see a scenario where all four quarterbacks are ready to go. Rio earned the No. 2 job last year and he did it by coming from behind, really. Honestly Shane (Carden) was probably No. 2 going into (fall) camp. In camp, everybody took a shot at him and Rio made a nice move and narrowly edged him out. You know Brad (Wornick), of course, has game experience, the most of all of them really — I know Rio got some snaps this season, too — but every time Brad has gone into a game, he has played very well and he has that gamer quality to him so you (can't) discount him. Shane had a great, great spring and earned the No. 2 slot going into fall and got a lot of quality snaps (last season) running the scout squad against our defense and was able to lead and compete every day. Another thing I like about Shane is that he brings a real athletic type to (the position) and makes a lot of plays on the run. We’ve got to get Cody Keith healthy. He had an ankle surgery this summer and was a little hobbled and is just getting over the hump right now. Cody showed some really bright things in our Thursday night scrimmages and he can really throw the football. I think he will be a little bit of an X factor in the spring. I am eager to see how he does. Who knows, honestly Ron, right now I could flip a coin and have just as good a chance of telling you who it is going to be than I would if I had to pick them on what they’ve already done. Right now we have to give them all a chance and narrow it down like we always do and it will land us on the right guy… always does.

BV: On Rio… you have mentioned how much you love his football IQ growth and his off-field maturity as compared to where he might have been when you first met him. Do you see that continuing and is that make or break for him?

LR: Yeah… and he better (continue). I have made it very clear to Rio that it is our way or the highway. He needed to change for the better and he did that (last spring). I don’t see him backsliding, I don’t. He is a pretty motivated guy right now and he will have an opportunity to win the job again. He got a little taste of it last year — got a few snaps — and played really well at the end of the Southern Miss game last year in particular. I think he is a good kid who is really motivated right now.

BV: You mentioned not to count out Brad and you mentioned that he is the only QB on the roster who got to have some extended game action with critical snaps in games. If you are not on the depth chart, you can’t help and Brad seemed to fall off of it last season. How do you keep his head in it and keep him ready to play?

LR: Well… you know… it is tough for him… it is having been the No. 2 before. That said, Brad is going to be a senior and it is his last time around, so if he is going to do it, he has to do it now. He will have to earn it but I know he has a lot of confidence in himself and he knows he can play and play well… he has proven that to himself and others. So, I see him as a guy who can make a move. You know… the thing about Brad is that he really is a gamer. He is guy who ups his level of play in games but he has to do it in practice. If he can do that consistently, then he will be right there in it this spring.

LR: You and I have talked extensively about some of the realities of this offensive system when it comes to quarterbacks. You have to sign several more than maybe other programs do and you end up generally having two, three, maybe even four who are very talented and who could start elsewhere. Transfers in this type of system are common. You have a guy like Shane there who is highly talented and now is getting very antsy. How do you manage that in such a highly-competitive scenario that we have here at ECU?

LR: I am very excited about Shane and how he led the Scout team, which is something I think is very underrated because he was getting snaps — a lot of them — against our No. 1 defense. He is learning to lead and growing as a quarterback… which as good as he is, he needed. He is very consistent and has a better grasp of the offense now and has matured a lot. Like I said, he had a heck of a spring last year and he is going to be much more prepared for this spring. Physically, Shane is the best quarterback we have. He is pretty big, muscled up, he is able to take hits, able to run. I really feel good about him and I am really excited to see him in the spring.

BV: Then, of course, there is Cody… (who) came in as a highly-touted prep quarterback. Injury aside, do you feel that he could realistically compete for a spot on the depth chart this spring?

LR: I absolutely do. There is a reason we brought him here. He can throw the ball. He can make plays. He’s a talent now. He can really, really throw the ball and can move. Even when he was injured and in there he showed he can compete. He has really gotten a good grasp of what we are doing here. He is a really competitive kid, too, and is ready to compete… ready to go. He will be that X factor in the race. I am the only one who has really seen him throw and play fully healthy... the other coaches and players haven’t, so I am excited to see how the other guys react when they can see what he can do when he is really healthy.

