MADISON, Wis. - Four the past number of seasons, Wisconsin fans have become accustomed to DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas at the linebacker position. This spring, though, as those two exhausted their eligibility, the linebackers have a shuffled a bit with Blake Sorenesen, Culmer St. Jean and Jaevery McFadden manning the position.
Following a recent practice, BadgerBlitz.com caught up with the man in charge of the position Randall McCray. The following is a question and answer with the first year linebacker coach:
Two weeks in, past the midway point, how has it been going so far in spring ball?
McCray: Up and down a little bit I think. I think they're working hard, but just because you're out here working hard doesn't mean you're always getting better. We'll have days when we'll flash and look like a really, really, really good defense. Then we'll have days where we come out here and have breakdowns here and there, little mental breakdowns. To be a good defense and a good team, you can't do that.
How much emphasis is placed on that, on attention to detail?
McCray: I don't think I've ever been anywhere in my 18 years that we talk and try to pay attention to the details of everything that we do here.
As a coach, they're going to make mistakes, that's a given. How do you go about limiting those mistakes?
McCray: Film study, meeting times and then the kids, a lot of our bigger players come in on their own a lot of times. You don't even have to ask them. All of a sudden you'll see them in there watching film. You're like, 'wow,' that kind of stuff. It just takes a little bit extra learning the game and learning releases and things like that that help guys get a little bit better. Those are usually the guys that put the most time in and usually the guys that play most.
Looking back to last Saturday's scrimmage, it seemed like tackling was pretty good until the red zone.
McCray: Right, right. I think they get anxious. I don't know if it's pressure, I don't know if it's lack of focus. We've made an emphasis of doing our red zones at the end of practice when we're tired to make us focus more. But, it will come and we'll get better at it is what we'll do. We've mandated to the kids that we're going to work and get better.
It seemed to be a lingering problem even last year with the red zone defense breakdowns. Is it psychological?
McCray: It could be. You play great, play great, play great and play great then it gets to the red zone and boom, you have breakdowns. It could be long series, could be tired, so we're just trying to fight through and do the little things right. Like we said earlier, if you do the little things right, good things happen for you.
Talking more about the linebackers, with Jaevery back at will, is that more natural for him?
McCray: Oh, Jaevery is just better on the edge I believe. We needed him to play inside last year, so he played inside. Now he's on the edge of things and you see his speed when he's running around and things like that. I think he's doing a pretty good job.
Does he look more confident out there?
McCray: I think his confidence comes because he knows the defense better. Playing two or three different positions, all of a sudden you know everything. I know the fits from sam, mike and will. I know where I'm supposed to be, I know where he should be, I know where I should put this and where my hat should be on this play. I think that makes him a better ball player.
You are working with the safeties a little bit now too. You guys took off the tags this spring and there are no free or strong labels right now.
McCray: When they just play right and left, they have to learn both sides. It's kind of like Jaevery knowing all three positions. When those two guys know what I'm supposed to do and I know what the backside guy is doing at this point. It makes them a better ball player. You can see, that's what we're trying to get to, is making us a better football team and not just better players individually.
Was it kind of like that last year, was there too much focus on the individual?
McCray: I don't know. I couldn't say. I know one thing that we were on the same page as coaches and being team players and I think the team was. Just, the ball fell on the ground and didn't bounce to us. I think a lot of that stuff happened to us.
When you are talking about some of the younger guys, especially at linebacker, was Erik Prather playing pretty well before his injury?
McCray: He was doing a good job. Erik's a tough kid. He'll come back and do what he can depending on what the doctors say. I think Blake is doing a really good job. Of course we said Jaevery. Culmer is doing a really good job and trying taking ownership of the defense. The guys we got to bring along are Kevin Rouse and Leonard Hubbard and Matt Groff and Tony Megna. Tony is making a lot of good plays for us, old Oak Creek (WI) guy. It's good to see the younger guys make plays, now they just got to be consistent.
I saw Mike Taylor out there today too, is it kind of nice to see him out there, too?
McCray: Yeah because of the depth. When Erik goes down, we need Mike as quick as you can. He'll start working in as much as the doctors let him. He makes us better when he's out there when he knows what's going on.
You said a little bit ago about focusing on the team. Do you see that a little more?
McCray: I see a lot of that. I see kids taking ownership of being a team. Coaches can do what coaches can do. When kids take ownership of their own program, that's where you get to be a good football program.
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