Al Groh Readies His Squad for Saturday's Game Against NC State
Oct. 24, 2006
Charlottesville, Va. –
Opening comments about playing NC State this week.
Groh: In NC State this week, we play a team that is the most dangerous team that we’ve played on a one-play at a time basis, or the most one-play explosively dangerous team that we’ve played in all three phases. They are a very constant threat on every special teams play. They can change the game on any one play. They have a long history of blocking punts; this year they’ve blocked three. In Darrell Blackman, they have a very dynamic punt return man. He returned one for a touchdown last week. So in that phase, there’s concern about one–getting it protected and two–getting it covered. That could change the game in one play; that’s nothing new, it’s been their M.O. here for quite some time, we just haven’t had to deal with it in two and a half seasons.
Offensively, this is certainly the best two-back stable of runners that we’ve faced, in (Andre) Brown and (Tony) Baker, who are terrific players; we certainly are familiar with them from way back when. Brown is averaging in something to excess of six yards per carry, which is phenomenal. He’s a size back, but he’s really a make’em-miss back. If he were a baseball pitcher, he’d be throwing a lot of curveballs and sliders. Tony Baker just comes at you fast and furious. He’s got a lot of movement skills. He is tough, he is strong, he’s a very, very good player. Each back in his own right is a 30-35 carries per game player, they just divide it up amongst themselves. The receiving corps, as a group, would probably be the fastest relay team that we’ve played against this year. Is there a Calvin Johnson in the group? Not likely, but as a group they can put four out there that could probably outrun any four that we’ve played against this year. The two defensive tackles, Tank (Tyler) and DeMario (Pressley), they’re really good, and they’ve got speed off the edge like they’ve always had. On any one particular play, I would certainly say they’re a greater threat to do something to disrupt the game as a team on any one particular play.
It’s a big challenge for our team. Certainly from a focus standpoint every player on every unit on every play has got to be on his game on that play or else we’re likely to have a play that could be just one of those few plays in the game that makes it very difficult to win the game. We’ve got a lot to deal with here, we’re doing a little bit better than we’ve done. We’ve still got a lot of things we have to do better. We started to address those things yesterday and hopefully the message is getting through.
How much focus is put on NC State’s past since you haven’t played them in several years?
Groh: We try to keep as much as we can. Obviously the teams on our schedule get the majority of our attention, but we try to keep a running book on all the teams in the conference, so that they are conference opponents when we play them rather than being any different than any non-conference team. For example, Clemson. We’re trying to pay very close attention to Clemson; not just as fans, but as members of the conference. I haven’t even looked at the schedule to know when they’re coming back on, but they will here one of these days and we want to have a working knowledge base on their style of play, so we try to do the same thing with NC State.
If NC State seems to be so explosive on both sides of the ball, they why aren’t they in the top 25 and 6-1 or 7-0?
Groh: Same answers that apply to all teams. They’ve had difficulty with turnovers as they did last week, they’ve been unsettled at quarterback, and they’ve gotten untimely penalties.
Talk about NC State’s ability to block punts and preparing punter Ryan Weigand.
Groh: Thursday night’s game was not a game where the opponent’s approach was to heavily pressure. It was probably a good game for him to break in with. But that was all very good, obviously. We tried to ramp up the pressure last night, try to make it look a lot closer to what we expect it to be on Saturday.
How encouraging is it, even after a shaky start, that you find yourself essentially only one game out of first place in the division?
Groh: It’s one of the things that’s a great benefit of how the conference is lined up right now. Teams that look at the makeup of their team go into a season and when the team looks at itself, it can reasonably say that they have a good chance to be better at the end of the season than they are at the first of the season. It’s how they performed, you can work your way through the first part of the season and continue to improve and other things within the conference help position you such, that you got a chance to be in the race at the end of the season. That’s why a couple years ago when asked, we said the way the conference had become aligned with two divisions, the whole emphasis is on winning your division. Regardless of what precedes it, if you can win your division, you’re in the final game. And if you’re in the final game, whether you’re 5-6 or 6-5 or 7-4 or whatever it is, if you’re in the championship game and you win one more game, then you’re in the playoffs. It certainly adds a lot to it and keeps things interesting for teams and for fans. If the goal is to win your conference every year, just chase that divisional lead and you’ve got a chance to stay in the hunt. It certainly should be motivating for teams.
NC State is 2-2 in the conference with big wins over Florida State and Boston College and losses to Wake Forest and Maryland last week. Obviously they have some mistakes thrown in there that have hurt them, but are they a good example of how conference teams are just beating up on each other?
Groh: I’m sure they would feel that way. If you have wins over those two teams (Boston College and Florida State), one that is traditionally strong and one of most talented teams in the conference and a team that sits on top of its division, it certainly shows at their best what they can be. At their best, they’ve proven against the best the conference has to offer right now, they’re hard to beat.
You’ve played a lot of true freshmen, particularly in 2002 This is probably your youngest team across the board. Have you had to balance trying to win this year with laying a foundation for the future? What challenges does that present?
Groh: We’ve had seasons where we’ve played nine or 10 freshmen and we were actually a more veteran team than we are now. We’re really only playing Fontel (Mines), Deyon (Williams), Jason (Snelling), (Marcus) Hamilton, on a rotating basis (Tony) Franklin, four or five seniors to any high level of minutes and two of those spots with Williams back from his injury and Franklin, they actually rotate into their positions. So even though we’re using very few true freshmen this year, it’s, if not our youngest team in that context, it’s our most inexperienced team.
