EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview with Nate was conducted last week, prior to the loss at Troy University last weekend. Many of the references are to the Middle Tennessee game the week prior, in which Idaho jumped out to a nice lead, but lost the game.
The interview below is broken into 3 categories: (1) Offensive scheme and game plan, (2) Team and Player Development, and (3) Recruiting.
Again, many thanks to Nate for taking some time out of his incredibly busy schedule right now to talk with us. We all appreciate his time, and his very candid answers.
Offensive Scheme and Game Preparation
VV.com: Unfortunately, it looks like Idaho is essentially out of the Conference Championship race. The 4 games left on the schedule (Troy, Arkansas State, North Texas, and Hawai’i) are against some talented teams, a couple are fighting to be bowl eligible. Plus, 3 of the 4 will be on the road. How do you prepare the team differently now to try to keep the players focused on winning ball games down the stretch?
Our main focus the whole time has been to get better each week. As far as road games go, we have a lot of them this year, obviously. So, that’s not going to be anything new to us this week. Our primary focus is to learn how to practice hard and play consistently. When we’ve played mistake-free football we’ve done pretty decent, and when we’ve kind of self destructed then we haven’t played very good. The more you practice good habits the more chance you have to duplicate that in a game situation, and that’s what we’re working on.
VV.com: How would you rate the development of the offense, in general, so far this fall? What seems to be going well, and what still needs work?
I think that we have found in the last month or so some concepts that our players are comfortable with, and at this time the smartest thing for us to do is to do what our players are very capable of doing, and to try to get as good as we can get at executing those things. Obviously its better to have a really good running game that will set up everything else. We have been throwing the football a lot better earlier in games these last few weeks. When we can come out and throw it early, it helps with the rest of our game plan.
VV.com: Does it feel like the running game is the strength at the moment.
It goes in spurts. There’s been some times, even against some good defensive teams like Washington State, where we’ve gained an extreme amount of confidence in the running game. Last week against Middle Tennessee we ended up getting down as a football team a little bit, where you can’t run the ball as much and are forced to throw it. We’re decent at that, but when they both work together, and the game is in control still, and you’re not behind….then everything is more at your disposal in terms of play calling. Everything works better. When we have those runningbacks healthy and the offensive line is playing like they can, then we’ve got good confidence in our running game. Our next few opponents, in particular Troy and North Texas, are very good against the run. We’ll probably have to rely on throwing the ball some more these next few weeks.
VV.com: The next 3 weeks you will face the 3 strongest defensive units in the Sun Belt Conference. Troy hasn’t yielded more than 24 points in a game yet this year, and lost by just 4 at LSU last weekend on a late LSU drive. Will you approach these next 4 games differently then you have the previous 8 games?
No. Early in the last few games we’ve come out and thrown the ball to start games. When we hit those early pass plays and Michael gains confidence, it helps our offense. And obviously again, the running game helps the quarterback out. Offensive football is about orchestration and working together. Hopefully we can do enough of each in the next few weeks to move the ball against some very good defenses.
Team & Player Development
VV.com: Every week we get to see, very vividly, how much of an impact the 2 true freshman running backs (Jayson Bird and Rolly Lumbala) are making in your system. Looking at some of the other positions, how would you describe the development of the 2 new wide receivers, Desmond Belton and Christian Populis? What are they doing well? What do they still need to work on?
Christian and Desmond are talented…they have good ball skills. They are big, tall receivers. What they need is to get stronger, which is going to help their speed. They need to become just more explosive. Its tough unless you’re probably one of the top 10 or 15 schools in the country to recruit 6-4 receivers that are already 210 pounds and fast. One of the things we need to do here at Idaho is recruit talent and develop it, and certainly those 2 are an example of talented young men who need some more development. But they do have talent and they do have ball skills, which is what we’re after.
What they’re doing really well right now is catching the football. What they’re not doing as well is getting off press-man and releasing down the field against Division 1 defensive backs, which they didn’t play against in high school. What helps you against press man, at this level, is strength and explosiveness, which is going to come in the weight room.
VV.com: Even more difficult to judge from the sideline is how the young offensive linemen are doing. Can you describe the impact of Desmond Clark and Marcis Fennell? What are they doing well, and what do they need to work on?
