RUSTON, La. - Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz and select assistant coaches and student-athletes met with the media Monday to preview this week's season-opening game at No. 4/3 Oklahoma.
Head coach Skip Holtz
"There have been five stages, the first being the winter workouts and then what we are doing in January, February and March. Then you get into phase two, which is spring practice. Phase three is summer, phase four is fall camp and then phase five is the season. That is why it always intrigues me when people say the season is finally here. The season started eight months ago with this football team as we have been working up to this point."
"We are really excited about the opportunity we have in front of us. A lot has been talked about the schedule. We are really excited about the challenge we have, especially in the first three games and the first game right off the bat. I am also excited to see so many new faces on the field. I am excited to see how they are going to respond, how they will perform, how this team will come together and what the personality the 2014 team is going to take on. There is a lot of excitement right now and a lot of unknowns. I think a lot of people are excited to see the 2014 Bulldogs in play. I believe we are only five days and five hours away from it at this point, so it is getting closer and closer."
"On the offensive side, with what we went through with the running back position, we talked a little bit about (Jarred) Craft and (Tywun) Walters if you wait on an injury, but we would rather go ahead and make that decision now that we are going to play both of them. They will all be in the mix when we go to Oklahoma and they will all be eligible to play maybe special teams, etc., but they will definitely be there. The other two are wide receivers in Marlon Watts and Marcus Gaines, both who have had very good camps and kind of earned their way into the two-deep with some of the things they have done. We have talked with this football team that you do not inherit a position, you earn it and everything is going to be earned on the field. Those guys have really stepped up and done a good job of learning the play book and are handling themselves in a very mature way. Those are the six guys we are looking at playing as true freshmen."
"There are also two more young men who could earn scholarships this year. This would make eight total walk-ons we would have put on scholarship since the end of last season just to try and get back up to our NCAA limit numbers of 85. Last year we played at 79 because of the 25 initial rule. Adding these two more would get us up to that number, which is what we are trying to get to so we have a full slate of scholarship student-athletes here. Tyler Porter, a defensive lineman who has really had a good camp. He has really come along and performed well in the last couple of weeks. The other one is Aaron Brown, who has really done a nice job. He got most of the reps at spring practice with Houston Bates not being here and with (Vontarrius) Dora not getting a lot of those reps. With some of the injuries we had, he took an awful lot of reps then and has done a nice job. Those are a couple guys going on scholarship for the beginning of school, which will be next Thursday."
"We did have one departure. Stephen Gibson made the decision to leave the program. He wants an opportunity to play, which is very hard for us to give him right now with the upperclassmen that we have and the job some of these underclassmen are doing. He has seeked a transfer. I am not sure at this point where he is going to attend. That is kind of some of the housekeeping we have internally."
"You get into Oklahoma and that is what this week is all about. You keep looking at No. 3 in one poll, No. 4 in another poll. You have the opportunity to put the Sugar Bowl game on with them defeating Alabama and what they did in that bowl game and how well they played. I think their ranking is very much merited, especially when you watch them in that game. This is a very talented football team. I have great respect for Coach Stoops and the job he has done. I believe he has been there about 15 years. Year in and year out, he has won. I know their strength coach very well. We were together when we were at Notre Dame. He does a fantastic job. They have a great tradition, a great program, great coaches and great players. It is going to be a great challenge for us. When you sit down and look at what we are going to be facing on both sides of the ball, sometimes you have one team that will be better on offense than defense, and vice versa. The reason this team is receiving so much attention is because it is a very balanced team and a very heavy experienced team with a lot of guys coming back. That is one of the reasons I think they are receiving attention they are with the talent they have."
"It starts with the quarterback, Trevor Knight. I know he was up and down last year with a couple of injuries. You look at the way he progressed through the season and the way he played in that bowl game. He was incredibly efficient and I think he does a really nice job. They have an offensive line that is huge. They return four of five starters from a year ago. They return from last year their tight end, (Blake) Bell. Their tight ends and running backs are big and physical and strong. What they can do with a big offensive line, tight ends and running backs is they can pound you and wear you out up front and establish a running game. When they have an opportunity when you try and load the box to stop the running game, I think (Sterling) Shepard is a weapon when you look at what he does and how explosive he is. They lost a lot of receivers from a year ago, but they return one of their best in Shepard. I think we will see a lot of him, not only as a receiver, but as a punt returner as well. He is an incredibly talented wide receiver that will give us fits. It is very hard to simulate his speed and athleticism on the outside. It will be a great challenge for our back end, our defensive back end."
