BRET BIELEMA: It’s great to be back. We’re excited to be back in the camp, having finished our first two days of two-a-days. We have a practice this evening. As Justin pointed out, one of the conflicts with this first week of camp since I’ve been here is it overlaps with summer school. He brought up Lance smith and Andy Crooks, but I believe, I gave you a list, there’s actually nine guys that will be either arriving late or have to leave early, in addition to Gabe Carimi just came up and asked permission to study for a test tomorrow.
So if you want Gabe, you’ve got to get him early. So it’s kind of a difficult time for us. The reason I bumped back practice was to give you guys the optimum time to come in and interview our players this afternoon. We’ll practice under the lights, which is also a little bit of a change from a year ago to where we are right now, being that two of our first four games will be in the evening.
What we’ve basically scheduled camp this year is during one-a-days, we’ll practice in the middle of the afternoon. During double-days, we’ll practice in the morning, meet in the afternoon, and then practice under the lights in the evening to give a chance for our guys to get a little bit acclimated to that. Also just a couple housecleaning items for me. Obviously I know a lot of you want to talk to Lance [Smith], but he can’t be here today.
The next time the offensive players are available, he’ll be made available to you. Jack [Ikeqwuonu] will be made available to you today. But on those two separate cases, individually with Jack and Lance, I’ve made comments. They’ve made comments. The university has released their comments. Anything dealing with those two issues will not be discussed by those players or anybody associated with my program. So if you do ask a question, you’re going to get a no comment. If you get another question, they’ll leave, and that’s the way we’ll handle it.
I think the biggest thing that we have going for us right now, because of the way the season played out last year, because of the returning players that we have right now, I’ve been looking forward to camp beginning because it gets us back on track to what we’ve ingrained in our program, ingrained in our players.
A week ago at media day in Chicago for the Big Ten kickoff, I got a lot of questions about expectations and where we see our program right now, and I’m going to say for the record, and you’ll get the same comment out of me, we’re excited about where we are. We’ve worked very hard to get here, but the challenges that lie ahead of us are going to be based off of what we do. Nothing . . . from the outside world. We handle our business the right way, approach every game with a 1-0 mentality, we’ll get to where we want to be, and that’s where we’ll end up.
I would say this. I think back to the first day I was ever a college football player. I came in as a walk-on. I came to a media day at a major university, and I was very nervous, but I was also getting interviewed by people that I think were very nervous. So on the same account, this is a great day. I’ve tried to build it up. Justin and I talked to our players last night about what to expect from today. I just ask that you handle them with the same respect they’re going to handle you with and treat everything on a fair playing field. With that, I’ll open up to any questions.
Coach, is there more pressure for you as a second-year head coach when you have a year behind you as successful as last year was?
I don’t think it is any different from a year ago than what it is now. Just there’s more awareness maybe. I know I prepared myself in the same way. You know, you always say that in coaching your team makes the biggest improvement from year one to year two. A lot of times when you’re dealing with multi-year starters, you’ll say they make the biggest improvement from starting from year one to year two.
I know as I look back on last year’s season, the first thing we try to do in February after we’re done with recruiting is evaluate how we handled everything individually and then take a look at the whole picture. We’ve modified camp. You know why we modified camp? Because we had a different lineup as far as, you know, fall kickoff times.
It was interesting, just two days ago, I received an invitation to speak at a clinic, and last year the topic of my conversation was Wisconsin Football: Philosophies on Offense, Defense and Special Teams. Obviously they didn’t want to hear me give the same speech. So I know I’m going to talk in February, and the title of my talk is Wisconsin Football: Changing and Transition from Year One to Year Two. And that’s what it is. I’ve just . . . learn from last year and build upon this year as well as our entire staff.
Coach, Travis Beckum and Andy Crooks did such a great job for you at tight end last year. Are you expecting the same production again this year?