In my opinion, Jason Eck our offensive line coach, has done a nice job with those young men. Desmond Clark has played as much football for us as anybody. And Marcis Fennell played a lot for us in the Middle Tennessee game. Now, those 2 still have a long ways to go, but we see some ability in those two. And then we have Kris Anderson and Korby and others who are redshirting who are just behind those 2 guys. I’d say we like what we see right now in terms of their ability.
When we had to make a decision to play a couple young kids up front when Hank got hurt, and obviously we don’t have much depth there right now, those 2 were athletically and weight-wise were the closest at that time to give ourselves a chance. Not to say Korby and Anderson can’t catch up quickly, but they were just a little behind the others.
VV.com: Quarterback Michael Harrington has had an outstanding completion percentage the last few weeks. He’s hardly turned the ball over at all, and he’s led the Vandals to a couple victories in which the offense has put up 35 points or more. But we don’t seem to stretch the field very often (opting for lots of short completions). Why?
Right now, we’re doing what we’re most capable of doing well. With our ability to throw the football right now, we’re a little more suited to the horizontal stretch passing game. That’s not to say we “can’t” open things up. In the last month or so we’ve completed some more balls down the field then we were earlier in the year. But to throw the ball way down the field consistently requires great protection, a strong / accurate quarterback, and some fast receivers. Our guys are working their tails off to get better, but they aren’t doing that as well right now as they are completing shorter balls.
VV.com: Throughout the season we’ve seen the offense look very dominating at certain points, then struggle during others. Sometimes one series will be tremendous, followed by one that struggles. Sometimes, a drive will start with a lot of momentum then fizzle. What do you attribute these highs and lows to?
That is a direct result of mistakes. In the Monroe game we had 9 offensive penalties. In the Lafayette game we had 1, which was Luke Smith-Anderson’s celebration in the endzone, so basically none that impacted a drive. There’s 3 things that influence the rhythm of an offense. 1) Any procedural penalties that have to do with them getting lined up properly and snapping the ball without making a mistake. In the Monroe game we obviously looked very sloppy offensively because, for some reason that day, we had a hard time even executing our base offense. Whereas against Lafayette we had no penalties.
Number 2…turnovers. Against Lafayette we didn’t have any, and we’ve been pretty good in that regard most of the season.
The 3rd key to maintaining rhythm is to make big enough plays to keep getting first downs. In Lafayette and MTSU specifically, and these weren’t the only times, but probably 7 of the first 9 first downs were completed passes. The play action passes in those games were probably 20 and 25 yard gains.
All of these things (penalties, turnovers, big plays) add up to keep drives moving.
For example, on the first drive in the second half against MTSU, to go down and answer their TD drive we go on a nice little drive and throw a key first down pass to Brian Yarno for about a 10 yard gain deep in their end of the field. We should have had 1st down on their 15 yard line, but we get a holding penalty and that’s basically like losing 25 yards of field position because it’s a spot foul. We didn’t recover from that, whereas earlier in the game we really responded to adversity. We ran a play where Rolly ran it down to the 1 yard line, but we had a holding penalty and that brought us back. We responded and knocked it back in there.
We are responding at times. Its not that we don’t know how to do it, its just that we don’t do it consistently. As one of the coaches on offense, that’s frustrating at times but also encouraging at times to see what we are capable of when we don’t make mistakes. Nobody wants to hear about mistakes, but it’s our job as coaches to fix those and I think we’ve shown that we can fix those mistakes.
VV.com: How many D-1 prospects do you think the state of Idaho has this year?
That’s a good question. Last year when we got here, it was a little more clear as to how many there were. I’d say there are 8 kids that you REALLY need to look hard at. There’s probably more bulk of “maybe’s” and not as many “slam dunk” division 1 guys right now, but there are probably 8 or so guys that deserve to get a hard look from Division 1 schools.
VV.com: Obviously, as a coaching staff you will want to get the best player available during recruiting that you can get, at every position. But, is there any position offensively where you think you have “enough” depth to go into next season without relying on so many true freshmen? Or, is Idaho a few years away from having the “luxury” of redshirting most of a class?
That’s probably a little ways away. I really believe our running back position is in good shape. By the end of this year, those 2 kids will have played a lot of football…they are remarkably mature. Our depth at runningback, with Devon Sturdivant up here as well, I think that’s a position that appears to be in pretty darn good shape for the next couple years.
We’ll have a little depth in the O line, with the young guys that have played this year, but on paper our depth is still going to be freshmen and sophomores. We’ll probably be 1.75 deep next year up front.