"You go over and look at them on the defensive side of the ball where eight of the 11 return. Eight starters return on that side of the ball. They have 11 guys that have started games. Again, they are very big up front. They have a nose guard that is 6-6, 340 pounds. It is very hard to simulate that length and size and trying to get push in the middle and movement. Their linebackers are very active. I look at (Charles) Tapper and (Eric) Striker. I watched Striker play in high school down in Tampa. He is very active and very athletic. In that bowl game, he had three sacks and seven tackles. He was a very active player for them on their front seven. I think they have one of the best front seven's in the country when you look at their size and athleticism and some of the things they can do. You look at (Zack) Sanchez on the back end. He was a freshman All-American corner. They are a very talented defensive football team."
"In their kicking game, they have two seniors. One is one the Lou Groza watch list. He was 24-27 in field goals a year ago. He only missed three. He is very active and very strong-legged. Their punter averages 41.7 yards per punt. It is a very talented football team. It is hard to find weaknesses. I think it will be a great challenge for us. We are going to learn a lot about our team having the opportunity to go on the road and play a team with Oklahoma's tradition and talent. With the type of football they are playing right now because we are not getting a down Oklahoma team. We are getting them at their best. I think it will be a great challenge for us and one that we are really excited about and really looking forward to."
On who the quarterback will be:
"I will announce that when I have a chance to meet with both young men. We gave them off on Sunday and they are not back today until 4 o'clock, so I have not had the opportunity to meet with both of them. We will announce that as soon as I have the chance to meet with both quarterbacks."
On whether he was disappointed one QB did not stand out and take control of the position:
"I won't say disappointed because I do not think it is a thing where they are both losing it. You have Ryan (Higgins), who has been in program and understands the offense and has been in it. You are trying to evaluate Cody (Sokol) when he has been in the offense for 15-20 days. I think he is getting better and better every week. Yeah, I would have loved for someone to just take it and run away with it. I also think it was important to be fair to both of them and give Ryan an opportunity as the guy who has been here to get as many reps and show the improvement and prove he can be the quarterback. It is also fair to give Cody a fair shot since he is the new guy coming in and only had this offense for a limited amount of time."
"I do feel like it is a quarterback race. It is not like we are deciding which is the worse of two evils. I feel like both of them, with the improvements Ryan Higgins has made, he is good enough that we can play with Ryan. I also think some of flashes Cody has shown that he has the talent and ability to be the starter. It is much more trying to make the decision between that and that is why we waited through this last scrimmage . We had that scrimmage, had the opportunity to grade it and then sat down and talked about it as a staff. Now, I want to have the opportunity to meet with both young men. It will be later today. I want to do it as soon as possible, as I have said, but I also want to be fair to them as well."
On what the foundation of this year's team is:
"I think with any good football team, it starts with your line play on the offensive and defensive line. It starts with your front seven being able to stop the run and then being able to run the ball. I think any good football team starts there because if you cannot stop the run, we can mention all the skill players and outside guys and everything else, but you cannot hang your hat on that week in and out and be consistent. I think defensively it is experience and maturity that comes back and knowledge of it."
"I think Coach (Manny) Diaz has done a phenomenal job with this defense coming in as a new defensive coordinator and the things he has put in that they have really embraced. I think he makes it very complicated, but yet at the same time it is very simple for them to learn. It appears complicated, but I think he has really simplified it in terms of being user friendly for the players take it, embrace it. They are not being robotical. They have gotten better and better as it has gone on and they start to understand more and more of what he wants to do on that side of the ball. I think he has done a really nice job with it. That is the staple right now with this football team going into it, the defensive side of the ball just because of the experience we have there. I think Coach Diaz has brought excitement and energy to the defensive side. There is a great attitude. There is a lot of confidence on that side of the ball right now. That is why I said this would be such a great challenge for us walking in to this game."