Well, the great thing is, last year going into fall camp, that was the first time either one of them had played competitively at this level at that position. And they’re with the same coach. They’re with the same offensive coordinator. So you expect growth. But on the same account, they have to remember why they had success a year ago. They listened to the coaches. They understood why we practice and why we do things in a certain way and expect them to move forward.
I think, you know, Travis in particular has changed his body a little bit. Unfortunately, Andy is in a transition right now. He was held back from certain things physically, so we’re trying to get his body back on track to where it was a year ago, and I think he’ll be able to do that. But both of those guys potentially should be big playmakers for us, in addition to taking up leadership roles as well.
Tremendous defense last year. You’re losing a few guys to graduation. Who do you anticipate to be the guys carrying the torch on that side of the ball this year?
Well, on the back end, you know, because we have two corners that returned, you expect Jack and Allen to do that. And the first two days of practice, I’ve been very impressed with Allen and what he’s done. And then a guy that we said last spring really made progress during the spring and has continued to do so this fall is Shane Carter, and Aubrey Pleasant isn’t far behind. So we feel good about those two guys.
But the competition brings out the best in people. And Kim Royston, who’s backing up Shane, and Jay Vilai, who’s backing up Aubrey, as well as a couple others, have built up a good situation there. But I really think Shane Carter conceptually, just because Shane Carter does everything we ask him to do in the weight room, in the training room. Whenever we have recruits, he’s probably one of our best hosts. I’ll put him in front of anybody just because for what he stands for, and a lot of times those things do carry over to the field.
Defensive line is kind of a mix of guys. You know, you expect Nick and Chappy [
Jason Chapman], but they’re kind of quiet guys. Matt Shaughnessy has emerged and has put on about 20 pounds from a year ago, so you expect him to be more of a playmaker. And then really our group of linebackers, they’re never shy of saying anything. So between Elijah [Hodge], J.C. [Jonathan Casillas] and DeAndre [Levy], they should be a pretty solid group for us as well.
Where do you think P.J. Hill stacks up or will stack up against the great running backs in Wisconsin history?
You can answer that when he’s done. You know, obviously because of what he did his first year, it brought a lot of attention to what he’s done, you know. But the biggest thing P.J. was able to do is he, you know, you’re going to see noticeably he looks different when you walk out there. He’s had some pounds readjusted and moved to different locations and, you know, in the first two days showed a little bit of an even bigger pop than he had a year ago.
So we’re excited, but as we know, you know, the world of college football can change play to play. And I know this, P.J. is very focused on what he wants to do, and he knows the expectations are high. I think they could couple him, or benefit him right now, are two guys that have initially looked good. Lance Smith has shown that he’s improved from a year ago, and Zach Brown, someone who we felt very confident about in the recruiting process and we’re excited to get him here on campus, looks good at this point.
Coach, is there a specific timeline, a timeframe that you have for naming either Allan [Evridge] or Tyler [Donovan] the starter, or could this legitimately go into the week leading up to the opener?
Was that question six? I had the odds on that being the first one out of the gate, easy. You know, it’s going to be something that evolves over time. Obviously, 10 days out from the, what I’ve basically always learned as a coach or as an assistant and really bought into it and now as a head coach, 10 days out from our opener, we’re going to concentrate strictly on Washington State.
Defense, we’ll probably do some things early on, earlier than that, just because of the issues that Washington State’s offense presents us. But what we’ll do from that point forward is it’ll be all Washington State preparation, and I would hope to have someone at that point where we define these are the ones, these are the twos.
But I think a defining moment in our season a year ago was when John Stocco went down in the Penn State game and Tyler Donovan was able to step in, finish that game, go down to Iowa and win that game. And it really proved in this program it is the next-man-in philosophy. No matter who is the starter, we refer to our starters as, or our number twos as being one play away from being a starter. And that’s not just coach speak. That’s truth and that’s reality.