BV: Let’s talk running backs. Last year, you told me that you were really worried about the position in general not only because of the numbers being thin, but also because none of the backs seemed to have a full skillset for the offense. It looks a little then again… are you equally as worried?

LR: You know… we certainly took a blow with Reggie (Bullock) last year when he went out with that freak injury at Navy. That was a big loss because we were really running the ball well and had gotten into a kind of rhythm with him back there. He is probably the most natural runner we have as far as setting up blocks and rarely got less than what he should have got even if we weren’t blocking well. Obviously Reggie is not the most physical guy or the biggest guy in the world, but he is a good, good runner. That might have been one of the top two most important injuries we had last year and we really did some good things running the ball when he was in there. Obviously having Reggie back healthy and having him work with Coach (Jeff) Connors for an entire year getting his body ready to handle it… I am very excited about him and when he is healthy, I think he is one of the better running backs in the conference. So from the perspective of having a back that can do the job, we have that guy and he has proven. The numbers are still thinner than we would like, but there are some guys I am excited about and we are recruiting guys who can compete for the job immediately.

BV: Anyone in particular you are excited about?

LR: I am really excited about Hunter Furr. I am eager to get him in the mix in there. We certainly wish he was eligible last year. He has shown some real flashes in our Thursday night scrimmages and over on Scout squad. He is bigger than any back we have right now and probably the fastest back of all of them, too. I am eager to see what he can do and have the opportunity to coach him every day to see where he can help us. I think he could play a good bit for us, too.

BV: Torrance Hunt seemed to get better each time out. Do you see him in the mix for the top job as well?

LR: Torrance really grew as a running back last season and really helped us. We probably don’t beat Central Florida without him. Torrance has got to get more consistent catching the ball and running through arm tackles. I am not sure he can get much bigger, but he is really just learning how to be a running back. He is an older guy by age, but still a young running back for us. He has shown some great flashes for us in critical game situations and I think he can be in the mix because he is a hard worker and I am eager to see how good he can be with now a full year at the position.

BV: And, Michael Dobson?

LR: Dobson did some good things last year. He was steady for us in a few games. The thing with Dobson is that he has got to be a little more explosive for us and he can do that… he made some big runs and I think having a great year with Coach Connors to learn how we want him to run.

BV: And how about the redshirt freshman, Chris Hairston?

LR: Chris got hurt very early in the season and I don’t know if we will have him for spring ball, it will be very close. He also showed some flashes of brilliance last year so I hope we can get him in there and he has certainly got a lot of ability. Chris is a super-talented guy who needs to get reps.

BV: Will we see Zico Pasut at running back anymore?

LR: It is possible. Zico really gave us a lift last season. He didn’t have any big runs or a lot of yards, but he brought some power to that position that we were lacking at the end of the season and did some really, really good things for us. So yeah, I think Zico is a guy we will use in a lot of different ways, he’s earned that. Part of it will depend on these (other running backs) and how they develop and part of it will depend on where his roles are elsewhere in the offense. He provides punch in a big body.

BV: Turning our attention to the receiving corps. It seems last season that we learned that we are, indeed, deep in talent, but we also learned that talented guys who are also very young, don’t always make the play. With Lance, Michael, and Joe moving on, how are you feeling about that unit? Will guys move around… inside to out and vice-versa?

LR: It is certainly possible that we might move guys around, we’ll have to see how things shake out in the spring. Last season, Justin Hardy was probably — he and Will Simmons — were probably our best two offensive players. Hardy was just fantastic and so he is guy who is going to be out there somewhere. Everyone saw what Justin Jones can do and then you have Andrew Bodenheimer outside who you can build around. A lot of young guys got a lot of reps and that will help us this year.

BV: Let’s talk about a lot of these guys individually, starting with Justin Hardy. You mentioned what a great season he had. I know when I watched him, I forgot he was just a freshman. Were you surprised by his level of play?

