Q&A With Coach Keeler, Part 1

Overview of Topics, Brief 2011 Review, Spring 2012 Goals, Off-Season Work

Big R, GoHens.net special correspondent
April 2, 2012

This is the first of a multi-part series of posts summarizing the GoHens.net interview.

On March 17th, following the first scrimmage of the Spring, Coach Keeler sat down with GoHens.net to talk about the team.

I have to say, first of all, that KC was extremely giving of his time. When Scott Selheimer set up the interview, he said that it would start about 15 minutes after the scrimmage ended, which would give KC a chance to shower and change. But, KC called me into his office right away. When I asked how much time he could give me he said as much as I wanted, but that he was hoping to shower and then catch the radio broadcast of the lacrosse game against Hofstra, which was due to start in about 15 minutes. I know how important that is to him since his son Jackson is on the team. I told myself to keep the interview to 30 minutes, max, but we talked for just over an hour and I never felt that KC was impatient or that I was being rushed.

the questions we have tend to be more specific and detailed than what casual newspaper readership might want to know

As I told KC, the readership of the website consists of a mix of die-hard fans, including current and past STH’s, “displaced” fans who now live far away, family members, ex-players, etc. As a result, the questions we have tend to be more specific and detailed than what casual newspaper readership might want to know. He answered every question I asked openly and with the detail I hope you will find interesting and enjoyable.

Some of what we talked about was later covered in a 20-minute radio interview as was posted by Firstand10BlueHens, including a link to the interview. If you haven’t listened to that, I suggest you do so. I do not plan to rehash many of the points KC made in both interviews, although I will mention a few because they are integral to the entire fabric of our conversation.

Overview of Topics

The topics I hoped to cover included:

  • The Team Overall (last year, off-season, this Spring)
  • Coaching Philosophies
  • Update on individual players and units
  • The Changing Landscape of College Football – FCS, CAA,
  • Facilities
  • Recruiting
  • KC himself

The Team Overall

GoHens: Quick review of last season - What were your most pleasant surprises?

KC: Sean Baner – from poor performance last Spring to All-Conference kicker; the reality is he could have been our starting punter, too. But his Spring was so poor, we decided to bring in a rugby-style kicker. Sean did a great job with kick-off’s, FG’s, and extra points resulting in his being named first team All-CAA.

GoHens: What were your biggest disappointments/regrets?

Keeler: The overall landscape of what we did – especially losing to UMass (at home) and RI. We felt we were the better team and those two losses kept us out of the playoffs.

the thing people don’t understand about Trevor is this great mentality about playing the game. He has no fear

From a player perspective, it was getting Trevor hurt. He has tremendous athletic talent, but the thing people don’t understand about Trevor is this great mentality about playing the game. He has no fear – nothing bothers him, nothing rattles him. He has a potential career-ending injury. He was a redshirt sophomore and we felt we had a potential all-conference QB for 3 years and you lose him – that’s disappointing. I was excited for Trevor to get this opportunity because he was sitting behind Pat (Devlin) waiting for his time and it just didn’t work out that way. No telling how his recovery is going to turn out – probably won’t know until July or August. Good news, no Setbacks, bad news, there is still a lot he has to go through.

GoHens: So, you have to move on, your mindset has to be to move on.

Keeler: And he knows that. We discussed that and I said: We need to bring in a transfer in and he said: ‘That’s fine, I’ll beat him out!’ – that’s sort of his mindset. But we can’t count on him at all. We just have to approach it as life without Trevor being here.

(GoHens note: This is the second time I’ve heard KC talk in person about Trevor in such glowing terms. You can tell that he felt he had something special – a homegrown QB who was a talent and a leader, and who could lead the team for 3 years.)

Spring Practice

GoHens: What are your Goals for Spring Practice?

Keeler: We need to work on our O-line and D-line. We’re big and strong, our strength staff has done a great job, but I was just disappointed with our mental toughness out there today. Too many times we just didn’t push through. Now, it was warm, and we did have 104 snaps, but I just think we need to create a stronger mental toughness. We want to be a physically tough team and a mentally tough team, so we are going to continue challenging the guys. It all has to start up front. If we don’t get better up front, it’s going to be a long year. We need to get better up front … and I think we will, but it’s a long way off. You don’t realize, when you lose a Nagle, Gradkowski, McDowell, Allard – that’s a lot of starts. Brandon Heath is one of the best O-linemen in this league already. When he leaves here as a senior, he’ll be the best O-linemen in the league and maybe one of the best in the country at our level and he could be special. But there are a lot of moving parts there that we have to get worked out. Same thing with the defensive line losing Atunrase and some of the other seniors. There’s just … a void … and so we need to keep working through it and I think we will, but the challenge is to get the O-line and D-line worked out.