Coach, your only loss last season came to Michigan. This season it could, you know, come down to a game like that again. From what you remember from that game, just talk about, you know, maybe what you’re going to be preparing your players for, if a situation or a big game, you know, something like that ends up with the Wolverines again this year.
Well, because of where they lie on our schedule, I don’t have to think about them for a while. They were our Big Ten opener a year ago. We kind of identified them early on in the season as, you know, a potential landmark game for us. The thing we learned in that game is we prepared in a way to go up there and win. We weren’t able to do it, but I really liked the way we responded afterwards.
I thought our team really grew more out of that defeat, maybe in that week of preparation and then in that defining game when we played Indiana next than at any other point during the year. That really, truly set the mind frame that they could be one of the best in college football. So I’m hoping that we gather that same knowledge in the Washington State game without a defeat, obviously. But you can’t, I don’t think as a coach I really ever, I’ve never been down the road of one of our preseason goals should be to win a championship or win this or win that.
It should be focused on the now. There’s some long-range things that are good to build upon, but I think if you try to focus on one specific thing that will try to get an end result, you’re really ingraining in your kids that you can skip steps to get to where you want to be. And if you want to build something that’s going to last time, it has to be consistent from day one.
Coach, I want to go back to P.J. Hill for a second. Last week a lot was made down in Chicago how he met with Brian Calhoun and talked about trying to avoid the big hits. Is that something that people just talk about, or can he actually work on things that will help him do that, or once in the heat of action, will his natural instincts as a power runner take over and he’ll forget all about that?
Well, I think P.J. is his own individual. Him and Brian are different in style and different in abilities. You know, what discussions him and Brian had, you’ve got to ask him. I know this as a head coach. When you watch film, you understand that P.J. loves to win. He loves to compete. And a lot of times when that defining moment or that instant happens where you’ve got to either, you know, take a slide or get out of bounds or make a hit, you know, he chose to hit. And I think that’s his first reaction.
I don’t know if that’ll ever get out of him, and I’m not going to coach it out of him. But on the same account, you have to be smart about how you approach things. And P.J. looks really good right now. We’ll definitely practice in a certain way to try to minimize the number of hits he takes from our end, as far as from what Wisconsin delivers on him.
You mentioned a little while ago about the cornerbacks and how strong they are defensively. What is it in your mind, mentally, physically, that makes Jack so special on the football field and such a thing that you can count on for your defense?
Well, the part that jumped out at Jack and from the day one when I saw him as a defensive coordinator, Jack has exceptional physical skills. And as you guys know, you’ve interviewed Green Bay Packer corners and NFL corners, Jack looks the part right now. I mean, he, when he walks in the door, he’s going to look how they’re supposed to look, minus all the tattoos and earrings and everything else, which kind of jumps out at me right away too.
He’s a clean kid and represents himself in a first-class manner and really, to this point, has done everything we’ve ever asked him to do competitively. And the part that I like about Jack is he probably plays the hardest . . . I’d love for him to play every day like he does game day, but in reality, that probably can’t exist because he wouldn’t be able to last.
But I think Jack takes pride, especially a year ago as things started to go forward, we would challenge him, you know, to match up against their better players. We’re currently in an installation right now for punt, and I showed seven clips yesterday to our team, and I basically was trying to emphasize how we can change field position.
A year ago versus Purdue, we were backed up on the 14-yard line, and we had offsetting penalties on a punt that they returned the ball all the way, I believe, until our 48. They had a pretty good return. There was offsetting penalties, so we had to do it again, and Jack was on the field on third down, he came off, didn’t execute. He wasn’t on the field for the gunner. I looked at him, I said, Jack, we need field position, I need you out there.
He ran out there, blew by the guy and pinned him on their opposite 31 and probably changed field position by 40 yards. And I showed that to our team on two accounts, to show how much of an effect, you know, special teams has on the game, but also defining, you know, our better players, at times we’re going to call on you to make special plays, and you need to answer.