"Offensively, there are probably a lot more unknowns. You have so many new faces and that is part of excitement with wanting to see this defense go out and play against a team like Oklahoma. I also want to see how the quarterback is going to fare. I want to see how these new offensive linemen are going to fare. Out of our top 10 offensive linemen, seven of them have never played. There are not a lot of guys that have played a lot of football for us. You have the two starters in Tre Carter and Mitchell Bell, but then you have Jens Danielsen, who started three or four games a year ago. Outside of that, everybody else is kind of new to the show."
"I am anxious to see how they are going to respond in front of 80,000 people at Oklahoma against a team like that. There are a lot of new faces at the wide receiver position. You have Sterling Griffin and Paul Turner. Paul has not really played yet here. Then, you are talking about a couple freshmen that are starting to back them up and get behind them, so I think it is going to be exciting to watch so many new faces on offense, but we are going to have to get better as the year goes on. We are going to have to come together and gel and build some confidence. The only way that can happen is by everybody going out and doing their job and becoming productive. You then start to ride that wave of momentum if we can find a way to have some success early. That is biggest thing I see with this team is right now it is almost like two different teams with the offense and defense."
On Oklahoma being the highest ranked opponent he has ever opened the season against:
"I don't know that it is a lot different. I believe it is [the highest ranked opening opponent]. West Virginia and Virginia Tech when we played them, I do not think they were third, so it might be highest ranked team, but they were top 10 when we had to play them. So it probably is the highest ranked team I have played to open the season. Whether that opening opponent is Oklahoma, Notre Dame, West Virginia or Virginia Tech, whatever that big game is, I think it grabs your players' attention. They know this game has been talked about since last January when we started stage one. We knew we were going to have to come out of the shoots ready to go and I think it helped us have better spring practice. I think it helped us have a better summer. I think it has helped us have a better fall camp. I still think it is going to be an incredible challenge. It is great that it grabs your players' attention because they know they will have opportunity to play in front of a packed house against the No. 3 team and it is a great opportunity for us right out of the shoot. The reality is they are going to put that ball on the tee and it is not about excitement or about all those other things. It is going to be about executing the fundamentals it takes to win a football game."
On whether he would consider playing two quarterbacks:
"No, that is not where I am going right now. I think the two quarterbacks we have are very equal from their talent sets and what they can do. If we had made the decision to maybe take an athletic quarterback, then maybe I would get into a two quarterback system. I am not trying to do that right now. I think it is important for this team offensively with all the unknowns that we identify a quarterback to be our quarterback going into this season. Then it is going to be his job to lose at that point."
On the offensive line:
"I think Matt Moore has done a really good job with offensive line when you look at the way those guys are coming along. (Richard) Greenwalt has not played. (Joseph) Brunson has not played. Darrell Brown has not played. Those guys have not played football before here. Those guys have been as a unit. We have been able to stay healthy and those guys have been able to get a lot of work done together. I think that has been invaluable. We talked in the opening press conference about having 20 seniors, but 14 of them have been brought in in last year and a half. It is not like we have a lot of fifth year seniors. You are talking about Oklahoma having four or five returning starters and you have guys that have started 38 games in their college careers. We do not have that type of chemistry, togetherness and unity yet. I still think it has been huge for all those guys to have been here since January. I think guys like Kirby Wixson and David Mahaffey are doing some really good things and are going to be in the mix and could very easily get on the field and play because they are doing a good job. I think Matt Moore has done a really good job and I think it a tribute to those players and Coach Moore for what they have done to kind of put this thing together in such a short period of time as they have had to do."
On how much stock he puts into Oklahoma's bowl win over Alabama last season:
"You use a body of work. Obviously, that is their last game and that is when you see their quarterback with a little bit of experience playing better. You are going to get more of that picture than you are early in the season. You also have to go back and look at their approach at Monroe and Tulsa and those games they had to play early. You want to watch the body of work from the whole year and that is why you really get impressed with the quarterback and the progress he made from the beginning to the end. We are going to see a guy even more seasoned than that. I do not think you put all your stock in it, but you definitely have to look at how they got to this point."
