Q&A With Coach Keeler, Part 2

Expectations for Next Season, and Offensive and Defensive Philosophies

Big R, GoHens.net special correspondent
April 5, 2012

In this portion of the interview, a couple of themes came through load and clear: On offense, KC is taking a more active role in establishing how we are going to play. The “O” will play faster and with more tempo changes. We’ll also take more shots down field – “ball shots” as he calls it. On defense, we’ll be working to get more pressure on the opposing QB – including more blitzes. The fun part is in hearing some of the details of how he plans to accomplish these things.

GoHens: Where are you looking for the biggest change?

Keeler: Well, right now, were not a very good football team and we’re not going to be a very good football team unless we get better on the O-line and D-line, so that’s the real challenge. My expectations change ... each snap. But in terms of us changing as a team – offensively, we want to learn to play faster, and defensively we need to get more pressure on the quarterback. So that’s been the improvement we want to focus our attention on. Every year when the season’s over we break down every single snap of every game and we evaluate what we did. And sometimes you go through and you say “Wow, we weren’t nearly as efficient in this grouping, or in these plays, or in this defense, as I thought we were.” And so then you go back and do a little tweaking. So, for example, we might say: “You know what, we spent a lot of time coaching this, but we only used it 10 times all year. So is it really worth it for all the time we spent coaching it?” So, it’s a big evaluation time when the season’s over, but what I evaluated with the offense and defense – on defense, in 2010 we were #1 in the country in defense, but we were only 97th in sacks. So I’m not saying that you have to sack the quarterback to have a great defense, but I think it does help, and I want to get more pressure on the quarterback. So, Michigan State had 51 sacks last year, the defensive coordinator is a friend, and we went out there and got some professional improvement - the whole defensive staff went. Offensively, we want to learn to play fast. It’s something I did at Rowan, but it’s something we haven’t done here since I’ve been back.

...in 2010 we were #1 in the country in defense, but we were only 97th in sacks. So I’m not saying that you have to sack the quarterback to have a great defense, but I think it does help, and I want to get more pressure on the quarterback

GoHens: I was going to ask you about that because I remember you saying when you came here that you had, what – 70 or 80 snaps per game at Rowan?

Keeler: Oh, no – it was more like 85 or 90. And the rules were different where you could substitute and still snap the ball quickly. Now when you substitute you can’t – some things have been tweaked. When Kirk Ciarrocca came back, he said one of his biggest regrets when he left was that we never learned to play fast, and he’s really excited we want to play fast, because it’s something he’s been studying also. So, Gregg Perry and Jim Hofher went to Northwestern and Toledo, and Brian Ginn and David Boler went to Texas Tech. We learned about how they control the different tempos. We used some of those things out there today (March 17th scrimmage) and I think that’s when we moved the ball most effectively - when we had the defense reeling a little bit and, Bam! we came with some quick tempo stuff and they couldn’t get lined up. So, yeah, that’s definitely been a mind set – we need to learn to play fast. I was talking to the offensive linemen and they know that, when they’re in shape, this could really be a huge tool for them. And, then again, defensively, it’s to get more pressure on the quarterback, so that’s really been the two areas we focused on offensively and defensively.

GoHens: You’ve also said you’re going to take a more active role with the offense – is that what you’re talking about?

Keeler: Exactly. You know, I’ve talked about playing with tempos; now I’ve put my foot down and said: “We’re playing with tempo! There’s no debate, there’s no options – we’re going to play fast.” So, I’ve been involved in all those kinds of things and, yeah, it’s what I want to get back to. It was very effective at Rowan. We just had to restructure a little bit and fine-tune some things to adjust to playing fast. And another thing, my staff is just great. I do a really good job of hiring coaches – I always have this philosophy: “Don’t be afraid to hire people smarter than yourself” and I have a tremendous staff, that’s why I think that, offensively, we’ll figure this whole thing out. You know Gregg has a little different philosophy about how to play the offensive line than Wrobo did, and Wrobo was a little bit different than Jim Turner, and Jim was a little different than Kyle [Flood]. But, you know, my coaching philosophy is to hire great coaches and then let them coach. Sometimes you have to reel them in to what your thoughts are, but I have no problem being in a 3-point stance. That’s what Gregg wants. Gregg wants to play lower, with more pad leverage. He wants to be more physical. He wants to come off the ball more. Instead of covering guys up he wants to knock them off the ball. I’m all for it. I was all for Wrobo’s scheme. Before last year he didn’t put the guys down; last year he put the guards down and the tackles up. He was more of a cover-up guy - that’s what he was comfortable coaching, and I was fine with that. But Gregg will really work hard to try to simplify the O-line. Because, I think I see all the potential pieces there; I think it’s going to be OK, but we need to get them all going together and I think Gregg is perfect for that because he really wants to simplify what we do – in terms of verbal communication – and not make the kids think so much. And with a young group, I think it’s the perfect time to have a guy like Gregg in there. It’s a process, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, that we are making some strides.

