GoHens.net Spring 2018 Interview with Coach Rocco

Part I

Big R, GoHens.net special correspondent
June 20, 2018

On April 26th, shortly after the conclusion of spring practice, GH had the opportunity to speak with Coach Rocco, who was kind enough to devote an hour of his time to our interview (stretched from a 30-minute commitment), and we are very grateful for his willingness to do this. The two major areas covered were the status of the team and recruiting. Due to the length of the interview, we will be presenting it broken down into those two parts, with the first being the status of the team. Due to unavoidable mitigating circumstances, it has taken some time to get this posted, but it is for the most part, still relatively “fresh” information. We hope you will enjoy.

GH: Coach, I know you’ve got a half hour, so I’d like to get right to it. I try to do this from the perspective of the people on the board and what their reference points are. As you know, we have some guys who come to practice during the spring, but of course, the majority don’t, so I thought we could start out with how last year‘s team compares to this year‘s team, by position group. The point of reference for most of the folks is what they saw last year and I’m just curious how you would compare position groups, where we were last year to where we are this year.

DR: The easier thing to do is to compare units. There are a lot of players back from last year, so there are a lot of positions that look the same, and then there are other positions that look different based on personnel. I think the best way to communicate here is, how do we look different offensively and defensively and then we can get into personnel. Offensively, this spring, we had a much better understanding of the offense and the installation of the offense. I thought we had a better understanding of our ability to run our core offense, run game and pass game. We were better in the huddle, better on the ball, we were better at the line of scrimmage, and we got in and out of plays better than we did at this time last year. I think our whole process and procedure is a lot better than it was a year ago because a lot of players have had time and reps in the system, and communication - the language of any offense takes a long time to learn, and for everybody last year, it was the first time they heard it. This year almost everybody had heard it before, and that was a real positive. We were able to do more in terms of our installation. With defense, we were able to introduce ideas and concepts that we don’t usually get into in the spring, so we’re going to have more versatility in what we’re doing defensively because of our ability to focus on that this spring. In the kicking game we really focused on two major parts - the punt unit, and the field goal / extra point unit. In spring ball, you don’t have as many “live” situations, and the two things we really wanted to invest time in were PAT-field goals - our rush looks, and then our punt schemes and protections. And then all of our specialists - our long snappers, our short snappers, punters and kickers, to our return guys - making sure we had enough work at catching and receiving and fielding balls.

GH: Thank you. So, that improved familiarity on the field - does that mean that a block is made a half second earlier, and running backs can hit the hole a half second faster, and on defense you fill the holes faster? Is that what happens as a result of having more familiarity and not having to think about things so much?

DR: Yes, I think that it’s multi-dimensional. It’s reality that, for your better players, your more experienced players, that they are able to elevate their game because they’re not having to think quite so much about footwork and stance and eye placement and discipline, so now they are more able to concentrate on executing the defense and their job at a higher level. We talk all the time about trying to be able to “master your position” and before you can master your position, you have to be able to master some of the things that are not as difficult to deal with at your position and are a little less stressful things. Our really good players got better this spring doing things that are a higher degree of difficulty. That’s probably a better way of saying it - like when you look at swimming and diving and they talk about a high degree of difficulty. Last spring our execution and installation did not offer us much opportunity to do well at the high-level degree of difficulty things. This spring, our players performed at a higher level in all of those areas because they were more trained. For example, if you’re playing in the secondary - last year you might have been able to handle a number of things within the defense, but you had a hard time dealing with other aspects of doing your job - like bootlegs, trick plays, throw-backs. But now, as you’ve elevated your awareness and have a better understanding of how to play your position, you’re able to do those higher-degree of difficulty things in a more repetitive nature. So it has become more consistent. I think that, ultimately, it’s the level of consistency that improves when you do have that year under your belt.

