Tuesday, August 27, 2002
"It's game week finally. I'm certainly glad to get to that point in time and I know our players are glad. Let me just say a few things about Middle Tennessee State. Really good offensive football team. Nice balance. About the same rushing and throwing and that always make you tougher to defend. A lot of no huddle which today you see so much of that I don't know if it's as big a factor as it used to be though it does demand for Carl (Torbush) and the guys that they do a great job of communication and substitution and those kind of sideline things that with no huddle maybe takes a little more time to work on.
"They've got outstanding tailbacks. (Dwone) Hicks is certainly a great tailback. He reminds me a lot of a guy I coached a couple of years ago, an LT. Speed. Power. Elusive. Seems very durable. The guys that back him up are pretty good, too. We'll probably see a couple of backs in the backfield a lot of the time and they're all very capable backs. They've got very capable receivers, big play guys there. Good solid players. I think all three starters are back. (Their) Offensive line is all back in tact, so it's a veteran offensive unit. The only question, if they consider it a question, is that their quarterback has not played in a game for them. But he's been there a year and had time to learn the system and soak it up. He's an older young man and so I think they probably feel good about him stepping in there and doing it.
"The biggest challenge is probably handling the balance of their offense and defense. If you crowd the ball and try to defend the run and then you leave yourself a little more vulnerable to their receivers and vice versa. So we'll have to try to get them out of balance and hope that our D-line can control the line of scrimmage and put some pressure on the quarterback.
"Defensively, they are a pretty veteran group on that side of the ball. They've added a junior college guy or two and they're aggressive. They're fairly multiple. Remind you a lot of Mississippi State on defense. Play hard. Good solid, physical defensive unit.
"Most of their guys are back in the kicking game, so I think they'll be pretty solid there. Their punter did a good job for them last year. The kickoff guys did a good job. They've got a good kickoff returner. They're pretty solid in all aspects. This is a good football team. There's a reason they were 8-3 last year. There's a reason they beat some of the people they beat. And they've got a number of those people back.
"When you go into a first game, you have concerns about the opponent but first games you are probably more concerned about your own football team in some respects because you're going to find out a lot in the first game. I obviously know more today about our football than I did last year at this time. Somebody said, `are you better?' I don't think there's any doubt we're better than we were last year against UCLA. We've got some experience in those linemen and in a number of positions. I hope I see the same team that played those last four wins that played with a lot of fight, a lot of grit. A lot of heart, attitude, on Saturday and that we carry over with the momentum that we developed at the end of the season. There's every reason to believe that will happen because these guys have had an outstanding off season. They've had a great summer; they've had a good two-a-days. They've got a great attitude, they've got a great work ethic, they've had an outstanding chemistry. I couldn't ask for anything more in those areas so there's every reason to believe that we'll be able to do those things but until you get out and do it in a first game, who knows.
"The other thing that both sides go through, every team goes through in a first game is the unknown. The unknown in your opponent sometimes, things that you haven't seen that you have to prepare for and kind of guess with. There are plenty of unknowns about your own team. We've got a number of guys on both sides of the ball that will be playing their first Division I football game Saturday as I'm sure they have in Number 2. That's always interesting. You find out a lot about your guys. But year two you do go in feeling much more comfortable and much more knowledgeable about your team than I certainly did last year. We fortunately have a good mix of seniors on both sides of the ball offensively and defensively, so we've got some guys who've been out there and been through some wars and have been through a lot of battles. Hopefully that will give us some stability as we go through this first game and help us as coaches in clinging to some things that we know we can do on both sides of the football."
Coach, you mentioned the unknown that you have to deal with in the first game. Do you wish that college football teams could play some sort of jamboree like the high school teams do? Has there been some dialog about that in some of the coaches meetings, and do you see that as being a possible moneymaker due to that maybe the presidents would go for it?
"We have had discussion about those things as coaches, maybe even having a close game with a team--when I say close I mean close by--at the end of spring practice. The problem we all worry about is that the alumni might expect us to win that game, too, and we like to just look at players and see combinations and everything. It would be nice to have an exhibition game. I don't think that's going to ever happen in college football. We all play on a level playing field in that regard. It's just one of the things that you go through one of the nuances of college football, and high school football sometimes has jamborees. The NFL has exhibition games. We don't. We go out there and play for real right from the get go, and the only thing you can do as the coach is base your judgment on what you've seen in practice and your scrimmages and day-to-day practice and hope that you're going to see those things in that first game. But some of those guys who go out there for the first time in front of 83,000 are going to be a little nervous and go through some anxiety and that's only natural and you hope that you've trained them well enough that they survive that and play like they should and like you know they can."
