Erickson Meets The Press
Aug. 7, 2002
'This time of year is exciting for everyone who's involved with college football because everybody is undefeated right now. Everybody thinks they can go to the Rose Bowl, everybody thinks they can win every game, so it's an exciting time for the players and the coaches. It's an exciting time for us; we're looking forward to the season. We feel there are some things we've got to accomplish next fall. I won't stay on last year very long, because it's over with, but we were disappointed with how that ended and hopefully we can make that right this fall, and I'm sure we will.
'We just finished with our freshmen and newcomers; we had four practices with them and it's a good group. It's hard to tell who's going to play and who isn't in that group, but it's impressive in a lot of different areas. We've got three junior college players that I feel can really help us - Harvey Whiten, who's a safety who signed with us a couple years ago; Deondre Alexander, who's a wide receiver; and then Brandon Lockheart, who's an offensive lineman who signed with Washington out of high school. Those are three junior college players who could have an impact. You look at the freshmen group, and you just don't know - you kind of have to see how they match up with the guys when they're out there starting tomorrow. I tell you, a guy who's been very, very impressive is Joe Newton out of Roseburg at tight end. He was impressive out there for four practices; we'll see how he mixes in with the rest of the guys. Brandon Browner, who is a big, tall cornerback is a guy we think has a chance. Again, we won't know probably for about 10 days with those young guys and see how they compare. I told them after the last practice, the speed of the game will pick up for you tomorrow because Brandon, now you're going to jam (wide receiver) James Newson; Joe, now you're going to have to get off (middle linebacker) Richard Seigler. It's a whole different ballgame, so it will be interesting to see how those guys fit in.
'Offensively, people talk about our football team and the big question mark for us is running back and quarterback. As I look at it, I believe we're way ahead of where we were a year ago. A year ago, we had our running back and quarterback coming back but we were missing a lot of other pieces of the puzzle. We've got all our receivers back, and I'm sure there will be questions about that; we've got all our tight ends coming back; we've got three offensive linemen coming back who started; and we've got (running back) Steven Jackson and (quarterback) Derek Anderson. They haven't played as much as a lot of people, but they're talented and we'll see how they grow as the season goes on.
'Defensively, we've got nine starters returning and that's the strength of our football team, without a doubt. When you talk defense at Oregon State University, you talk about two places that are real keys for you. Defensive tackle is a real key for us because the way our defense is designed, those tackles penetrate and take up blocks and free up our linebackers, who can run extremely well. With Eric Manning and Dwan Edwards coming back, we feel we've got two defensive tackles who have been in the league and have played well over a couple years now. And then corner - what corner does is, when you have experience at your corners, you can come up and play man coverage, you can bump-and-run, you can do some things that enable you to free up blitzing-wise, bringing people down to play the run. We've got Dennis Weathersby and Terrell Roberts coming back as starting corners. I'm excited about our defense. We'll see what happens. We've got our ends back; we've got Richard Seigler and Nick Barnett (at linebacker) ... I could go through the whole depth chart. But it's a group that's very talented and very experienced and very determined, so it will be exciting to see how they play.
'You look at our kicking game - (placekicker) Ryan Cesca, I thought at the end of the spring he was back to where he had been. As we all know, after the USC game he lost confidence and was not the kicker he'd been two years ago, but I thought this spring he kicked extremely well. Carl Tobey, our punter, is back and that's a real plus for us. We've got to find a punt returner; that was a problem for us last year. But we have Josh Hawkins, Terrell Roberts ... and Deondre Alexander excites me back there, he was extremely good at that in junior college. I look at the athletes and the depth we have compared to last year and two years ago when we first came, and we have more depth, which means we'll be a lot better on special teams. We've got guys who can run who don't start all the time who can spell some people, so to me that equals a better special teams unit and I really believe that will happen.'
(How much could you improve from the last game of 2001 to the first game of 2002?) 'The competition (within the team) is better - that's one of the things. I thought spring ball was the best spring we've had since I've been here, because of the competition, number one, for positions. But the intensity level of our spring was like the first spring we were here. That goes back to going 5-6, and those guys don't want to go 5-6. We don't even want to speak about that here. They were embarrassed about going 5-6, so the intensity level picked up in the spring so it was a very physical spring, and we improved in spring football. I also think that at the end of last year we were playing very well, so we gained a lot of confidence. Even though in the loss to Oregon, it was a loss, I thought defensively we might have been as good as there was in the league a year ago at the end. That gives you confidence going into the fall. All those things make a difference, and that's where the improvement internally happens.'
