BOCA RATON, Fla. - I really have a ton of respect for this head coach [Sean Kugler]. He worked with the Steelers when I was at Pitt. We worked in the same building. I tried to recruit his son [Patrick] at Wisconsin, but he ended up going to Michigan from North Allegheny, there in Pittsburgh. His [Sean Kugler] personality shows up in this football team at UTEP. Defensively, they are a 3-4 defense and we haven’t seen that a lot, that creates a challenge we will have to work on. #16 Alvin Jones is a tremendous player, maybe one of the best linebackers in the league, and their passing defense ranks second in the league, so that creates challenges. On offense, a talented wide receiver #11 [Cole Freytag] runs really good routes, [has] good speed and [his] ball skills are impressive. #85 [Hayden Plinke], a transfer from Portland State, a tight end, has good size. He is listed around 6-4, 265 and again [has] good ball skills. He is a challenge. Really their offense starts with their O-line and #29 [Aaron Jones] at running back who has 1,200 [1,168] yards. So, we are working on that. They are a shift-trade motion team. They do a lot of that before the snap. From a style standpoint, that is a lot different from what we have seen. So, we have a lot of work ahead of us this week and we are deep into that preparation, as coaches. We will get deep into it with the players tomorrow. [UTEP has a] tremendous punt returner and punt return unit. They are up there in the league as well and their kickoff unit is as good as it gets, fast [and] physical. I watched it last night. We have a challenge there.
You talked about their pre-snap motions, fans kinda roll their eyes and say “oh just get lined up” right? But, that is so important when they are doing a lot of that, isn’t it?
It is critical. They will get into unbalanced sets. They will have what coaches often refer to as explosions, when multiple people shift to a formation and then add a motion in. There is a lot of rules involved to make sure your defensive players fit in the right spots. Teams that do this Paul Chryst [Wisconsin] did it a lot when I was with him. It was part of his style. They do it a lot at Stanford. They know what they are looking for. In another words after the shift-trade motion, once they see your adjustment or lack thereof to that, they attack something. If you don’t show that you can handle the adjustment, it is a big deal.
What were the major factors in [last] Saturday’s win as opposed to the previous weeks?
The assistant coaches and players did a great job. They deserve all the credit. The kids made plays that we had confidence they could make. Coaches put together a great game plan.
You had a lot of explosive plays and a lot of yards on first down. Were you more aggressive in your play calling on first down?
Not really. These really are a lot of the plays and play styles that we have been calling. We executed it at a better clip. [There were] some really nice throws and catches. Again, we had a different right tackle. Matt [Weiner] did a nice job and all those who love him are hearing me give him credit. I’m proud of the O-line and the jelling that they have had there on the left side and that adds to it, as well.
What was the atmosphere in the team meeting yesterday?
It was good. They were excited that they won a game. But again, in the mode to put it away and get on to UTEP. I feel a maturing happening as we move through the season and it will pay off long term.
Talk about “Motor” [Devin Singletary] and how he has progressed. What was it like for him to finally get that breakthrough game?
It was a heck of a performance. And, you could see signs of a potential day like this coming with him. You think back to that screen [that] we had with him a couple of weeks ago against Marshall. It was a big play and all the people he made miss - the catches that he has made. Again, the O-line really opened up some holes. They got him started and then he was able, at the second and third level, to do some additional things. Now that last touchdown, they had it stopped in the backfield, but again, and “Motor” would say the same thing, when he did bounce outside - to see guys straining down field, our wide receiver group had one of their better performances, collectively, as I have seen – blocking, catching from that standpoint. There is a lot of factors that came into play.
What is like to see him become one of the feature backs this early in his football career?
It is fun. What is fun for me to see right now is for me to see that whole running back room really be behind each other. “Buddy” [Gregory Howell, Jr.] was excited for him. Jay Warren was excited for him. We played five running backs on Saturday. This is when you have a position group in a good place. When they all feel like they had a hand in that, in terms of how they prepped. They were happy for him, which is great to see.
Jacob [Douglas] gets the targeting call late so he is going to have to miss the first half. He was already in for Nate [Ozdemir] so where do you go for Saturday?
[We have] a couple of different things that we will take a look at. Jerrad Ward has experience at Mike. Khantrell Burden has experience at Mike. So, we will look at a couple of different options there.
Did Nate’s injury happen in the WKU game?
Is he out for the year?
Is it a foot?
It is a foot injury.
The momentum and the idea of enjoying the win; how do you balance that?
I think you want them to have pride and build from that.
It is a fair question. I felt we had one of our better weeks of prep during the season and they have been working hard. It is not been a matter of any issue with work. I thought I saw more kids taking notes. I saw more kids paying attention to detail, more and more. Again, we are maturing. What I’m reminding them of is how we got to Saturday through that preparation. All the things you are saying are good to talk about, but here is how we got there. Here is how you prepare a little bit better than weeks before. Let’s continue to build on that.
With “Motor”, your freshmen running backs the last two years, with “Buddy” and then Trey [Rodriguez] a little bit last year; where does he fall into that?
They are all good backs. Devin did a nice job and it was a great performance. Hopefully, he can build off that.
Do you have a running back controversy?
It is a good problem to have. You can’t have enough. Everywhere I have been you really, probably are going to need three or four to get through the season, if you are making any kind of run.