How about the question mark with Michael Ziifle at the place-kicker position because that's a big part of the game?
"It is. I think Mike will do fine. Again, we're going to go a couple of more days before we name Mike the starter and give these other guys that came in after two-a-days a fair shot at competing for the job. A couple of them have done a nice job. Right now I would say that for this first game it looks like Mike will be our starting kicker. If Mike does exactly what he's done in two-a-days and this summer, he'll do a fine job. He'll be fine. Mike's got a great temperament, a good attitude to play and he's hitting the ball very well. He's got a strong leg. Mike could probably kick a 55 to 57 yard field goal. He's got that kind of leg. And right now the ball is popping off his foot pretty good so I think he'll be well-prepared. He should go in with some confidence because he right now has survived the test of time which means he's been consistent. You always hope he makes the first one. It's like my first three-foot putt on Saturday afternoon. If it goes in I'm probably going to feel a lot better about my second one. And you hope that he gets off to a good start, too."
Coach, how do you stay focused for this game and not look past it to the second game? And how do you keep your team focused? And what does a win mean and what does a loss mean in the first one?
"I think this first game takes care of itself. As coaches and as players our entire discussion is on Middle Tennessee State, and our entire focus has been on that. When you put yourself in depth into a game plan of blocking their fronts and lining up against their offenses, you have no choice but to do that. I said this earlier at Media Days, but this is a much better order to play these games in. The first game I think takes care of itself in a lot of respects and our players have a great deal of respect for Middle Tennessee State and their offense and their players and the way they play the game and what they've accomplished. They beat Vanderbilt very soundly last year. I don't think we really have a problem with that. Next week will take care of itself when we get to that. Just as the next one and the next one do. We play them one at a time and I know that's an old cliché you don't like to hear, but it still holds true.
"A win? We haven't won an opener in two years, so we'd like to win our opener, get off to a good start. A loss would not be a good taste. It would not feel very good at this point in time. Most of the time you all tell me a lot more about how those things feel, the first game, one way or the other. But I know our players go in with a lot of confidence and a lot of belief in each other. To go play well and to get a win would mean a lot to reinforce those kinds of things. Maybe not as much this year. It always means a great deal. But year two we've been together now. Year one it probably would have meant a tremendous amount with a new staff and everything. But now that we're in year two, we have a lot of things in place that we didn't have last year at this time."
Coach, having said what you've already said about not looking forward to that next game, do you think it would be more of a temptation maybe for the players because of the way the games are scheduled? You've got that big game against what some people think is the number on team in the nation scheduled for the second week. Do you think it's more of a temptation for the players to overlook that first one? And, have you ever seen something like that happen before when you have a big game coming up a couple of weeks from a certain date?
"I've been doing this 30 years. I've seen just about everything and so that is always possible. But I think it's more apt to happen during the season than it is in the first game. I don't think our players (look ahead). I don't sense that at all. Again, I think the advantage is it's our opening game. You're so excited to play an opponent and not to play yourself and to get out of two-a-days and to play a football game that those things kind of take care of themselves. I think our coaches will do a good job of that. We're going to focus on game one and I just as soon we'd keep talking about game one right now, not that other."
Coach, talk about the fullback position and how you guys feel about that right now?
"I think we feel pretty good. I shouldn't say I think--I know we feel pretty good. Theo Sanders, Clint Johnston, Greg McLain those guys have all done a nice job. Greg McLain is going to be a fine football player. When you go back to the drawing board and you draw one up at fullback, you draw up six-one-and-a-half, 248 pounds and can run and catch and Greg can do that. He hasn't played in an SEC game. It's going to be a little bit of an adjustment for him--or in a Division 1 football game--but Greg is a very smart young man. I don't think he'll be completely caught up in the setting on Saturday. I think he'll be well-grounded. I think he'll do fine. And I think the other guys are proven and will do fine, too. Clint Johnston will be playing in his first Division I game. I think Clint's going to be fine in everything. I believe he's well-prepared to play. That's not to say those guys aren't going to make some mistakes, but they're going to be good football players. They are good football players. They're going to get better. Clint's going to get better every day that he practices and plays in a game."