On keeping the team from getting caught up in the moment at OU:
"We are going to have to really stay focused on what happens between the lines. The circus is everything else that is going on outside the lines, whether it is the television cameras, the blimp overhead, fans in the stands, all those things that are going on. That is the circus that goes on outside. As long as they get to play 11 and we get to play 11 and those fans have to stay in the stands, then it is going to be about what happens in between those lines and us going out and executing the fundamentals and staying focused on what we have to do. That is part of the excitement I have with so many guys that have not played and are they going to be able to focus on what they have to do or are they going to see everything and the game gets real sped up, rather than just really slowing it down and making sure you have discipline and control with being focused on your movement or whatever your read is on that play. That is what happens with young players and they get caught up in that."
"We will talk about it and we will address it with the team and do what we have to do. We will try to simulate crowd noise at some of our practices this week where we have to learn to operate in silence a little bit on both sides of the ball. Those are the things you have to be able to overcome when adversity hits and you find yourself down. That is when we are going to learn a little bit about this team. That is when we are going to learn what type of fight this team has, what kind of resolve, commitment, togetherness and how they are going to rally together and pick each other up. Or are we going to start pointing fingers at each other and fall apart from within, and that is the chemistry and dynamic you just do not know. That is part of the second phase of excitement that I have for this season to see how we are going to evolve from that. We have tried to work and coach and teach those type of things this entire camp, but until you get in that arena you do not know how you are going to respond to it."
Oh having to rely on the defense early on at OU:
"Well, we are not going to win 3-0. I am not sitting here saying that. I am just saying that our defense is more ready to play right now with the experience we have over there, than with all the new faces. They are going to have to carry us. Is it going to be good enough to win? I do not know. That is why we are going to play the game. I think right now, they are going to have to be our strong suit. Our offense has to play. We are certainly not serving the ball over to the defense and saying, `here, you take it.' We are doing everything we can offensively to make sure we eliminate some of the mistakes and make sure we can put points on the board. When you look at us from a year ago, in the eight losses we did not score more than 16 points. That is one thing that is constant is when we scored some points, we had an opportunity to win. But that is also why Oklahoma is ranked No. 3 in the country because they are as strong on defense as they are on offense. That is why they are ranked so high. It will be a challenge for both sides of the ball."
On the running game:
"You look at the depth at the tailback position and we talked about we came in with Blake (Martin), who had never really played before. You had Tevin (King), who got injured early. You had Kenneth (Dixon), who got nicked up and missed four or five games last year. It was hard and now all of a sudden you have four running backs, two that have played with guys like Blake and Kenneth. You also have two freshmen back there that I think are very talented players. It is a long season. Their role may be for special teams early as they get more and more comfortable at the tailback position, but I think both those guys are going to be really good players. They are both 6-foot, 220-pound running backs that have an opportunity to help contribute on a team that does not have a lot of mids. We talked about not having an abundance of any tight ends or full backs when we got here and having very few linebackers. I believe there are only two linebackers on this roster that were here when we got here. Having bigger bodies like that that can help on some of the special teams and also contribute on offense and defense to give some of those other guys a break, it gives you a chance to look at things offensively to be able to highlight a couple of those players."
Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz
On his excitement level of coaching first game at LA Tech:
"You just want to find out what you are all about. Our guys have done everything that we have asked them to do coming through spring and offseason workouts. We have had a good fall camp but ultimately you have to go test yourself and what better environment to test yourself than against one of the top teams in the country and find out where we are at."
On where he thinks the defense is at right now:
"We are ready to play somebody. Like coach [Holtz] mentioned, we have some guys that are playing fast right now that have grown comfortable in the system, but they are going to endure one of the sternest tests probably the country has to offer right now. It gets their attention when they see the University of Alabama on the first play of the Sugar Bowl and all 11 guys are in a stance and ready to play and that was probably the last snap of the whole game that that occurs. No matter how you try to prepare them for the tempo that Oklahoma's offense plays with and how fast they really go, every defensive coordinator who goes up against them preaches the same thing in terms of how imperative it is to get ready to play and yet they still manage to surprise the defense with their tempo. This game will be as much of a battle from the whistle until the snap as much as it from the snap to the whistle."