Coach, Coach Alexander has only had a couple days with the players. How would you say he has interacted with them and how he’s started to blend in with you and your philosophies?
He’s the first wide receiver coach to have a pick in practice that I’ve been around. He was pedaling like off-man the other day, and the quarterback overthrew and he picked it off, so all the kids were giving him a little bit of heat. But I really like, you know, the style that he brings. It’s a very unique situation.
You know, in past coaching experiences, I’ve moved into positions where I’m replacing someone, you know, on a staff that you obviously, when you’re dealing with players, they’re going to have certain expectations because in college you’ve only been coached by one guy. You only know one way of doing things. You haven’t grown as a player and been coached by several people. So that’s always a difficult transition, but from what I’ve seen with Coach Alexander as well as with our players, that’s been very, very positive, and hopefully that’ll continue that way.
There were a lot of Ron Dayne comparisons made last season. Who does P.J. Hill remind you of the most?
You know what? It was interesting, I thought, when it was mentioned earlier about Brian. I had coached against Ron Dayne, but I had never really been up close and personal with Ron, and Ron stopped by the office, oh, probably about three weeks ago, just popped in and had a chance to sit down and visit with him.
And it was kind of funny because he had never met P.J., but he was saying, you know, he would be preparing for a game on Sunday and get a call Saturday afternoon from all of his buddies and all of his former teammates and said look at your little brother, isn’t he doing great, you know, and all this stuff to Ron, and Ron’s like I don’t know the guy. You know, and it was kind of funny how Ron reacted to the whole situation. And they did get a chance to meet and visit.
The comparisons are, you know, if Ron Dayne was from Texas and had played at Illinois, I don’t think that comparison would ever come about. But because he’s from New Jersey and he played at Wisconsin, people automatically assume these things. They’re really two different backs.
You know, the part that jumps out about P.J. early on, in my opinion, was the breakaway speed he has, and he has really, really good hands, and we can use him. Everybody knows P.J. scored the opening touchdown against Michigan a year ago. What they forget, it was this little underneath route that was about a four-yard completion that turned into a touchdown. So there’s a little difference right there.
Coach, the loss of Joe Thomas has obviously been well documented, but what have you seen from Jake [Bscherer] and Gabe [Carimi] and now Danny Kaye that you have confidence in that position, that there’s not going to be such a drop-off?
Well, first off, I have confidence in our coaches. Our coaches will put people in the right positions. Jake and Gabe have been in a battle since last spring. Danny has kind of been a guy in our program that’s been a utility guy. He’s been a guard. He’s been a tackle, right tackle, left tackle. We even put him in at tight end a year ago.
And ever since I’ve been involved in football, my first year as an assistant coach to where I am today, a lot of teams are defined by a couple guys that really come from nowhere and give you something special. And I basically grabbed Danny early on in the summer, and I said, hey, I’m going to give you a chance to be our left tackle with Gabe and Danny, or with Gabe and Jake, and go out there and prove it.
And, you know, these first two pads, the biggest position at a disadvantage is the offensive line, because they’ve just got to sit back and they don’t have anything to hold onto. They’re used to grabbing. And, you know, until we get pads on, that’s going to change. So tonight hopefully you’ll be able to see some guys emerge and be able to take that position full throttle.
Bret, back to DelVaughn for a second. You said that’s a unique situation. I’m just curious. I mean, as a new guy on a six-month contract, did you say to him, look, you can’t hesitate to, you know, get in the face of a kid or really be firm with them, especially the seniors, who had been with Mason for so long. So I just wonder, a new guy might hesitate to do that, at least initially.
Well, the great thing about DelVaughn’s situation was Paul Chryst had already worked with him. And Paul had been the coordinator and quarterback coach when Del was the wide receiver coach, so there’s a comfort level there. What I knew is I needed to have a guy that had great coaching ability on the field. You know, we’ve already gotten ourselves in a line pretty much for recruiting.