We want to be a physically tough team and a mentally tough team, so we are going to continue challenging the guys. It all has to start up front.

GoHens: So, during the Spring – what is your focus with the O-line? Clearly developing cohesiveness is important, but are you using the time to work on that, or to try to determine who the right players are?

Keeler: There’s a lot that goes into the Spring, and the first is developing a mental and physical toughness. The other thing is developing a cohesiveness, not just among the O-line but among the whole team. We went bowling Friday as a whole team – coaches & players. We do leadership training in February. Every Tuesday we bring in soft pretzels after our workout and we sit around in groups of 10 and do leadership development things. It makes the kids really interact with each other and interact with the staff. The off season is an interesting time because you’re developing a lot of things. You’re developing a mentality of how you want to be as a team, you’re developing cohesiveness. During the leadership meetings certain topics always come up and one of the things that came up this year was that they weren’t close enough as a team, they feel they need to be closer as a team. I told them: “That’s funny because that’s the same thing that came up with the 2003 team and the 2007 and 2010 teams. Because there is that “senior void” and you’re “swimming” a little bit now, but you will develop that closeness.” And I actually think this team is pretty close, even if they don’t feel that yet. So that’s why we went bowling, that’s why we talk about “lets do this, let’s do that”. We’ll have a cookout and we’ll watch a lacrosse game. The leadership council just got the template of the locker room and they’re going to restructure the locker room so you’re not sitting next to a guy at the same position. You’re sitting offensive guy next to a defensive guy; older with younger; experienced player with transfer; guys who can mentor with guys who need mentoring. So they’ll change the locker room around and generate that interaction they, and we, want to see. So that’s the kind of stuff we do during the off-season to try develop as a “family”. When you’ve only had 4 coaches in 72 years, you talk a lot about family. And to me, this truly is family and we work on those kinds of things. So the Spring is a really interesting time of year and I really believe that the journey to being a championship team really starts in those winter workouts and Spring football. If you don’t take advantage of those things, you really get left behind and we are trying to take advantage of those things.

GoHens: And I know you’ve said many times in the past that you view your primary job as developing team chemistry.

Keeler: I’m the chemistry guy. I’m probably more involved with the offense these days than I have been in the past, but I am definitely the chemistry guy. I really view the leadership of the team, and how we conduct ourselves on the field and in the community – all those things – as part of what I do. We continue to utilize a leadership council made up of representatives from each class group, and we’ll talk about different topics, and when I have something going on I take it to them – I’ll challenge them to do things - something like a Wings Night between the D-backs and the O-linemen, two totally diverse groups that don’t normally mingle together. I said: “Guys, if you want to grow closer as a team, as a leadership council, these are the kinds of things that you have to encourage.” After Spring ball, we’re going to do some different things – pizza night, or whatever – different groups getting together and just, hang out. It’s amazing what that will do, and the more they trust each other, the better they’ll play together and the better chemistry they’ll have in the locker room, on the sideline, and at crunch time. It seems like drivel, but it’s really not. There’s a lot that goes into this team dynamic that is football. It’s the most unique game ever invented. You know there are over hundred guys on the roster and lots of coaches. That’s why I set up those leadership meetings where coaches that don’t normally coach those players are normally the ones interacting with them. Because, when we travel on a bus, or we’re on a plane or in the community, you get coached by different coaches all the time, so they have to interact with you. So I do a lot of that kind of stuff. After every practice, the coaches are walking through the locker room, talking to the kids – that kind of thing.

GoHens: As far as the kids who are going to be the captains – when does that kind of “bubble up”. When do you know – ‘Hey, these are the guys’?

There are a couple of guys I still want to prove themselves in terms of what they need to accomplish before I’ll have the vote for captain

Keeler: Yeah that’s interesting because I’ve had the vote as early as the day after the season is over; I’ve had it in training camp; I will have the vote at all sorts of different times. A lot of times it’s when I feel they can recognize who the captains are. So I haven’t really thought about it yet, there was no need for it right now in my mind. There are a couple of guys I still want to prove themselves in terms of what they need to accomplish before I’ll have the vote for captain because I think that will give the team the best shot for choosing the best captains. It’s just a “feel thing”.

GoHens: That’s interesting, I didn’t realize you do it at different times.

Keeler: Yeah, I don’t have a standard time because I think certain players who could be really outstanding captains need some time in the Spring to prove it. They may just not have had the opportunity as Juniors to prove that because, maybe there were 3 Seniors ahead of them who were really strong leaders that they could take a back seat to. While I think they have the same qualities, now they have to rise up. Let’s see them rise up in Spring ball. So every year it’s a little bit different. There have been years where I knew who the captains were going to be, the team knew who they were going to be – so lets get going. So every year’s a little bit different.

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