Sunday, June 28, 2009

Tedford's Comments at the Coaches' Tour

Just like last year, I had a the chance to talk with coach in a smaller group after the microphone comments to the audience were done. And just like last year, what he said, how he said it, and how candid he was, was worth the 1-year wait.

I have said it before: I believe he has this program on a slow, steady upward arc, and the best is yet to come. The "window closing" phenomenon that people reference (sometimes overly so) to describe professional sports teams also applies to many college program dynasties or winning periods, particularly those that are run more like professional programs, such as the Miamis and USCs and Alabamas. Those programs tend to spike and then flame out (and then spike again...and again...and again).

The elements Tedford has woven into this program though, that really have become engrained in its identity, its "brand," give it a chance to avoid that window closing: the academic balance, the family atmosphere, the emphasis on character and avoiding the hard-sell in recruiting, the willingness constantly to innovate, and the commitment (eventually) to state of the art facilities. Talking to him at the Coaches' Tour reinforced the belief that he is about as good a fit for this university as there is, and that the future of the program under him is bright.

Now, onto his comments. One caveat: this is only part of what he told me. Much as I wish I could share everything he said, there were some things that I do not believe he would have wanted blasted over the internet.

On what was "wrong" with the offense last year:

Without getting into specifics, suffice it to say that Tedford was not satisfied with various elements of the offense last year, both scheme-wise and execution-wise. As nicely as I could, I noted some things that seemed out of sync about the offense last year: linemen whiffing on blocks especially early on, the QBs appearing to have nobody open often, inability to score in the redzone, over-use of the screen, to name a few. I told him I thought it lacked and the variability and multiplicity that we had come to expect from him, and he indicated he generally agreed. In fact as I was politely searching for the word to describe how the offense looked at times last year, he interrupted me and said with a wry smile, "Stagnant? Is that the word you're looking for?" I said I wouldn't go that far, but he disagreed and implied it was stagnant at times. But he was quick to say we wouldn't have to worry about that this year.

I asked how much of that was scheme versus players just not executing. He said it was both, and noted the youth on the offensive side of the ball and the injuries up front. However, he also said Cignetti brought in some new plays and schemes, and his method was to run fewer plays but "own" them. Though he was very classy about discussing Cignetti and never said anything overtly negative about him, I detected he was not thrilled with that approach nor in the results it generated last year. I do not get the sense we will be seeing any of the plays that Cignetti brought with him in next year's offense.

I cannot emphasize enough that Tedford was as gentlemanly about his former coordinator as you could be, while still making it clear that things are going to be different and better this year.

On what Ludwig will bring to the offense:

Switching gears to talking about Ludwig brought out a totally different demeanor in Tedford. His excitement over Ludwig's hiring is readily apparent. He seems genuinely happy about working with him and turning the offense to him. Last year, when we talked about the offense (and the team in general), he seemed different, more philosophical and more focused on rebuilding the team's psyche and chemistry. And he was much more even-keeled, a bit less animated. I didn't realize it until I talked to him this time around, and noticed the difference in demeanor. Maybe it was just the day and time I happened to catch him, but to me, he seemed more upbeat and excited about this year's team.

In terms of what Ludwig brings to the table, he said some interesting things. First off, he noted the efficiency of their shared backgrounds, namely that Ludwig already understood the terminology and schemes. He said it comes down to simple things like Ludwig not having to ask why Tedford calls a particular thing by a particular name, and how things fit together. While this might seem like a minor point, he said it was significant.

Second, he said Ludwig will bring more multiplicity back to the offense. I won't repeat the examples he gave, but the bottom line is he got animated when he started talking about some of the things we will see this year.

Third, he stressed Ludwig's ability to connect with QBs, and actually teach them finer points like mechanics and reading techniques. He talked about how after several years of coaching QBs, you can be scanning the whole offense in practice and out of the corner of your eye, notice if a QB's mechanics or technique is off. He said Ludwig has that kind of ability and is very involved with every detail of the QBs' development. More on the QBs below as well.

Fourth, in terms of playcalling, he spoke in generalities (without naming names) about often having difficulty gelling with a coordinator in playcalling. An example he gave was a coordinator calling certain plays because he thinks Tedford wants him to, instead of calling the play the coordinator really wants to call. Though he did not say it, you can extrapolate the kind of frustrating cat and mouse doublethink game that would ensue between head coach and coordinator, wondering what the other guy thinks the other guy is thinking. Not a healthy way to call a game in my opinion. The relevance of this point to Ludwig is Tedford said that aside from them speaking the same language and having similar philosophies, he also trusts Ludwig's experience in terms of game planning and play calling. He cited the Utah-Alabama game as an example.