One of the things we tried to make sure that we do is to make sure the freshman class gets the message about some of the really important things of what it takes to win and how to be prepared and what the future holds, that they’re tuned into everything as if they were getting ready for the games. The hope is that they’re learning by being around it because they will be in it to a high degree next year. We’ve tried to keep them very much included almost as if they were playing knowing some of them are of the ability level that they will be in the action early next year, they could be playing next year. There are a couple of them at some of the positions where we’re asking some guys to do iron man duty. We could be playing some of these players to help us out in that circumstance but we just took an approach here to, certainly not to undersell what we could this year, but to certainly make an investment in the long term and to have the discipline to avoid a season where some of these players might have 65-70 plays as opposed to a year in the future where they might have 400-500 plays. Now if the makeup of the team was that those 65-70 plays might put us over the edge, could have made us a dominant team and give us an even stronger run at the title, then we might have done that.
You were in on the recruiting of NC State tailback Tony Baker until the very end. What about Andre Brown?
Groh: We were involved very aggressively recruiting Andre and then he ended up spending the next year at Hargrave and going on down to State. Like I said earlier, we are well acquainted with those two players from way back when.
As a coach, how do you address issues such as dropped passes and mistakes similar to that?
Groh: I don’t think you can look the other way. There were a number of items from the game last week, if we’re going to play better, that we can’t continue to have. We have to catch the ball more efficiently; we left, I would say through a number of circumstances, at least four touchdowns on the field last week. Either from a protection standpoint as well from a catch the ball area, we had far too many penalties last week. Those are two things in particular if you go back and look at any team in the closely matched games at this time of year the way that games turn out, those two things explain things as much as who is superior in running or defending the run. You have to be able to take advantage of your opportunities when you have them. Scores are hard to come by, when you create some looks that give you a good shot to get in the end zone, if you don’t get it there, those looks aren’t something that come back in a game. When the ball is going in the wrong direction through your own efforts and not the other teams, those are things that are hard to overcome. We have to get those viruses out of our system this week, or else if we’re still afflicted with them on Saturday we are in trouble.
What is your feeling about the option play and how much would you consider using it?
Groh: We ran it two or three times the week before, we ran it last week. You know its there. It’s three things: it’s the right circumstance, what defenses we think we might get, as it is with a lot of plays, what is the feeling at the moment, what is the sense of the right circumstance.
What do you remember about the 51-37 2002 game against NC State?
Groh: I remember that those two quarterbacks (Matt Schaub and Philip Rivers) have confirmed why that game, actually the score was 37-37 with 45 seconds left, they both have pretty much gone on to show why nobody could cool them off that particular day. That was one where there was this sense that developed that you couldn’t miss too many chances in that one because that was probably the way it was going to go.
Chris Long has said that he earlier this season he needed to start practicing smarter. What are your thoughts on his development and this type of mindset?
Groh: I think that it is certainly a phase that you hope players move into as they mature as a player. That is a very good sign of his maturity and the results are there to show his maturity. If you have seen him in practice or had a conversation with Chris, you would see that he is wired pretty hot. He is a total effort player in all phases of things: training, practice, games. When he first started practicing here it was like a dog chasing cars. It was all effort, but he has learned how to direct and focus that effort toward things that will result in performance. I think that is what he was referring to. He has a plan now for everything, `this is what I have to get better at today’, `these are the things I have to look for in the game.’
This game has important standings implications for both teams, does that make the game more competitive?
Groh: I would certainly think so. Although our focus on this one isn’t long term, it is specifically on how are we going to beat these guys collectively. And for each of our players how is he going to beat the guy across from him. To look much further than that would probably be self-defeating.
NC State’s leading receiver in TE Anthony Hill, how does the Wolfpack’s emphasis on tight end production mirror what is done at Virginia?
Groh: A lot of teams in this league make good use of the tight end, but I don’t recall here recently, besides ourselves, where the tight end is the leading receiver. He’s the leading receiver in terms of catches, a very adept pass receiver. When you look at his numbers, 6’5″, 273, you don’t expect to see the type of athletic ability that you do but he is a very athletic player. And he has caught his share of vertical passes. He had one last week, one the week before, one against Wake Forest down in the corner. They use him in a very diversified way and once he gets into the secondary he is a very difficult matchup from a size standpoint for guys with safety size to knock him off the ball.
Jameel Sewell looks as though he has gained a certain level of comfort in the last couple games, how would you assess his progress?
Groh: He does look more comfortable. We have talked about other players of this nature, another player from his school has been this way, Jeffrey [Fitzgerald]. Certain players demonstrate a capacity to take their experiences and really move along quickly with them and other players take more time. It sometimes appears to be the more athletically gifted player, that is just the start, those athletic gifts have to be there just to put them on the starting line. But where they progress from there really applies to the intangibles. It really applies to anything. You can point too fairly intelligent young people in their first grade class and they are both going to end up being equally sharp but at one particular point one child learns to read faster than the other. And the same thing happens with football players. Some guys just get it faster than others. Thus the term `quick study.’
With the offensive line’s continued development, does the whole unit only progress as fast as the slowest progressing player?
Groh: Well there is no doubt with that group that one guy can hold the whole deal back. More than saying it that way, I would say that to progress to a certain point, they all need to move along together, or they need to get to a certain point where you can expect a particular level of performance on an ongoing basis and until you can say each one of them has gotten to that point you are going to still have this stop-start-sputter-go fast routine. And we still experience that whether it’s in the games or whether its in practice. We had the circumstance last week where we had the ball two times in plus territory where we had two penalties and the best we could get out of it was a field goal. Both came with the personnel you are talking about.
Is this one of those years that makes you love coaching, the chance to mold players for the future?
Groh: For its challenges, or its other emotions that it brings, it is one of those years. This project will go on for a while. I think because of the talent base that is on the team particularly with the young classes, you can see the picture when it is done and the chance to do that. It is certainly stimulating in that respect.