GH: My next question is about the offensive line and it goes back to the first interview I had with you, in February of last year. You hadn’t even had time to spend time with the team last spring yet. I had asked you then, when you were the coach at Richmond, and you played Delaware your last season there, what your observations were about the offensive line. And, again, you hadn’t had a chance to spend any time with the team so I don’t know how fair a question that was, but I remember your comment was that you thought they were talented but, especially in pass blocking. They didn’t seem to mesh together or communicate well, which resulted in breakdowns and things like that. Do you feel (a) that you made progress in that area this past fall, and (b) now that there’s so many new parts to that offensive line, will it be difficult to reestablish? I don’t know if I’m asking a question the right way, but hopefully you get the gist of it.

DR: I think it always starts with personnel, and I think we’ve got some really good personnel on the offensive line. Then it goes to competition and I think we have a lot of competition, and then it comes to your scheme, in terms of what are you doing schematically in the run game and the pass game. Ultimately, it’s your quarterback’s ability to communicate and get you in or out of the right play or the right scheme, like pass protection. Two years ago, I didn’t think the line was in synch in some of those areas. There was good talent, but maybe not quite the depth. And then they weren’t very consistent at quarterback or scheme. Last year, I thought we made some strides in that area with our offensive line. And then, this spring I thought we really took a significant step forward despite the fact that we had three offensive linemen out for a good part of the spring. Coach Polin has taken over the offensive line and did a really good job with these guys. Coach Polin really focuses in on the details and the specifics of playing the position, and I think he did a great job of breaking down the fundamentals with this group. We looked really good this spring in terms of footwork, hat and hand placement, and being a lot more coordinated in both the run and pass. The thing that I’m excited about is the depth. I believe there are 10 guys that could be in the game on the offensive line without feeling as though we are jeopardizing the quality of the product we’re putting out there. When we get Pepe and Farinella back, we’ll be able to deal a little more with what that substitution pattern will look like, and what that first five will look like. But I do feel like we’ll have more options than I’ve had in terms of putting a good, solid group out there with more depth and that’s how you create more competition and opportunity.

GH: You mentioned scheme. Does the scheme change at all with the change in an offensive line coach, or is the scheme more a function of the offensive coordinator, you, and that sort of thing?

DR: The scheme is a function of the offensive structure. It’s a function of the playbook, a function of the kind of offense the head coach wants to run and consistent with the offensive coordinator and the staff. Technique is more specific to the differences with the position coach. Some coaches teach the techniques differently, so a change in line coaches doesn’t affect scheme. Now, granted, different line coaches offer different ideas on how to handle different fronts and schemes for different plays, but our core offense is intact in terms of changing offensive line coaches.

GH: The next question I had was about the biggest strengths, and I don’t know that you need to spend a lot of time on it because I think, clearly defense is very strong, but there is always room for improvement. So, between last year and this coming fall, season to season, what would be the biggest areas for improvement that you would be looking for?

DR: You’re talking about the whole team now, and not just individuals?

GH: Correct:

DR: The biggest thing for us is offensive efficiency and point production. Those are statistical things in terms of: ‘How efficient are we with all of our possessions?’ and ‘What results are we getting with our possessions?’, ‘How many three-and-outs are we getting?’, and then - our point production. Defensively, there are areas we need to get better and there are schemes we have to defend better, but, statistically, if you just look at the numbers, we played good enough defense last year to be able to feel like we were competing for the conference championship. Offensively, our numbers weren’t there. We’re going to have to have better offensive efficiency and offensive production. I would say to that general question, that is the general answer. You’ve got to be able to be more efficient with possessions in terms of finishing with more points and in terms of touchdowns. We protected the ball pretty well. We ran the ball well, so there were some things more specific to passing game efficiency where we were very, very low in the CAA. As our passing game efficiency increases our overall efficiency should increase and that should lead to higher point production.

GH: And it sounded like, during your interview after the blue white game, that you felt pretty comfortable that there’s a fairly high ceiling on both sides of the ball.