Finally, he talked about Ludwig's changes to the way the offense practices, in particular the passing game. I'll share one example. Rather than running 7 on 7 all the time (multiple receivers running multiple routes against defenders), Ludwig has the WRs line up and run the same routes over and over without defenders. Ludwig's philosophy, as Tedford explained, was that in 7 on 7, a single receiver may run 15 different routes from different positions during a drill period and only catch 1 ball on one route, depending on who is open and what the defense does. But in the one-route drill, each receiver is guaranteed to catch multiple balls running the same route. This allows the receivers and QB to get on the same page with each route, to get the pitch-and-catch feel of each route, and to perfect the fine points of each route. Though not a revolutionary drill (I think we ran this one in junior high actually), as I'll explain below when addressing the wide receivers, this repetition should fix some of the problems we saw last year in the passing game.

My favorite quote of the evening, which I think sums up what Tedford expects from this year's offense, was, "You are going to like the offense. We are going to look a lot like we looked my first couple years here."

On differences we can expect to see on the offensive line play under Coach Marshall:

The thing he noted here more than anything else was Marshall will bring more variety of scheme to the table (see a pattern developing?). Without casting aspersion over Michalczik (he was very complimentary as always), Tedford very tastefully explained that Michalczik emphasized simplifying the offense for his linemen so they could master their assignments and techniques. This sometimes meant more simplified gameplans in certain respects. To his credit, this was also one of the reasons Michalczik was able to interchange his linemen more fluidly, and turn perhaps less talented guys into effective starters. In that sense, he was a good teacher.

But you can tell Tedford is excited about being more variable and multiple up front under Marshall, much like the offensive line schemes are in the NFL. I expect this to once again be an area of strength for this team, like a few years back.

On recruiting:

As we've heard him say before, though they have evolved into offering early in order to adapt to the changing recruiting climate, Tedford is not in love with the trend of offering kids way early across the board, for several reasons. First, he'd rather get to know the recruits and their families over time, and make sure the recruits see what is out there before they commit, because it is a big decision for them and their families.

Second, he said that he is adamant with his staff that they cannot give an offer unless they are prepared to give a scholarship to that recruit. This sounds obvious, but he noted that there are coaches (he would of course not name names) who offer well over what they actually have in available scholarships, figuring if they have too many acceptances, they'll just cross that bridge when they come to it and retract offers if they have to. Tedford said he doesn't believe in doing that. I wonder if those words have ever come out of Harbaugh's or Saban's mouths.

Unfortunately, offering early makes abiding by that principle difficult because it means if you discover a kid late, or he verbals late, you may not have a spot for him. Thus, he said he and his staff have to be much more careful about whom they offer when they offer early.

His final point about offering early, and about recruiting in general, was interesting. He said that early verbals change the recruiting process by shifting the focus to one school. Once a kid verbals to you, he said, everyone starts recruiting against you, whereas when a kid is deciding between multiple schools, the negative recruiting is dispersed over a larger group. However, Tedford said he likes to be in a recruiting battle until the bitter end and seemed to relish the process of building a relationship and solidifying it with a commitment on signing day.

On learning the 3-4 from Dick LeBeau and what they like about the defense:

I asked him about his staff's decision to switch to the 3-4, and specifically, how they approached Dick LeBeau about learning it. I asked, "So did you just call him up and say, 'Hey Coach LeBeau, this is Jeff Tedford. My staff would like to learn the 3-4. Would you mind if we flew out and met with you for a few days to pick your brain and watch some film?'"

His response was essentially, yes, that's about how it went.

I expressed surprise that LeBeau was so nice about it. He said LeBeau is not only a first class guy, but also that LeBeau had sort of loosely followed the program the past few years, had more than a casual knowledge of the team, and had enjoyed watching them. Since then, they've spoken and met again, and LeBeau has taken an interest in the team, watched them on TV when he gets a chance. Basically he said LeBeau's was more than happy to help and is a quality guy.

Tedford acted almost as if to say, "Yeah, that's great that he was so nice, wasn't it?" But in a genuine sort of way, not an 'aw shucks', Urban Meyer/Mack Brown sort of way. The truth is, and maybe I am going to go out on a limb here, but a guy as busy as Dick LeBeau is probably not going to waste his time teaching his patented, super-bowl winning defense to any college coach who calls him up. Though Tedford would never admit it, I think it shows how well regarded Tedford is in the coaching world. I have a hard time imagining LeBeau giving that invitation to, say, Newweasel or Kiffin?