...he [Gregg Perry] really wants to simplify what we do – in terms of verbal communication – and not make the kids think so much. And with a young group, I think it’s the perfect time to have a guy like Gregg in there.

GoHens: In terms of defense, I don’t remember what Michigan State did last year, but is it the players? Is it the scheme? Did they use more blitzes?

Keeler: That’s a good question. If you look at a team like New Hampshire – they had a lot of sacks the last couple of years and there are times when they have no rules. That’s not who we can be … I’m just not comfortable with that. They’ll give up containment. I don’t want to give up containment. We’re going to stop the run on first and second downs, and make you throw on third down. Sometime teams are getting more sacks on first and second down because they’re blitzing more. We didn’t blitz a lot last year. We’ll probably blitz more this year. One of the things we got from Michigan State is that they do blitz a little bit more. There are certain things they do in their blitz philosophy, that, without telling the world what we’re going to do next year, we’ll try to see if we can incorporate into our culture. We have some athletic linebackers, and getting those guys more involved in the blitz scheme is important to us because with their athleticism, it should give us some mismatches.

GoHens: On offense, it seems like over the last couple of years the deep ball hasn’t been used much.

Keeler: No, absolutely, and we have to take some more shots downfield. That’s another area that we’ve studied. We’ve seen what other people have done against us in terms of taking shots downfield, and we need to take some more shots downfield. If we can develop a Mike Johnson, if we can develop a Nihja – those are guys who, against a little smaller corners, you want to take “ball shots” with. So that’s what we’re going to try to do. I think you saw Timmy [Donnelly] throw a touchdown [in the scrimmage] over the top to Mike Johnson. He [Johnson] had a special Spring the first couple of days, and we loved his winter workouts. He did a great job there. But he’s the kind of athlete we need to keep pushing because he’s the type of guy who can make those plays downfield.

GoHens: At the first STH event, I was talking with Coach Wrobo and he said: If we have a tight end on the field, it means we’re going to run the ball. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that.

Keeler: I’m not sure what he meant either, but I think we’ve done a better job of trying to set up some deep play action passes with the double tight end formation. It depends how our receivers develop. Will we be in more 3 wide-receiver sets? I don’t know. It’s an evolution thing to see where our best personnel situation is. If we’re better with 3 WR’s on the field, let’s go with 3 WR’s. It’s funny, people call us a “spread, no-huddle” but we play with 2 tight ends a lot. The mentality definitely is: “We want to run the ball downhill”, and we’ve seen some pistol things we’ve never done before. We want to really focus on running the ball downhill and then from there we want to have a sophisticated passing game. The other part of that is we want to be able to take some ball shots, and I want us to take more ball shots, and there’s a couple of things I’ve tweaked with the offense in terms of how we read some things that will hopefully get some more shots downfield.

GoHens: Do you anticipate having any more two-back sets?

Keeler: If we do, it will be in an attempt to run the quarterback – try to get some of the belly-read option and some of those kinds of things going, so I think that would depend on who the quarterback is and what they do best. I don’t know if we really have the athletic quarterback who’s going to be an option kid who can really run the option. Down the road, when we recruit, we want to keep on trying to find dual-threat quarterbacks. I think our two-back look will really be having that “H-Back” and it depends how the offense develops. There were times late, late in the season, like against Villanova, where we were actually bringing him up like a fullback and there are some things we develop off that. But you’ll never see us truly be a two-back team. We’ll be more two tight ends than two backs.

GoHens: When you first came here, the spread offense wasn’t as prevalent in college football as it is today, and since then the defenses have kind of caught up to it. Is there a “next new offense” do you think?

I think the next evolution is “Tempos” and that’s what we’re trying to do, is to be part of the evolution of playing with different tempos because it can really stress the defense.