(Nice to be able to rely on your defense to get off to a good start this season?) 'I've said this ever since I've been in coaching, and I'll go back to the two national championship teams we had at Miami and our 2000 team that beat Notre Dame - we were great on defense. And you don't win unless you're great on defense. What being great on defense does for you is, it gives you more turns on offense, number one; and it gives you a little bit better opportunity to gamble on offense because you know if you turn it over, you're going to come out and be pretty good on defense. Those things are the key to being really good on defense.
'People say, 'The defense has to be good until you gain experience on offense.' I don't believe that, because I believe we have experience on offense. But being good on defense is the key to winning championships or competing for championships, which I hope we can do.'
(People think of Dennis Erickson as an offensive-minded coach, but defenses at OSU have been good since you've been here.) 'If you look back at the history of Dennis Erickson football teams - and you have to go a long way back anymore; some of you weren't alive when I started - but when you look at the good teams we've had ... when we first started at Idaho and some of those places, we spread people out and people couldn't cover some of the things we were doing because we were way ahead of everybody. But when you go back to the last 10 years of my coaching in college, we've been great on defense. I emphasize that. Do I get involved in defense? Not a lot. Do I take credit? Yes, when we're successful (laughter). But coach (defensive coordinator Craig) Bray and his staff do a tremendous job. It boils down to recruiting, in my opinion - recruiting defensive players or guys who can be defensive players. I've always been oriented toward recruiting and getting people who can play defense, because that's the number one thing, in my opinion. If we're successful this year, it will be a combination of all three phases. But if you're solid on defense, you've got a chance. It just gives you a chance to probe a little more on offense, to gamble a little more on offense.'
(If you do have the best defense in the conference, are you surprised you're not ranked in some top 25s? Are you underrated?) 'I don't know. I was surprised when Sports Illustrated ranked us number one (in the 2001 preseason), so what the hell. I think what happens when people start picking first, second, third, fourth, fifth, whatever - they look at the great players, those star players, coming back and if you have a lot of those coming back, you're rated high. I really believe they fail to maybe look at the 16 starters you have coming back. For example, us a year ago - we had Jonathan (Smith, quarterback) and Kenny (Simonton, running back) coming back but we lost all of our receivers, we lost our ends, we lost all these players who made us a solid team but we had two great players coming back. I think it's the opposite this year. We lost some great players, but we have a lot of solid players coming back in a lot of areas. We'll see what happens. I don't care where we're picked, I really don't, because you're going to have to earn it, anyway, so it doesn't make a difference. Get into that top 25 and keep winning, and you'll start moving up and things happen. You'd better win the Pac-10 championship, number one, if you want to accomplish what you need to as far as the BCS and all that is concerned. All we can do is take it one at a time and see what happens.
'Our goal is to go 4-0 in the non-league, and we didn't do that last year and we struggled - particularly at Fresno State. But we've got four football games early in the year - Eastern Kentucky here, then Temple back in Philly, then Nevada-Las Vegas here and Fresno State here - and our goal is to go 4-0 in those games. Then you've got the eight games in the league starting with USC, but we've got to play well early and we've got to win all four of those games to get to our goals.'
(Easier to get ready for this season without the distractions you had prior to 2001?) 'I really believe it makes a little bit of difference, because we weren't quite used to it. I think if it happens to you all the time, it makes a difference. The greatest thing about this year is, (sports information director Hal) Cowan doesn't have to do as much work as he did last year - I think we overworked him too much with all those predictions.
'I believe what happened to us last year brought a lot of recognition to Oregon State and showed that we did have a football program, and that was a plus. And you like to be recognized, so you like to be picked high because your name is out there, no question about it. As far as focus on what we want to get done, it's better not to have to deal with those distractions. I'd like to deal with being picked high every year, because it means we've got pretty good football players, which I think we do.'