In terms of why they switched to the 3-4 and what they like about it, aside from the obvious fact of making recruiting easier, Tedford noted the difficulty it causes for opposing blockers. The point he made was this: Everyone knew #56 was the guy to watch out for, and someone was supposed to get a hat on him every play; yet how many times did we see #56 come free and blast the QB? And if #56 was blocked, that meant someone else was free. That's the beauty of the system -- it creates opportunities.

Like the offense, he said the defense would be even more multiple this year now that the players were more familiar with it.

On the receivers last year:

He said the passing game problems were a combination of a lot of things, much of which will be fixed with experience, practice, and honing technique. But one thing he pointed out was guys slowing down at the top of the route, or gliding out of their break and looking back for the ball too early, or just plain running "soft" or rounded routes. He said these are signs of youth and a bit of mistrust of the QB and the route -- the receiver is gliding and looking instead of blasting out of his cut with his head down and trusting the ball will be there. The result is that the timing between QB and WR is off, because the QB is throwing to where the WR should be, and the WR is not there in time (or he's there but the defender is right there because the WR slowed up). The problem gets exacerbated when the QB starts adjusting throws to these "modified" routes. Now both guys are off the page. This is how passing games fall apart.

He said there were times last season where the WRs could have blown patterns wide open for 6 points had they run the routes correctly. He said Jackson, Jordan and Hawkins excelled in this area, but this new group has some work to do on this.

Which gets back to Ludwig's repetitive pitch and catch drills. Tedford said these receivers are talented but just need that repetitive route running, blasting out of their cuts and catching a laser just as they turn around, in the same spot, over and over again, until it becomes second nature. Same goes for the QBs throwing those passes. That is how you get your timing down.

On the quarterback mechanics:

I told him I thought Riley's and Longshore's mechanics seemed to change as the season wore on, such as lifting the back foot, lunging and heaving, not varying their release points, and in Riley's case, coming over the top awkwardly at times. He said their mechanics probably regressed a bit last year. I also said they just didn't look like traditional Tedford QBs and asked if that was the result of Cignetti changing their mechanics, and he said no. Rather, Cignetti simply did not focus on that as much because he is more from the NFL school, which is that with QBs, you don't coach technique as much.

I asked if that would change under Ludwig, and he said emphatically yes. He said Ludwig is big on details. Tedford also said he was working with the QBs himself on technique as well. Don't be surprised if we see a return to the high ball carriage, snapping short release, and tiptoe footwork of the Tedford quarterback circa 2002-2004.

Other odds and ends on individual players:

  • He said to watch out for Kendrick Payne -- feels he has the potential to be a household name, like Mebane, when it's all said and done.

  • He pointed out Sofele as having the potential to see the field among the incoming guys, and perhaps some of the JC guys.

  • He said Hagan is very talented, but could be even better when he stops trying to always make the big play or freelance.

  • He said Guarnero has excellent technique and feel for the game, but he's still a bit on the small side and he hopes he'll put on some weight.


Kaplan said...

Wow excellent article! I'm... at least 3 times more excited for the season than I was before I read it :)


ragnarok said...

Great, great stuff, sir. Probably the most interesting piece on Cal Football I have read in a long, long time.

Greg Richardson said...

Absolutely first class stuff. Especially appreciated the insights on Ludwig and Cignetti. It was clear to me that the attention to detail which so marked the Tedford offense was not there last year.

One quibble. I think Marshall is a question mark. Michalzik may have been overly simple but our OLs were GREAT while he was here save for last year and that had more to do with injuries and youth than anything else IMO. I worry that Marshall will complicate things and over teach these kids and we'll be left with confused and hesitant OL. JM was a loss and hopefully Marshall can step in and be as good or even better but I believe that is a BIG question mark.

Anonymous said...

least Coach M isn't with the Huskies.

Like everyone is saying, EXCELLENT write-up. This touched on a lot of interesting items.

Lastly - If Tedford is excited..!!##@$@#*!! We saw team chemistry improvements in 09, something Tedford explicitly stated he'd fix and it resulted in 2 more wins. Let's hope Tedford and Ludwig's work with the offense results in some more wins!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the insights. I am so excited about the up coming season. Only question I have, and curious to how Tedford will address in the future, is about our poor Kick-offs.

SD said...


Tedford actually addressed that as part of the post-program comments to the small group of us. He basically said it's a big issue, and they really want someone to step up. He said it is always a bit befuddling when a kid kicks the ball into the endzone repeatedly in HS (off a college tee even), and then all of a sudden can't when he gets to college. They are going to give D'Amato a shot, said Seawright will get a shot (but his injury is still a bit nagging), and of corse Tavecchio. It seemed clear that Tedford wished there was a more clear answer than that, but for now, that's the status.

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