By Chris Williams, CycloneFanatic.com Publisher
Game week is finally here. Iowa State’s head football coach Paul Rhoads met with members of the media for his first Monday press conference of the season earlier today. Here is the transcript of what went down.
Rhoads on redshirts (from opening statement)
“We are still evaluating a couple of guys and probably will be through weeks two and three. I can tell you that these four people will probably play on Thursday night: Anthony Young, Ricky Howard, Jeremiah George and Shontrelle Johnson.
A lot has been made about your inexperience on defense. How has that progressed throughout camp?
PR: It is a work in progress. I think that it will continue to be throughout the season. I will talk over and over in this room and with all of you about how important continuous improvement is to our program in year two and it is never more imminent than on that side of the ball. Those guys are going to continue to improve daily. They are going to have to improve game-by-game. I think that through 26 opportunities or however many times we have practiced so far, they have done exactly that. The secondary is the strength of the group. The linebacking core is talented as we know, but it is extremely thin. We are going to have to be healthy there all season long to be effective. I think that our defensive line has improved, led by Stephen Ruempolhamer. He had an outstanding camp and I expect that to continue as we begin the season. There will be seven our eight guys who play on that defensive line and if you can keep those guys fresh and keep them rolling in with quality guys, that is important. The group has not disappointed us but it is going to have to continue to improve as we go along.
Bailey Johnson just jumped ahead of Jake McDonough on the depth chart. What did he do to earn that spot?
PR: He is more active right now than Jake McDonough has been in the last week’s worth of practice. Jake hasn’t dropped down. Bailey has played better. That is a positive thing. On a defensive front, you need to be able to get off of a block to go make a play. Bailey, the last three or four practices has done a great job of exactly that.
How much interchanging do you plan to do at running back?
PR: Jeff (Woody) provides us with a different style. He is more physical. There are certain things that we would like to do with Jeff on the field. James (White) and Shontrelle (Johnson) are similar to A-Rob in style. It isn’t that we’ll pick and choose when the times are. Some of it is based off of fatigue and conditioning and when A-Rob needs a blow. Sometimes it might be to get those guys on the field to see what they can do with the ball in their hands for a play or two. But those are extended conversations that the offensive staff and I will have going into it, exactly what is the detailed plan to get those guys on the field.
Shontrelle is listed as a returner on the depth chart. Which one?
PR: Kickoff return. He will not be back in a punt return situation.
Have you decided who will return punts?
PR: Josh Lenz.
Do you feel like Leonard Johnson and Ter’Ran Benton are at a point where they could have breakout seasons?
PR: I think we have four cornerbacks who can all play. To answer your question, yeah I think that TB and Leonard are both poised to have excellent junior campaigns, as they should be. Anytime that you have been playing that long, you are in a program that’s building block is developing players, I think that they should be in that position going into their junior year. Ter’Ran is invaluable because he plays both the corner and the nickel. He plays them both very well. When he is at the nickel position, that makes room for Jeremy Reeves and Anthony Young to get on the field. Whether we are more aggressive at a high percentage or not this year, I expect the corners to be matched up at the line of scrimmage more than they were a year ago and to do that, you like to keep guys fresh. Having the luxury of having four corners to play and keep in and out will be effective for our football program.
How much more depth do you have this season compared to last?
PR: Quite a bit, everywhere you look. The offensive line, a year ago we had six that we would have been comfortable playing, we go at least nine right now. Jon Caspers sits in our two-deep but our plan is to redshirt him. Defensive line, we are at eight and maybe nine or 10 as Cleyon Laing continues to develop and Willie Scott and Aaron Moore continue to develop at defensive end. The secondary, I am very comfortable with three safeties in Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield come along. These names I am giving you are all guys who were redshirting a year ago or who simply aren’t ready. Those return and put us in that position to have that kind of depth.
What are you looking for from Austen in terms of his interceptions from a year ago.
PR: The key word with him is ‘poise.’ He has shown that all throughout camp. Without a doubt, he has improved mechanically. Without a doubt, he has a great grasp of our offense. Now he has to go out in a game setting and maintain his poise and leadership of our program and be productive. I don’t have any hesitation or reservation that he will do that, but it has to happen on Thursday night under the lights for everybody else to see before we are satisfied with him.
What do you see from Northern Illinois? What kind of offensive scheme will they run?
PR: I have defended a lot of football teams, but I don’t know that I have ever seen an offensive football team that can fun what we refer to as the ‘power O,’ a physical offensive run play that is led by the fullback and a guard. I don’t know if I have ever seen anybody who runs it more ways than they do. They are very effective at running the football. They are very physical at running the football. They don’t hide the fact that they like to run the ball and they are going to establish that. Their running back (Chad Spann) is a good player. He can make you miss. He did it against Purdue. He did it against Wisconsin and so forth. They have a quarterback who is similar to ours as he can run and pass. Anytime that you do that, it forces you to defend and extra gap when there is a quarterback who can run the football. Defensively, they run extremely well. They run from sideline-to-sideline. You are not going to get any cheap plays. They are very disciplined. Overall, they are a very well-coached football team. They are a year ahead of us in their development as a program. Jerry is in his third year as the head football coach and it shows in the way that they respond. There are no weak spots. This is a very, very sound football program. We are going to have to play exceptionally well to have an opportunity to win the ball game.