(How worried are you about the 'question marks' of running back Steven Jackson and quarterback Derek Anderson) 'I'm not worried at all. You saw Steven Jackson play - would you be worried? Derek, physically, has all the talent and a great work ethic. He'll get better with experience, there's no question about it. But he's got talent and it's important to him. We're going to have to do some things as we start the season to work him in there and not put all the pressure on him.'
(OSU has started slow the past few years - has that been the case at your other coaching stops?) 'You're asking me to go back a ways here. At Miami, we were great all the time; it didn't matter when we played - we could have played in January or February and been pretty good. Probably just since we've been here, we haven't started real well. I remember in 1988 at Washington State when we had that bowl team, we started off great - we beat Tennessee on the road and Minnesota on the road, we had a good start and got some confidence. But when you look at our record early, our record has been pretty good; we've just struggled in some games. We still beat Georgia Southern, we still beat Eastern Washington. The only loss we had, really, was to Fresno State. We've lost one game early - I'm talking about non-league; of course, UCLA last year was pretty disappointing. We sat and thought about that, and I've looked at that and talked to different coaches - I don't think anybody's doing anything different than we've been doing. It's an emphasis, as far as I'm concerned and the coaches are concerned and the players are concerned; we've got to come out of the chute better. To me, that's what it's all about. Sometimes, you play games early that maybe aren't as important as games late, so we've really got to focus and understand what we've got to do early.'
(How important is this year to prove that 1999 and 2000 weren't aberrations?) 'I believe if you look at last year - we're 5-6 and that's not what I want - but when you look at the programs in this league for the most part, other than maybe Oregon the last five-six years; you take them all - USC, UCLA, they've all had 5-6 years. Washington hasn't, but they've been off-and-on too. I don't know that this year is going to be the year we've got to win to establish this program; you've got to remember where it was when we started. The bottom line is, we want to win. Dennis Erickson and his coaching staff and these players are not satisfied with being 5-6. We can't have that; I won't accept that. If we do go 5-6, obviously that's unacceptable. These fans have been here a lot of years when 5-6 was pretty darn good, but that's not how we accept that.'
(Starting your fourth year, has the recruiting come full cycle to where have better depth?) 'What's happened to us is, our first year, we brought in a really good junior college class to go 7-5; then we had a high school class; then the next year when those junior college players were seniors and we had a really good group - five of them are playing in the NFL right now, and we were fortunate to get those kind of players - then we lost them; and we only had two high school classes; so we lost a little separation there. Now we've got another high school class in, so our depth right now is so much better than it was the last two years. When you lose guys who are seniors and you have guys who have been in the program for a period of time and they just fill in, that's when you get your consistency.'We're always going to recruit some junior college players, because I like junior college players. I really believe they go to junior college for whatever reason, they live in an apartment, they don't have any scholarship money, they've got no place to eat (at a training table) - they appreciate having an opportunity to play at this level, so they bust their rear ends. Some of them, we may have to redshirt, so we may take four or five and redshirt two or three; but they're always going to be involved in our program. But the majority now are freshmen and when they come up through the program and develop depth, they step in and that's when you win consistently. I really believe that.'
(Offensive line) 'We lost a couple good players in Chris Gibson and Vincent Sandoval, who played the other night on TV and played pretty well. But we took Matt Brock a couple years ago out of Roseburg as a defensive end and said 'We're going to make this guy a center' because he's a great athlete and he can run. We made him a center from day one he was here and he backed up Chris; I really like where he is right now and he's going to replace Chris. We've got (guard) Kanan Sanchez, who played last year a lot; (guard) Mike Kuykendall played a lot and started; (tackle) Lee Davis started all last year; Doug Nienhuis will be our starting right tackle taking Vinny Sandoval's place. We've finally got some depth there now. (Guard) Brandon Lockheart is a big man, about 330 pounds, a junior college player who has some things to learn but he's very, very talented. (Tackle) Brian Kilkenny will play a lot; he's been here as a freshman and knows the offense. We've finally got some depth that if we happen to lose a guy or two, we've got people who can step in. They've got to work together. I told the players in our meeting last night, one area that's really got to step up for us is the molding of that offensive line, of five or six of them playing together, because that's such an important thing. You can talk about not having the quarterback or the tailback back, but if you're pretty good in the offensive line, you've got a chance.