LR: I have said this before and over again, I truly believe if Justin continues to work hard and I am sure he will, that by the time he is done here, Justin Hardy will be one of the all-time best receivers to have played football at East Carolina…he is just that good. So, no, it didn’t surprise me. Of course I was happy for him, but I expected it. Football is very important to Justin and he works hard at it. He is one of the hardest workers we have. He loves to practice, he loves to play, he has a great attitude, he is a great student, and he is just that kid that you always want your son to be like. He’s not perfect, nobody is, but he tries to do the best he can at everything at all times and we get it from him on a consistent basis. That is why — along with a lot of God-given ability — he was able to step up right away as a freshman and play at the level he did. He has a bright, bright future and yes, it is exciting for me because I was a walk-on and I love to see guys who get the opportunity and do with it what Justin has done. Three more years of him on the field is exciting.

BV: How about the other Justin… Jones. Good to get him back on the field there at the end of the season. He didn’t disappoint did he?

LR: I wish we could have had him for a lot more. I mean, he plays two games and has 4 touchdowns… that would have been nice to have. Look, that is what we saw in camp and expected to have this season so his injury was one of those two most important ones, definitely, that I mentioned earlier. We all know that a healthy Justin Jones is a great weapon. Now, we have to continue to find ways to get the ball to him because he is such a special talent. He does have some growing up to do and so we are going to push him on that every day and I think he will do that. What he can do is pretty obvious and he is definitely a priority that we need to work with and keep improving and to make sure he stays on the right track. Obviously when you have a tight end who can move like he can not only in the passing game, but when he is moving he can be a great blocker too. So we really missed him last year and are glad he is back and healthy.

BV: How about the younger Harris… Derrick. Did you expect the consistency and level of play that Dwayne’s little brother brought out there last season?

LR: Yeah, I have to admit it was a little bit of (a surprise). Derrick got an opportunity and made the most of it. He is certainly one of the more improved players that we have seen since we have been here. He’s a dependable guy… you throw it to him, he is going to catch it. He had the big touchdown catch against Memphis that got us started in that game and he’s had some big first down catches for us. He is a good blocker, too. He does everything we ask him to do so I wasn’t that surprised but I was happy to see him do what he did with his chances. I am glad he transferred here and now will have a chance to help us more next year.

BV: You were excited about Danny Webster from the jump last spring and the true freshman finished the year — up to his injury — getting better each time out. First, how is the injury and then please talk about Danny and where he can go in this offense?

LR: Yeah… Danny will be back and all healed up. He has some work to do on it, but he has time to heal. I would expect him to be ready to go (for spring). I think he did get better as the season went on. You know he turned the ball over too many times early in the season, but then he really did sort of shed the true freshman (skin) and was playing well (when he was injured). Danny is a coachable kid who takes what we tell him and does it well. He is fearless which you have to be to play at that level and he made a lot of big plays for us. He is another one who I am excited to see have a full year with Jeff (Connors) to get bigger, stronger, faster and he is a receiver we are really excited to have for three more years.

BV: Sticking with young receivers… where the hell did Reese Wiggins — the one exploding for long touchdowns — come from? He seemed to just sort of explode out there.

LR: Reese… again… kind of like Derrick… Reese got a few opportunities and really made the most of them. We always knew Reese had that ability but it was about being consistent and he really, he was very consistent there at the end of the season when he was getting his opportunities. He did a great job and showed he can be explosive and a force to be reckoned with. He has a great shot to take one of the jobs this year. He has to keep improving and he gained a lot of confidence and is an example of the guy who had success, gained confidence and then it translated to harder work. Now we know we don’t have to coach up his confidence, he is ready to get out there again.

BV: Can he be Lance Lewis good?

LR: Really, they are really different types of receivers. Lance was bigger and a little more of a jump ball guy who goes up (and) gets it. Reese is much more explosive with the football in his hands. You know he had two or three touchdowns this year longer than any that Lance had while he was here. Reese can go… he is a better runner with the football. I am glad we have him for several more years and we can coach him up. But I think he could have (a Lance Lewis) type of impact on our offense if he keeps progressing.

BV: It seemed this season that Andrew Bodenheimer’s name didn’t seem to be called that much. Is he expected to re-establish himself this year.