On how has his experience against Oklahoma affected the game planning:
"Certainly you have a background in terms of what they like to do and how they like to do it, but ultimately this is a players' game and the players will be the ones on both sides of the ball that will determine the outcome. We feel like we have a good plan and, like I said, the biggest thing in game one, regardless of your opponent, is it's more about you. It is more about your rules and your assignments and Oklahoma won't feel any differently towards us. You just need to make sure you don't do things that to help your opponent. That to me, above everything, is what you are doing game one. Just don't help them. The way you help them is by being aligned in the wrong place, having your eyes on the wrong thing, those types of issues that we can control. It has nothing to do with how fast or how big the guy lined up across from you is."
On goals for the defense going into this year:
"Overall, we want to be a winning defense. We want to be defined by what helps out offense win games. The big part of being a winning defense is being a disruptive defense, try to put the offense in negative situations while at the same time limiting our exposure to big plays because ultimately that is what dictates points on both sides. If offenses can create explosive plays, that is what helps them to put big numbers on the scoreboard. Defenses that can make the offense go a long way to keep the score down, while you make them go the long way you can still get a negative play, get them behind the chains that increase your odds of getting off the field on third down. It is not what anybody else tries to do. It is not some theory that was unearthed on some far away planet. It is basically what it takes to play good defense. It is more important now than ever given the offensive state of the game as it is today."
On the biggest obstacle having to overcome since arriving at Tech:
"I think one of the curious things when you are coming into a situation that we are and adopting the players coming off of last season is really trying to instill the belief of who we are and how good we can be and understanding that it is all out there for us. This team has a very high ceiling to it and sometimes you think as coaches you may believe it more than the players at first. You really have to sell them. It doesn't happen just because we say it happens. There are 125 other teams that agree with the same theory, but if they really start to look beyond themselves and give themselves to the team, give themselves to the scheme and play as one then we have a chance to be good. Players get that now. I think they understand it, but now they have to go see it in a very chaotic situation at Oklahoma. That is what I'm looking for. I'm looking for the way that we fight, the way that we stick together. You are guaranteed to see adversity on Saturday. It's going to happen without a doubt. It might be as chaotic of an environment as you can go into, but what I'm looking forward to is do we drop our gloves. If you look at Oklahoma's numbers from last year, in the first and third quarter in everyone they played I think they outscored their opposition by four or six points. In the second and fourth quarter, they outscored their opposition by about 60 points each quarter, 120 points on the season. That is what they do. They overwhelm you and if you are not prepared, if you drop your gloves, that is how all of a sudden something that is in hand gets out of hand quickly. That has been their m.o. That is really what we want to see. Can we keep our gloves up and keep fighting the whole time."
On what can be done to combat Oklahoma's up-tempo offense:
"You have to have your simple rules. You have to be able to get aligned quickly. You have to have the understanding that the second the play ends the next play begins because that is really the way it is. The play doesn't begin with the snap. The play begins when the whistle ends the previous play. It is a matter of getting to your spot. If they can all get back aligned on offense then certainly we can do the same thing defensively. We have got to get the call. We've got to get the communication done as quickly as we possibly can and then we've got to get our eyes on the right place. Like I said, every defensive coordinator tells their team the same thing. It doesn't mean that it always happens and it might happen, happen and happen, and then all of a sudden fatigue jumps on you so that is an issue. Part of the way you try to combat that is by playing 22 instead of 11 so we will try to feature a lot of guys early in the game. All of those things are what you have got to have to maintain your intensity against their tempo."