(Tight end) 'We'll go into this year with great experience. Tim Euhus had a great summer, he's back and he's about 250 pounds; he came off that knee surgery he had and he'll be the starter. Jermaine Jackson played a lot last year; Tyler Ross has played for two years; Dan Haines, who is a redshirt freshman and is the best athlete of the group as far as running and catching, is back. It's a group that last year was inexperienced and learned on the run. You'll see us in a lot of two-tight stuff; you'll see us with a move-guy. We may be in two backs with a tight end as the fullback because of our depth there. We'll move them around and do some different things to take advantage of our depth there. To me, last year it was a weakness going in and now it's a strength. And Joe Newton - I tell you what, he's physically talented, he really is. We'll see how he fits into the picture, whether he plays or he's redshirted.'
(Do you get nervous this time of year?) 'I'm anxious. Some of the young coaches were asking what training camp this was for me ... I've got to think back, but I think it's about my 32nd. And I'm excited; I've been excited about every one. I'm probably more excited about this one than any of them, because it's a fun time. When you know you can build something over a period of time, and now you've got some depth and you know you can go out and compete with anybody, that's fun. I'm looking forward to it. When I lose that excitement at this time of year, it'll be time to go do something else. Maybe go do a radio show or something.'
(On Derek Anderson's progression to this point) 'Our thought coming in from the start was, he'd signed early with us and we know what kind of physical talent he was. So he came in automatically as our second guy because we'd pencilled him in as a starter this year. That was our plan. Often, you've got to have a plan a year ahead of time for certain positions. We made a decision he'd be our No. 2 guy, that we were going to play him, and that he was going to get experience in practice and play in games some. That was the best thing we ever did because when he came into spring ball, he'd been in the offense and had that practice time and done a lot of different things, so he went into spring ball with some experience. Spring ball was a learning process for him. He got better and better all the time. He spent almost all of this summer here with the receivers and so forth, and that made a big difference, too. He's to the point now that the next step is game experience, playing all the time and being the guy. That next step can only happen when we start playing, and that's really where it is. He's physically very talented, he can throw, we know what his size is, he's got good mobility, he's smart, he understands what we're doing - I'm excited to see him. He's going to have good days and he's going to have bad days; that's just how it is. You've just got to get over the bad days and learn, because it's going to happen. It's going to happen all year, it doesn't matter who you play, but as long as he learns from it, he'll continue to get better.'
(How much of an advantage is your schedule for developing younger players early?) 'I'm a little leery talking about that as a coach, because we were going to get our feet wet playing against Georgia Southern (in 1999) and Eastern Washington (in 2000), and we were lucky to get our feet out of the stadium. Game experience is game experience, and he'll just get better the more he plays - all those guys will.'
(On the 12th game) 'I'd rather see a playoff, to be honest with you. We have 12, some guys are going to play 13, if you go play at Hawai'i or to a bowl game, that's 14. It gives you more money, and I'm in favor of that. But it fascinates me that we can sit here and play 13 or 14 games and can't get into a playoff system - and I've got my own idea of the playoff system and still be involved in bowls, if you don't make the eight you get a chance to play in a bowl - and create millions and millions of dollars to help schools that are having trouble financially to make it. Yet we won't do that, but we'll go ahead and play 12 or 13 or 14 games - I don't understand that. I got that off my chest. But I have no problem with 12 games at all, and hopefully 13. But if they start going any more than that, we've got some problems. Let's benefit everybody in I-A, I-AA - the pot would be unbelievable for a playoff. You'll give money to every I-A school, every I-AA, and keep it afloat so kids will have the opportunity to play football. There are so many things that can be done, but we won't do that and we'll play 14 games.'
(With 12 games, why not schedule everyone in the Pac-10?) 'If we play 12 games, then I'm in favor of that. If we play 12 games, let's play everybody in the Pac-10. Everybody plays everybody; let's go. I'd be in favor of 12 games if we could do that. Will that happen? I don't know - you'll have to ask (acting athletic director) Bob De Carolis. Sometimes we don't make sense, we really don't. The other thing that drives me nuts in the Pac-10 is, how can we play at USC three straight years? Or how can Arizona play here three straight years? How can that possibly be? That's an incredible brain trust. But if we play 12 games, we should play everybody in the Pac-10. I mean, how does Oregon miss Washington one year? As much as they dislike each other, that's a fun game for me to watch.'