Keeler: Yeah, I think the next evolution is “Tempos” and that’s what we’re trying to do, is to be part of the evolution of playing with different tempos because it can really stress the defense. What you can do with different tempos, is that, if the defense can never tell if you’re going to line up quickly and snap the ball, they still have to line up quickly, and you get a lot more “vanilla” defenses because they can’t get caught in not being lined up. So by us “pressing the line of scrimmage” after every snap (and you’ll hear me using that term a lot when I talk to the offense), and being ready to snap the ball at any time, that will make the defense line up, and if they’re not lined up, let’s call the play (snapped his fingers) snap it and get going. And we have running plays and passing plays that we can run from this “hurry up”. Right now we have 4 plays in. We can go right or left with those 4 plays. As the season develops we will use certain things for game plan purposes that will add more to those types of plays. One word or one signal will give you the formation, the side the formation’s going to be – right or left, and the play itself. So we can put all that in with one signal. And then “Boom”, they’re all lined up and ready to go. There’s not all this stuff (made a number of arm and hand signals). So that’s what we’re trying to do, is make the defense line up quickly, and unfold their hand. It also gets them out of blitzing a lot cause they can’t get that stuff in, and it also stops them from making personnel changes. So, I’m excited about trying to learn to play faster, and I think some of the things we’ve done already has given our defense some issues.

GoHens: One of the things you said that I find interesting is using tempos, plural. So, it sounds like it’s not necessarily playing at a fast tempo all the time, but the change of tempos ...

Keeler: It’s the threat of playing fast, the threat of snapping the ball when they’re not ready. Once you establish that, then they have to line up because they can’t be out of line. You can’t have the whole defense look over to the sideline. They all have to be in a relatively sound position defensively and get a quick signal, or get a repeat signal because we may snap the ball at any time.

GoHens: It sounds like we’re dictating the pace of the game and what we are going to do instead of waiting to read what the defense is doing and let them dictate to us.

Keeler: Right, but you can do both, because, by lining up fast, you then force them to show their hand. So you can put yourself in a situation we call “Dual” where you’ll call in a play, but that play is actually two plays – a run and a pass. So when you line up quickly, all the QB needs to do with hand signals to the wideouts, is let ‘em know if it’s the first play called or the second play called. Then, “Set, hut” and you’re off. The O-line already knows the basic play. All you need to do is give them a “hot or cold”, “east or west”, or a “north or south” and they’ll know which play it’s going to be. So, by doing that, now you’re making the defense line up, but you’re taking advantage. “Single high”? – throw the football; “Two high”? – run the football. It’s that simple. So, we’re not at that part of the evolution yet, but doing “Duals” and “Triples” (three plays) is the next thing. By game planning, the QB knows which of the 2 or 3 plays he’ll call. So it’s definitely an evolution of where we’ve been. But it’s something I’ve done in the past and that I want to get back to.

GoHens: I know that, ultimately, you’d like to have a dual threat QB. You really don’t have that yet, but when you brought Trent Hurley in, you said he was fairly athletic. Then just watching Justin Burns in practice, he’s been throwing the ball really well, although he may not be as athletic as Hurley. Are you going to say: “This is the kind of offense we’re going to run and this QB is a better fit” or are you going to watch who is going to be the better QB and then tweak the offense?

Great quarterback play can really help you play for championships, or earn championships. So, that’s why I feel it’s really important to find out who your best quarterback is, and then you refine the offense around their skill level.

Keeler: Historically speaking, my thought has always been: “Get the best quarterback on the field and then tweak the offense to the quarterback.” Every time I recruit a quarterback, I say: “Andy Hall had a different skill set than Joe Flacco and Joe had a different skill set than Pat Devlin. But we learned to play offense with all three of them. How is that?” The quarterback is going to have the ball in his hand 100% of the time – every snap he is going to have the ball in his hand, so you want to make sure you have the best one out there, and then from there you move the offense around. If you look at the five National Championships that I’ve been involved with here, Jeff Komlo, Scott Brunner, Andy Hall, and Joe Flacco were all draft choice quarterbacks and Pat Devlin made the Dolphins. Great quarterback play can really help you play for championships, or earn championships. So, that’s why I feel it’s really important to find out who your best quarterback is, and then you refine the offense around their skill level. And you always can play fast. The tempos will not affect any of the three quarterbacks in terms of choosing who the next quarterback is going to be. It’s really going to be a matter of who can put the most points on the board. We’ll say: “OK, this is what he does best, let’s work around that.”

Next Part - Recruiting