DR: I do see that there were moments out there this spring where we looked really good, on both sides of the ball, kind of independent of each other some days, though. Offensively, we did show a higher probability some days, to be more efficient throwing the ball, efficient in getting big chunks of yardage, efficient in the balance you want to have in the run and pass game, and then really efficient down in the red zone. We spent a lot of time in the red zone this spring. For all the goods, bads, and indifferences for the spring game, in hindsight, we felt really good about doing the seven-on-seven. In reality, it just created 36 more passes in the stadium, in front of a large audience, in a pretty competitive environment. I think these are some of the subtle things that will help us to improve and build on what we have installed this spring in the passing game.

GH: Given that he was new, and the terminology was new, how do you think Darius did, and how much improvement do you think everybody will see between now and August 30th?

DR: I would say, how much he improves is totally up to him. We just had a staff meeting where we discussed everybody on our roster, and we have a grading system we use for all of our players which incorporates academics, character, decision-making, athletic ability, and production. We went through the entire roster and one of the comments that Alex Wood made was that it’s up to Darius as to how much he improves. We have the system in place, we have the support in place, we have the video in place, it’s just: how much do we take advantage of those opportunities? You know, the irony of all these things is that we don’t have access to our student athletes here for an extended period of time. We start summer camp in late July and it’s not even the first of May yet. So these guys can do an awful lot to get themselves ready for the start of camp here during these next several months. So to be able to embrace that role and internalize the language and the system, study the film - you know in today’s day and age, the access to the AV systems and our video can be sorted any way you want to watch it. You can come in here and watch every pass, concept-by-concept, if you really wanted to. That, and the ability to learn from your own mistakes without the presence of your coach, so there is opportunity. Then how much do these student athletes want to take advantage of these opportunities? Quite often, that’s what makes a student athlete unique and special. He can improve a lot here in this window of time, but they all can, if they just take advantage of the opportunities.

GH: And you had mentioned, at this time last year, that’s one of the reasons that you like to have at least some of your captains named at the end of the spring, prior to summer camp, so that they can exert their influence during the summertime.

DR: That’s exactly right, during the summer we have senior-led workouts, and these senior-led workouts are only as good as the seniors lead them to be. Their ability to go out there and do things with 7-on-7, drills, and different teamwork opportunities - you’ve got to have leadership in place - and our guys are great! They go out and take the initiative; they organize and choreograph practice. It’s not rocket science - all they really have to do is go back and review our spring model. What you did in “spring practice # 1”, you can take out there and revisit that on “senior-led workout #1”. You know they have access to everything, so it’s the senior leadership that needs to be in place to be able to make those valuable. They were valuable last year and I expect them to be even more valuable this year, as more players understand the expectations of those exercises.

GH: Speaking of leadership - how would you compare the leadership we have in place to other, of the better leadership units you’ve had throughout your head coaching career?

DR: In the moment, I feel really good. I think last year, I didn’t know my players well enough at the time. It’s not unusual for a coach to be through a cycle or two without completing a full year. After completing a full year and having been through every cycle, at least once with your student athletes, you have a lot better idea of who you have and what they can do. That’s just not in terms of their ability and athleticism, that’s also in terms of their makeup, their character, and their work ethic. I feel really good about the senior class, and not to say anything negative about any group, but I feel really good about the freshman class, too - the group that just finished their first year. I’m kind of sensing leadership from the top down and then younger guys really trying to grow and assume bigger roles and responsibilities. I know sometimes people think everything is black and white, but they aren’t always black and white, so our senior class this year is about 24 - 25 seniors plus or minus a couple, depending on how it counts out, and that’s a pretty big number to have.

GH: I have a couple of questions about coaching. With regard to play calling, as you said, it’s driven in part by the offensive scheme, but it’s also driven by personnel. So what changes would you envision in 2018 vs. 2017? Will it be fairly dramatic, or pretty much the same?