(See some swagger back in your defense?) 'I hope so. I saw it in the spring. We lost it - I might have held it back a little last year, because of some of the flack we got from the Fiesta Bowl and all that stuff. That was stupid on my part. Will I let them have a little swagger? They can have as much swagger as they want as long as they play well.'
(Does an aggressive defense have to play on that edge a little?) 'A good defense will have penalties because they're aggressive. As long as they're not stupid penalties. If you're aggressive, you're aggressive and it may happen. The good defensive teams you see probably are right up there (in penalties).'
(Do you see Steven Jackson as a running back you can lean on as Derek Anderson gains experience?) 'The thing that Steven is going to find out, and I've seen it happen a lot of times, is that when you come in off the bench and Kenny (Simonton) has been carrying the football and he's a little different look, now you've got somebody 230 pounds and he comes in and carries it 15 times a game - and some games, like the USC game, a little more - it's a little bit easier. When you're the man, and you've got that target on you, he's going to have to learn to deal with that. Can he do it? There's no question in my mind he can do it. But it's going to be a little different situation for him than it was last year.'
(How do you see Dwight Wright as a backup for Jackson?) 'I like Dwight Wright. He's a little different look - he's short and he's got really good speed. The combination of those two can be a pretty darn good combination. We'll see. And then injuries play into that a little, too.'
(How do you size up the Pac-10 race?) 'Flip a coin. I mean, I don't know that there's anybody who can't win the league. You go through how the media picked it, and Washington is going to be good, they've got (quarterback Cody) Pickett and a good offensive group back. Washington State has (quarterback Jason) Gesser back but they lose some pretty good players, as does Washington. Oregon, we all know who they lose, but they've got some players coming back and the thing about them is, they've been there and they believe they can win; that's a real key. I think Arizona has a chance to be awfully good; they've got guys returning and they could be the sleeper. USC and UCLA have as good a talent as anybody in the league; if one of those two won it, it wouldn't surprise me a bit. If you get some momentum going early like Washington State did last year, and you win early ... it kind of depends on your schedule, too, in the Pac-10. And if you can stay healthy - and when I say stay healthy, I mean not losing someone where you don't have a quality backup who can step into their place. You've just got to go and see what happens as the year goes on.'
(OSU, Oregon and Washington have separated themselves as the biggest homefield advantages in the Pac-10. Is it due to some apathy around the rest of the league?) 'You play Washington, Oregon or Oregon State, and those fans - the support, the noise - it's just a little different when you go down south. That's just how it is. We've created some really good atmospheres up here. Down there, not that they don't have the crowds, but sometimes the stadiums make a difference. How far away are they? When you play here, or at Oregon or Washington, they're right on you and that's a heck of an advantage. When you can't hear, you can't audibilize, it's hard. And in those three stadiums, it's hard to do it unless you go up on them early and they shut up, but that doesn't happen often. It's interesting. Who wins on the road will be a real key - that's the other thing in winning the championship. You've got to have some success on the road. You've got to win them all at home and steal some on the road. The other thing you've got to look at in the league is who do the teams have on the road? Who are they playing on the road? That makes a difference?
(On your deep threat with Derek Anderson and the receivers) '(Wide receiver) James Newson might be one of the better players in the league at that position, and he's a longball threat who's going to go up and get it. We have to have a couple receivers step up and make plays for us to be really explosive. James is one, and we've got a lot of other ones who are talented but they have to step up and start making plays. We've got some guys who can run out there who could be deep ball threats, but they have to do it on Saturdays. That's a real key, because if we run the football with any success and they start getting all those people up there, we have a chance to get that long ball and Derek can throw the long ball.'
(Early-season adjustments to help Derek Anderson?) 'We have to be able to cut the offense down early so he's very good at some of the things, then continue to increase what we do. That's just how it is with a beginning quarterback. Being successful running would make a huge difference - now you can run some play-action pass and do some things until he fits in. You don't want to put him in a lot of third-and-14 or third-and-15 early.'