Like the ones I did with Bud Foster and Bryan Stinespring, I’ll split this one into two parts. The first is more about play-calling in general. The second has more to do with personnel.
What were your feelings coming out of the Sugar Bowl?
“Disappointed, in that first of all that you lost in a controversial way, but more than that is that we didn’t finish some things like we needed to on a couple of drives. You get the ball in the red zone three times and you end up with fourth-and-1 and not making it and kicking two field goals. That’s disappointing to you. But if you take that part out of the game, if you take out the red zone, I was really pleased with how we played. I felt like we did what we needed to do, we controlled the football, we kept the football from a very explosive offense. You wanted to keep the ball away from them. It’s kind of like playing Georgia Tech. You call a game based sometimes on what other people do as well. And our defense played lights out, and they kept the ball away from them as well, but at the same time as a play-caller, you have that in the back of your mind as well. You want to give them as few opportunities as well. So I really was pleased with the way we played from the 20 to the 20 or 10 or whatever it may have been in any situation. Just disappointed that you end up kicking some field goals and not scoring touchdowns.”
Do you feel like that epitomized what had been a season-long issue?
“No question. That’s something that we went through this morning [last Wednesday] is looking at every red zone play from the 25 in — every game, every play — and looked at it. And going back and looking at it, briefly, the biggest thing that killed us down there were turnovers and penalties. Other than that, I don’t mean to … very seldom did a defense stop us. When the game was on the line. We had some situations late in games, the North Carolina game for example, we had the ball down there with 45 seconds to go and we run the ball four times. We’re not trying to score in that situation. We want to run the ball, wind the clock out. I don’t really count that. But we stopped ourselves more. I know you can say that a lot of times. But penalties kept us … I think we had five or six penalties down there that were drive-stoppers or that we didn’t overcome. They weren’t necessarily drive-stoppers, but they put you behind the eight ball. And then we had six turnovers in the red zone. And so obviously those take points away.
“So that’s 11 times right there. I don’t have all the stats yet; that’s what I’m working on now. But that’s 11 times where things we did to ourselves kept us scoring points. So yeah, to answer, if we went back and looked at one thing that was the most disappointing thing of the season, you would probably say the red zone opportunities. And a lot of those were early situations. I think we turned the ball once against East Carolina, had a penalty against East Carolina. So two against East Carolina. One against Arkansas State. Two against Duke. Two red zone interceptions against Duke. A red zone interception against Clemson in the championship game. So just summarizing that, that’s probably the most disappointing part.”
Do you go back and analyze your play-calling in those situations? Do you think it was too conservative at times?
“We probably were. Yeah. No question. And again, there were obviously reasons that you call what you call. It could be a situation in the game. It could be what you’re trying to do to a defense. Again, if you’re trying to keep the ball away. I mean, you can go down there and throw it three times and you may score and you may not score. There is a philosophical approach that we have to our offense in the context of this team. You know, we’re not just an offense going out trying to score every time. Now, obviously that is your goal. It’s an offense going out there, compatible with our defense and our special teams and working to win the game. So sometimes that affects how you call the plays, if that makes sense. It’s not just going out there and haphazardly … that has some effect.
“But overall, yes, I felt like looking back we probably needed to throw the ball more down there on early downs, particularly. And that’s something that we analyze and will go back and do. And I don’t think that’s something that’s a revelation today. I think we knew that halfway through the season. And sometimes you have plans of going in and doing something different and for whatever reason that doesn’t happen. And that’s kind of hard to explain unless you’re in the heat of the moment or you know all the communication that’s going on. But I think those are some things that we know and some things that we’ll answer in the offseason.”
Looking back at your first year calling plays, how do you think that operation worked? And what do you think you can improve on in a second year?
“Overall I felt that it went really well. There were maybe five times, six times over the course of a season — well, maybe 10 times; let’s say 10 times — that I didn’t get the play in for whatever reason. Me not getting it called early enough, a miscommunication between the guys signaling in an hearing me or the guys signaling in and Logan [Thomas] reading it. There were probably 10 times during the course of the season where it was communicated late or improperly. But other than that, I thought it went well. I thought overall the communication went really well.