LR: Now Bodie… he had a pretty darn good year this year. He caught a bunch of balls and probably played more snaps than anyone last season. I think he is a guy we are going to build it around next year. He is without question one of the very best blocking receivers I have ever been around or coached. He is a tenacious player and the kind of worker and person we want in our program. He leads that outside receiver group and will be one of those bell cows for us for leadership and playmaking. I love that guy… I love that kid and I think he is very motivated for his senior season, which is a good thing for our team.

BV: What is up with Dayon Arrington? He sort of vanished this season.

LR: Dayon definitely started out slow last year and then came on at the end of the season and did some really good things. We are deep enough that you just can afford to start slow. Now, Dayon has ability and has playing experience from 2010 and I think he can make plays for us, but he has to start fast for us this spring and he knows that. He is another senior for us and another guy who expects to be a part of what we are doing. It is going to be competitive but he certainly has the ability to go out there and play like he did in 2010 and earn a position.

BV: And Mike Price?

LR: For Mike, a little bit of it was that he had some injuries. Mike needs to increase his durability, no question. We were really excited about Mike going into the season, but it just never really happened for him. It is important for Mike to mature, physically… he has to get himself physically where his body can take the toll. We are working with him to get there. There simply are not many guys out there more explosive than Mike when he is on his game.

BV: How about some of the other young guys, like Donte Sumpter, Antonio Cannon, Torian Richardson?

LR: Cannon and Sumpter can both make some noise, no question, this season. Cannon had a really, really good year in Thursday night practices. He has to get better physically… get acclimated more to the weight room. His off-season will be big for him. But, he is a playmaker… he is. (He is) the one that reminds me most of Lance. He isn’t a big, big guy, but he finds a way to come down with the ball. Sumpter did some good things too, running around catching the ball. He is a smart kid and pretty dependable too and is deceptively fast and good with the ball in his hands.

BV: For all of the airing out of the football and the stars that creates on the field, I know that your favorite players on the offense are the offensive linemen, so I saved that for last. Last season, it looked like the starting five that opened the season were pretty good… and then the injuries mounted. We you were pleased by what you saw from those guys before the all the injuries?

LR: We were hit pretty hard right away with injuries. In fact, there was only one time all season where we were able to start the same five guys in back-to-back games. (That) is tough is because the offensive line is the ultimate in continuity… it’s not like a receiver where you can just plug another guy in there — when an offensive line guy, especially when some of these guys were having to play positions they never played before, goes down, is not that easy to plug-in without affecting the others. I am excited about that group. We played pretty well in the run game all year and at times we were good enough at running back to take advantage of it and at times we were not. I felt we were solid there, but we have to have a running back who can take advantage of it. We were extremely physical, much more so than the year before so I am excited about that. And so we have to build continuity and depth, particularly at the tackle position. Of course, we have to find a way to keep these guys healthy. Some of it is luck and some of it is practicing the right way and preparing for that. Every time we got some continuity or rhythm it seemed like we would get an injury. You know those guys are really coming together. You are basically talking about a bunch of sophomores who never played this much before in their lives but are a really hungry, confident, and motivated group heading into the spring. We need to find a left tackle, but really we return everyone else… some of our young guys from our first recruiting class are going to be right in the mix, too, especially Chaz Lowery and Isaac Harris — those two look like they are going to be ready sooner than later.

BV: Let’s get into the weeds on these guys, starting with Jordan Davis. You moved him inside to guard and seemed to be a pretty darn good one. Does Jordan stay there now?

LR: We would like to keep him there since it is his best position, which we have known all along. He was our best option at left tackle last year until Steven Baker came along and then we were able to move Jordan to his natural position at guard. He was extremely physical and confident in there and I think after a year there, he will be one of the most physical and gifted guards in the conference. He is a very good balance to Will (Simmons) on the side.

BV: Other side, with Will, he really appeared to be that beast you were so excited about last spring. Did he exceed your expectations?