With Driskel and Parr. You talked at the beginning of the season that you wanted to pick one. Are you now finding it beneficial to have the ability to play both and see who is hot and stick with that or do you want to get back to one?
At this point, I think that is what helped us win Saturday. Daniel [Parr] earned the opportunity to start through the course of the week. He started and Jason [Driskel] was going to be there the third series. I don’t know how it is going to go this week. We will see during the course of the week at practice. Jason came in and he played well. He played one of his better games. I think we will just take it week-by-week.
Do you intend to play them this week, regardless of the order?
If Parr had come out and had played the way Driskel did, would we have seen Driskel?
The third series, for sure. Where it would have gone from there it’s hard to factor in all those variables. If Daniel had come out hot series one and two, we would have definitely put Driskel in three. Where we would have gone series four would have depended on where we were at that point.
Parr was limited. It seemed like because of the field position, also. Did that affect the play calls?
No. Driskel was part of a 98-yard drive. So, he had field position challenges as well.
What is it that you like about the third drive?
Just the timing of it. It gives the first quarterback a chance to get a feel for what they are doing and you get at least half way through your opening script.
With Aaron Jones, the UTEP running back, I have watched some of the highlights of him breaking tackles through teams like Arkansas and Texas Tech. What is it like preparing for him and what kind of challenges does he present?
He is explosive and full speed in the first or second step, which you don’t see to that degree often. He is fast and he gets to full speed quickly. He is scary downhill. We have to do a great job with our gap integrity so that we do our best to make him run east and west as best as we can, so that he can’t get a downhill start on us. That takes gap integrity because he can get up on your third level in a hurry, if you have issues with guys up front getting out of their assignment.
Questionable. We will see how he recovers this week.
Richie Kittles came in for Soroh and made a couple of nice plays: a tackle for a loss that forced them into a field goal and then the pick. How did he adapt?
He graded out well. He did his job and did it well. [His] assignment grade was high and Richie has come a long way, in every way you possibly can, over the course of the last year and a half. It was fun for us to see him get some reps on defense and perform well because there wasn’t big mistakes that led to any issues that maybe you guys wouldn’t see. Those weren’t on the film. He has grown in his special teams’ role. We have told all of our guys the more you can earn faith and trust on special teams, the more you are going to take advantage of that opportunity when you get that opportunity for a defensive chance. Kittles did that on Saturday.
Dropping back to Driskel. Do you think he benefited by being able to watch those first two series, because he did that last year with Quez [Jaquez Johnson]? And, does that factor into your decision because he comes off the bench really well?
I don’t think so. Again, he just came in, played well and did his job. I don’t want to go too deep into playing off the bench. That is basketball. The guy who has the best week of practice this week will get the nod and we will see where it goes as we get into that third series and take it from there.
You guys did have a pretty good week overall off the bench.
Yeah we did. “Motor” and John Mitchell. That was a textbook over the shoulder catch [John Mitchell]. Plays were spread around.
What is Kamrin’s [Solomon] status?
He will be with us, dressed and ready to roll.
What is like to see other players making plays down field?
It is great because it gives everybody faith to be able to spread it around. There are times, again a combination of several different things that it didn’t work out for one reason or another, when we targeted someone else and pretty soon you start falling back on throw[ing] it to Kalib, even if the read doesn’t take you there. Throw it to Kalib. Early [at Rice] we had success getting the ball elsewhere, built confidence and trusted the read, getting it on time. The guys did a pretty good job with keeping a pocket for Jason, and that led to success. Spreading it around is fun. [Henry] Bussey had over 100 yards and Kalib had his catches, but what Kalib did down field in blocking was impressive when you go back and look at it.
Rice was leading the nation in giving up yards per game. Do you exploit that?
I think you take a look at what their system is and you base your game plan on what they do and there are certain plays that are designed to attack certain coverage shells or front alignments. We had plays designed to do that, like we have every week, and fortunately our kids did a nice job of executing the game plan.
At the safety spot opposite of Jalen, you have had a lot of different people in the last couple of weeks. Is that a combination of injury and performance?
We have seen some younger guys get in there. Combination of injury and performance. You know we had a matchup thing a couple of weeks ago, when we put Shelton Lewis in there. So, a combination of all three.
What do you think the difference was with the pass rush this week?
Again, guys were doing a nice job of finding the deep blocks. They got there quicker. They [Rice] wanted to get the ball down field. Guys just beat blocks.
Do you talk to the guys about that game being the turning point and then the next step? Do you talk big picture?
No we are on UTEP. We really are on UTEP.
Do you talk about UTEP being a step?
No, just beat UTEP with everything we can. Beat UTEP that is it. It is what we have been doing all year.
That 98-yard drive, do you feel like that was one of the best if not the best drive of the season?
That was a great drive. I would really have to think back through the season. I love how you guys think big picture in here. One of my favorite plays in that drive was again what looks easy, but isn’t. For Driskel to step back with confidence into the end zone, after the first play, when we handed it off to “Buddy” it didn’t gain much. To get that shotgun snap, deliver it to [Henry] Bussey, for Bussey to get it with his hands, turn up field, get a first down and give us room to breathe. That got the drive going. There were a lot of good plays that got us down there, but it was a big deal. It was 21-14 at the time. That was a big momentum deal for our team and I’m proud of them for that.