“There’s always things that in calling a game … take the bowl game for instance. The first thing you do after a game is you look at yourself. What could I have done different to make a difference in that ballgame? And what would you do differently in that ballgame? And I’m not sure there’s a whole lot I would have done differently. Maybe thrown the ball a little bit more in the red zone. But there were a couple times where we had run-pass options calls, we had the possibility of a pass called. Well, the first two plays of overtime, they were run-pass options. And they played pass defense. They had five in the box, so to speak. That’s why we ran the ball in those deals. So it was up to Logan to make that decision at the line, run or pass. So what sometimes looks like a run — and it is a run, I’m not going to take it away — but there’s a reason it was a run. It could have been a pass tagged to it because they played a soft look and gave us an opportunity to run the football. That’s why it was a run.”
Did your role on gameday change too much from what it used to be?
“Yes and no. Where in the past I was the suggestion provider, I was making suggestions to Stiney, he was making the final decision. We were side-by-side in the press box. Now it’s kind of a role reversal. And we’re talking communicating. And not just Stiney, but Curt [Newsome] and Shane [Beamer] and Sherm [Kevin Sherman], we’re all constantly, ‘What do we need to do next series?’ You don’t really have a lot of conversation during the series. Most of the conversation that takes place is when the defense is out there and you’re trying to make some decisions. How do we want to attack them the next time? This is what we’ve done? How do we attack them the next time we have the football? So you take all those suggestions and write them down and that’s how you approach the next series.
“Now, it may be, for example this next series we may need to throw the ball deep. We’ve got to throw the ball down the field over the course of the next series. Now, it could be the next play. It could be the third play. It might be the fifth play. Let’s say we’re talking between series, if we get the ball on the 20, the next first down we’re going to take a shot. So things like that that are communicated. And what haven’t we done that we want to get done. Of course you get up there sometimes and you’ve got a list of things to do and you can’t get them all called. But this is something going into the game that we want to get done but we haven’t done yet. And this could be the beginning of the second half, the end of the first half, whatever it may be.”
Were you prepared when you took the play-calling role of the visibility and criticism that comes with it?
“Oh yeah. Having been a head coach and an offensive coordinator, you’ve been there and you’ve done it over the years. And you know you’re not going to make everybody happy. The only time everybody was happy was after the first play of the season when we scored a touchdown the first play of the game. [Laughs] So I assumed everybody was happy after the first call. After that, somebody was upset. We should have thrown it or run it or thrown a screen or whatever. So yeah, you understand that. That’s just part of it. Most people out there feel like they know what you ought to be doing. And you live with that.”
What goes into your offseason preparation? Do you tweak things in the offense? Do you take bits of what other schools do?
“We’ve talked with Texas a little bit. And we’re constantly talking. Even during the season we’re talking with people. You know, sometimes to get confirmation for what you do. Sometimes to just maybe get a little bit different wrinkle or something. So that’s what we’ll do. We’ll go back and analyze everything that we did and tweak it. For example, red zone. What do we need to do better down there? And it starts with probably having to throw the ball more, No. 1. On normal downs. When I say normal downs, first down, second down. And when you say open it up, and I guess that’s the term that everyone wants to use, but throw the ball more. That might be short. That doesn’t necessarily mean throw the ball in the end zone, but become a little bit less run-oriented on first down down there. That’s just one example of how we’ll tweak it.
“Now, how do we want to do that? Then we’ll take every play that we’ve run, and I say every play, but sometimes we might run a play only three or four times a season, game plan against a specific look. But the plays that are the meat and potatoes of our offense — was it good? Was it bad? Why was it good or bad? And do we want to continue with it? Does it still fit? There was one play that we ran, did not run it particularly well this year, but last year it was the best play in our offense. And this year, it’s hard to explain why, maybe because you ran it a lot last year people looked at you and defended it better. So we’ll look at that. How can we tweak it? Was it what we were doing? Was it what they were doing that made the play not work as good? Then the other thing is, how can we tweak that play? That is, run it from a different formation, give the play a little bit different look. Things like that we do over the course of the spring. It’s just analyzing.
“We’ll be a different team next year. We won’t have the same running back. We won’t have the same offensive line. We’ll have four different offensive linemen in there. And a lot of this we may not know until we come out of spring practice, but there are some things that we may have done well because of David [Wilson] and the four offensive linemen, we may have to change a little bit of a philosophy because now we’ve got four new offensive linemen and a different tailback, basically a rookie tailback back there. So we’ll begin to learn more about them during spring practice.”