DR: When you look at any season - like last season - we played two different quarterbacks, and with that being said, the offense changed a little bit as we transitioned from one to the other. It does definitively correlate with your personnel, it always will. For the most part, what I want to see differently is more efficiency in the passing game, more efficiency on early downs in the passing game, and maybe more of a willingness to take some of those quick throws that are kind of built into the structure of your play calling. Every team in America has what is referenced as RPO’s - run-pass option plays, and we’ve been a team that, with all of our RPO’s, we’d run the ball, because we didn’t have a lot of confidence in throwing the ball out there on the edge. We have to be able to do that better, we have to take what the defense is giving, and if the defense is giving a five-yard hitch, you have to take the 5-yard hitch. We’ve got to be able to complete it, connect it, and make the defense defend all 53-yards of width of the field to move people out of the box and keep them from overpopulating the box for the running game. That’s the thing that we’re going to have to do differently and better. We’re going to have to be better on early downs throwing and catching the ball; then, off our run game, hitting some of our play-action shots. Not that our run game was anywhere near perfect, but we ran the ball well enough last year to be relevant, and to be in the hunt. We just didn’t match that with pass completion percentage and pass efficiency. That is the area that needs to be better. Some of that is play calling, some of it is execution, and some of it is just taking what they give you - being able to recognize the structure of the defense and what the defense is giving you in each situation.

GH: At the spring game, you presented the awards for most improved and that sort of thing, but what was your most pleasant surprise this spring?

DR: There’s a couple things that I was pleased with. I was pleased with the development of our offensive line. We had some guys that were stepping into new roles - Colin Wallish at center, Chuka at guard, you know, these guys hadn’t played much, David Kroll stepping into a starting role at tackle - so there’s three names of guys that I think can all play winning football for us. We needed to feel like we had guys in addition to the guys we knew we had coming back - Farinella, Pepe, and Lutz and guys like that. So that was very encouraging. I felt that our depth and versatility at running back showed really well. We’ve got some big, physical backs, we’ve got some experienced backs and then we have some young speed and talent at back. So, there are a lot of different “pitches” that I think we can throw at you from the backfield. Our competition at quarterback was what it needed to be. You know, even though J.P. did about 50% of the work, he is going to be relevant when we come back here in July and August. Darius knows that, so they are both going to be in competition. Pat Kehoe took a giant step forward as a thrower in his second year in this offense. Nolan Henderson showed a lot of flash and talent. Defensively, maybe it wasn’t a surprise, but we had to find substitutes for the four senior D-linemen who we lost to graduation and had to find options and build depth. This won’t be a one-man circus up there, but I think we were able to come up with enough depth, role players, and enough options on the defensive line to complement what we knew we had at linebacker and in the secondary as we head out of spring football.

GH: I realize that they were filling in for some other players during the spring game, but looking at some of those guys, like Angeline - I remember you told me that you brought him into your office last year and showed him video from his high school highlights and asked “Where is that guy?” He’s moved around a lot - even before you got here. What did you see from him?

DR: I think he is going to be in the competition. With Troy and Charlie you’ve got two really good, veteran players in there. Ryley could end up doing what Jalen did for us last year, coming in as first guy in - so that’s certainly a possibility. That’s something I know he’s wanting to be able to own. Then, we have a bunch of young linebackers in the program that provide a lot of optimism and hope, that we will be able to build depth at that position.

GH: We haven’t even touched on the incoming class that you signed. As we look at those, are there any that, when you signed them, you felt “I really think this guy has a chance to contribute early?”

DR: The short answer is: a lot of them, in terms of what we see in the talent and skill set. The question more often is: “Do you need them to?” In a general context (and this is not specific to my team right now) let’s say you have an O-lineman coming in that you know can come in and play right away, no questions asked, could play as a freshman - he’s good enough, but you might not have to play him. Then, you might have a linebacker who’s not quite as far along as that freshman O-lineman is, but, at that position, it necessitates a young player to play this year. There are a lot of variables that go into these decisions. I think there are a lot of guys that are going to be ready to play at this level. Now, will the need complement their readiness? It depends a little bit on the development of our roster and how things play out. So I’m not really going to pick a name. I’m looking at our roster right now and I could throw a lot of names at you I think could play next year, but I think it’s way too early to make those decisions, and I don’t think it would be fair to some of these kids to have their names said, and not others, when in theory they all have the chance to come in here and show us what they can do, and depending on the depth at that position, compete for playing time.

Look for Part II of the interview coming soon!