Given how tough your schedule is, would you rather be opening up against an FCS team or do you prefer a team like Northern Illinois to prepare you for what lies ahead?
PR: There is a lot of debate about that. Somebody once brought up the fact that you want to play a great opponent like this to start the season or a team from another BCS conference to start the season because you want to maintain the focus of your football team the entire training camp. If I can’t maintain the focus of my football team for whoever we play in our first game then the administration should look twice about having me in this chair. Quite honestly, I don’t care who that first team is. Our football team will be prepared. Our football team will be ready. Whoever is in that slate, we are going to have to play. I don’t go to Jamie or the administration moving forward and say boy, I would like to have this team be our opening opponent.
Can you speak of the challenges though of having a good team like Northern Illinois compared to an FCS school?
PR: I don’t want to put one team against another but if you were going to put North Dakota State against Northern Illinois, our opening opponent from a year ago, I was just as nervous and anxious as I am now. You have got to be ready to play every single game against every single opponent no matter what the prognosticators think about it, no matter what level of school they are. We have to be ready to play. We are excited about the challenge. Yeah, they are a good football team and we are going to find out what we are on Thursday as well.
How do you feel about your playmakers at wide receiver compared to last year?
PR: I start with Sedrick Johnson. He had a very good camp. He is playing much better. We have had him two springs. We have had him two fall camps now. He is playing better than any of those four time periods at this particular point. I would sure like to get past the third play of the game and not sprain an ankle so he can maintain that. He has caught the ball with his hands throughout camp. He tends to be a little bit more of a body catcher. I am anxious to see him out there Thursday. Darius Darks, I think is the leader of that group in work ethic and in voice. Jake Williams is back for what I am hoping is a great senior year. Darius Reynolds, Josh Lenz, we have good depth there. If we can keep them rolling in and out and get them in the right play sequence, I think that we have a chance to be productive in that group.
How do you go about stopping the run on Thursday night against a team that is so good at it?
PR: Well you try to sneak a 12th body onto the field as many times as you can and get away with it. But other than that, you have to have people in what we refer to as the box, the area from tight end to tight end and have every gap filled. The power situation that I talk about is designed to get angles and extra bodies and create an extra gap. We have to make sure that we are disciplined in that regard. You can’t vacate the passing lanes to leave them open and give them easy throws. We will have as many people around the football as we can to help us stop the run.
What is going on with the punter situation?
PR: Dan Kuehl is ahead at this point. But Kirby has really boomed it the last couple of days to maybe cut down that gap a little bit. Dan would probably have to go through Tuesday’s practice and fall on his face a little bit to not be the starting punter Thursday night. Even if Dan goes out there for that first game, that doesn’t mean that Kirby is a redshirt. We will play that by ear.
Are you okay with playing on Thursday nights?
PR: In the opener, I don’t mind it at all because there is no difference in your preparation. You have 29 opportunities, starting last week to get geared towards game week. Today is Wednesday. This is how we proceed. During the season, you alter your preparation a little bit. You could have a five-day week, which I despise. Or, you could have a 12-day week, which is also a little bit different. Any time that you get 18, 19, 20-year olds out of routine, you have a chance of screwing things up. I prefer a traditional Saturday game to answer your question, at any point during the season. At the beginning, I don’t mind whatsoever.
Last year, you gave up a lot of yards on defense but not necessarily points. Was there a tone set in camp this year that you probably can’t do that again?
PR: Everywhere you look statistically, you try to drop the yardage that you give up as a defensive football team. There are two more important statistics and several more that I would argue are more important than total defensive yards. One, you mentioned is giving up points. We improved upon that drastically from 2008 to 2009 a year ago. The second is turning the ball over. You can level the playing field and give your team and edge with those two items. But yeah, rush yardage, pass yardage and total yardage are all areas that we need to improve upon if we are going to become a good defensive team in the Big 12 Conference.
All games matter the same but how important is it for your team to get out to a good start to pick up a win on Thursday?
PR: It is absolutely crucial. Starting 1-0 adds to the credibility for what you have been doing for 29 practice opportunities. You open up room for people scratching their head within your program by not winning and finding early season success. Now, when I talk about our team being mature and focused, I go back to a year ago when we lost those two games in a row to Kansas State and Kansas. This group of young men didn’t doubt what we were doing. They persevered even harder in our preparation leading to Baylor and Nebraska wins. The outcome of this game is not going to make or break the year but you would much rather start in the win column than with a loss.