You know, there’s two aspects you always look for in assistant coaches. You’ve got to be good coaches on the field, and you’ve got to be able to carry your weight off the field, which is like recruiting and just different aspects of teamwork. And I was really looking for the best X’s and O’s guy, and Paul really felt strongly about it. I brought in Del, brought him in on an interview, got a feel for where he was and what he stood for, and I told him to be his own man.
And actually, you know, him and Coach Mason had a chance to visit one on one, which I think really helped Del, you know, understand exactly what individually each player was like, as well as what the situation is. And again, my hat goes off and my thoughts are always with Henry every day because he’s a man that goes beyond anything he’s done on the football field, and this is just another indication of that, the way he was able to kind of talk to Del and get him on the right track. And I think that’s what I’ve seen the first two days.
Coach, now that Travis Beckum has some significant experience at the tight end position, can you talk about the potential you see for him in the upcoming season?
Well, Travis needs to be a playmaker for us. He was a year ago and really developed over time. The biggest thing, though, you know, everybody buys a ticket on Saturday to watch playmakers make plays, and he needs to continue to do that. The thing that kind of is a growing pain a lot of times for certain guys, especially the emergence of him last year as a sophomore coming into his junior year, everybody that we played as well as everybody that we didn’t play who now has us on film is aware of where Travis is. I mean, he’s a guy that’ll be a marked man, and we need to be able to have other players make plays, which will then allow Travis to make plays as well.
You have a few new receivers, young guys, freshmen, Nick Toon in particular coming up, and it sounds like you have a lot of confidence in them, going to be getting some playing time early on. What is your expectations for him and those other young receivers?
What we did this year, when we came into fall camp, we knew we had some players potentially, not only the wide receivers, but the cornerbacks, linebackers, some skill positions, at the running back position, that we felt we want to find out very early on if they could help us. And what we tried to do in these first two practices in particular is just find out who can kind of grab things and understand.
The receivers, I think that first day in particular, some were more rattled than others, but there was definitely a little bit of an uneasiness to them. They were a lot better yesterday. I expect some of those same things to carry forward today. How much they factor into the season will basically be how they handle these first two to three weeks.
Coach, going back to special teams, my understanding is you’re going to be real heavily involved this year. Can you explain your reasoning for not having a special teams coach and what results you’re looking to improve on?
First question, as being more involved, I’ll be the lead dog on all four phases. Last year I handled the punt team, and then I coached a position on each of the other three units, but the four units I’m talking about in specific. What I try to do is I really took a step back after the season a year ago, and one of the things I like to have is I like to have one voice.
One of the changes I made when I took over as a head coach, on Saturday after game days, I’m the only voice that this team will speak on from a coaching standpoint. I let the players talk to you, but I always felt that I was on page with Coach Alvarez 100 percent, and then I would go into that post-game press conference and I would say something, I’d read Coach Alvarez’s comments, saying, I’m like going, well, we’re not on the same page. And we just hadn’t met, we hadn’t discussed. It wasn’t a contrast in philosophies or anything.
So that made me kind of think back to just having one voice. So as we install all four kicking phases, the only voice you’re going to hear is mine. Now when we take the field, they’ll get coached up individually, but the main voice that we’ll hear as a special teams unit is mine. And the reason for that is I think it maximizes our personnel. When I hired a staff, I went out and hired people that I could feel, that I felt were going to be able to best coach the positions that I hired them to take.
As the process went along, I realized there wasn’t going to be a lead person in the special teams role, because that’s kind of a lost entity after they limited your ability to name a special teams coordinator when we cut back on coaches. We’re not like the NFL. It’s kind of got to be a process of what we do, and I didn’t want to shorthand anybody from the position standpoint, and I wanted Mike Hankwitz to be able to walk around and give his knowledge of years to our entire defense, so that’s why I took the role.