On comparing LA Tech's defense to his defenses at other schools:
"At this point it is really hard to say because you haven't been in a game. I have always felt that it is unfair to rank players or defenses until you see their body of work because right now it is based off of potential. It is still based off of who they have to cover in practice or what alignment they are asked to go up against in practice. We wouldn't be ready to judge it next Monday or even the Monday after that. As a coaching staff, we like the guys that we have the opportunity to coach. We like the way they work. We have guys that have been in games, but the roles that a lot of them played last year have changed. The expectations for the ones who have played have changed. We still have some guys, in the position that they are starting in, they are starting in for the first time. They may have played some last year, but not with what we are asking them to do. It makes a big difference. If you have a guy that was hitting seventh or eighth in the batting order and all of a sudden you put him third or fourth, he started but he wasn't starting in the position where he is expected to drive in the runs. There is not a guy on defense right now that is not stepping up in terms of their level of expectation from where they were a year ago. That is what we will all find out together on Saturday and throughout all of the following Saturdays in terms of how we handle that."
On how well does Oklahoma know his scheme:
"Everybody knows everybody. There are not a lot of secrets now in college football. With what we have access now with film-wise, I have had a relationship with their staff. I visited with their coaching staff when I was at Mississippi State. I have buddies on their staff so there is a lot less trickery going on than we all think. We have an idea of who we have. They are trying to get their guys ready to play and they are going to focus on just doing what they do well regardless of how we line up and, to be honest, we are going to try focus on what we do well regardless of how they line up. I think once the ball hits the foot, a lot of the stuff going on on the sideline is out of hand and is going to come down to the guys running around on the field."
On how the defense has handled the pressure of being relied upon heavy to start the season:
"I don't think we look at it that way. We don't look at it in terms of pressure. Coach Holtz has mentioned Oklahoma's offense and defense are both fantastic, but I guarantee that Oklahoma's defense still goes into every game saying we are going to win this football game because defense always travels. Defense gives you the ability to win every football game because there is going to be some point where the ball is going to be batted down, something is going to happen offensively over the course of 12 weeks. I think any defense in the country would always say `we want the burden of expectation of giving our team an opportunity to win the football game.' Now what we all understand is how we work together, if we get them backed up, the importance of keeping them backed up creates a scoring opportunity for our offense. If our offense is backed up, getting two first downs might be a gigantic success so we can punt Oklahoma deep into their territory as opposed to going three and out. Success is not always defined by you score, you stop them because you have field position. The thing that no one ever talks about in games like this is special teams. This is a season opener. Special teams is usually one of the things that has the chance to swing the game one way or another because that is where giant yardages are done and it is a hard thing to simulate in practice. All of a sudden here comes a real kick and you are covering it. We don't look at pressure. We look at this is the way we play defense and we are here to help give us a chance to win the game."
On the players learning from last year's season opener at NC State:
"We will not show that game because we don't talk about the past like that. What we just show are examples in our practices. What you have to say is `if we make a mistake in an empty stadium on a scrimmage night then our expectation is that you will make that same mistake with over 80,000.' You are always trying to mention on every practice rep is that game rep. The more that we get into that idea that practice is game, then all of a sudden we can block out all of the other distractions in that stadium. They are aware of that. Part of that is on us to make sure we are simple in our rules causing the least amount of miscommunication so we can get lined up and go play fast."
WR Paul Turner
On the excitement for the season after sitting out 2013 due to NCAA transfer rules:
"Right now, it is just exciting to have the opportunity to come out here and play this year, especially with this football team. We are excited to see where we are. We put in the time and the preparation and hard work and we are just excited to go out against Oklahoma and execute. I am really just excited to be playing football again. It has been awhile and sitting out last year was kind of hard, but after talking with Coach Holtz, Coach (Tim) Rattay and a few other players, it helped ease my mind and gave me an opportunity to get in this offense and learn the plays and just fellowship with the teammates and grow closer with them."
On whether it makes a difference who the quarterback of the team is this season:
"No, I feel like both quarterbacks give us an opportunity to succeed and whoever Coach Holtz ends up choosing, at the end of the day I feel like they both give us the opportunity to go out against Oklahoma and have a great game and season this year."
On dealing with the crowd noise at Oklahoma:
"Being in an environment like that, you have to try to not listen to the crowd and go out there and stay focused on the game. When we go to Oklahoma, we have to really just stay focused, execute and focus on the details. I feel like if we go out there like that we will be able to execute the plan in place."
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