LR: We expected him to be good, but he did surprise, too. He was incredibly consistent. He played really only one poor game all year. For a sophomore and for the one guy who played every game, that consistency is really very good. Will always does a great job… always working… I am so proud of him and how he played last season. He might be our most consistent player on the entire offense. Plus he is growing into a great emotional leader for the group. I wish I had five more just like him… really… he can become that leader in his last couple of years and he is where it starts up front for us.

BV: You know center was just a mess for you guys last season and you knew it going in and you end up there sort of finding Josh Clark via attrition. Is he a guy that could really lock in there for you guys?

LR: Oh yeah… Josh was just great. Look at the Marshall game… we ran off 14 points on two-straight possessions, Josh goes down, and we got stuck. Not saying it was Doug’s fault… but Josh is (a) really good center. What he did on short notice… I’ve personally never seen a guy do anything like it. He communicated and executed right away at a high level.

BV: Sticking with Josh… did you guys not see that in practice before the attrition at center with the injuries?

LR: Well… we weren’t really looking at the time. He was playing tackle for us and we had some centers and we didn’t feel like we were going to need him there. We just really didn’t think we needed him inside and he was in the mix at tackle (for a job). With Doug and Hugh, we didn’t think we could get him any work there either. All (of a) sudden, Doug is down, Hugh is down, we scramble and here we are. It was unforeseen… absolutely Josh stays at center. He was just fantastic in those last two games. He will be a senior… a coach’s kid… has played the position. Looking forward to going into the spring with a center like him ready to go.

BV: Looking at the depth at center… is Mack Helms still in the mix? Can walk-on C.J. Struyk be an every-play center at this level?

LR: Mack has a nagging injury. We will see if he heals up, which is the best way to say it right now. I really do think C.J. can be a center here. He’s a kid who came in and got snaps early in camp last year and showed that he can play the position. He is one of the strongest guys we got, I can tell you that, and a real good snapper, so I see no reason why C.J. can’t help us at that position.

BV: Can Taylor Hudson earn a job in the interior this season?

LR: Taylor is another guy we worked some at center and he can play guard — either side —  as well. He has a lot of ability… but it is time for him to put it all together now. He can play all three interior positions which makes him very valuable for us… he needs to be ready because he can really help us this year.

BV: Let’s talk about the position you are a little more concerned with, the tackle spots. What happened in there last season with Grant Harner? Was he injured or did he get beat out there at the end?

LR: Grant got hurt pretty bad last season and toughed it out and played through it, especially in the Southern Miss game. He didn’t play well against Houston last year but responded well after that, but then he got hurt and really couldn’t play at the level he expects to, which set us and him back. The only way to say it is that Grant took it for the team — he is so unselfish. Grant will be healthy and motivated to be a starter this spring and we need him that way, really.

BV: You mentioned earlier that we need to find a left tackle. Adhem Elsawi seemed to be pretty solid there. Does Elsawi stay at left tackle?

LR: Elsawi can play both tackle spots so he is very valuable to us… I think he will stay at left tackle. Losing him in the Houston game really hurt because he was playing so well. He brings a lot of size and strength to that position and I think he will be at one of the tackle spots this year.

BV: You already mentioned that both Chaz Lowery and Isaac Harris are way ahead of schedule developmentally and you expect them both to compete this spring for playing time next season. Any other guys you think deserve mention here?

LR: I think Drew Gentry will be a factor this time around. He played well against UTEP last season and showed us he has the ability but he has to get stronger in the weight room to contend. He is a good kid, a smart kid, motivated and with good athleticism… his off-season in the weight room will determine whether he challenges in spring.

BV: One last question Lincoln… off-topic. Your old boss, Mike Leach, is back in business now out there in Washington State. A few of your coach-mates have gone out there with him. Did you get a call from Coach Leach?

LR: Yeah, I have spoken to him. You know, I am really happy for him and glad he is back (coaching). I think he can do a great job out there rebuilding that program.

BV: Lincoln… I think you know what I meant. Did he call you?

LR: Yeah… I knew what you meant. I was just trying to avoid the question. I love it here and I am not going anywhere. I am looking forward very much to this spring and getting going again.

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01/12/2012 04:05 AM


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