Coach Rick Stockstill speaks at the opening season press conference about their upcoming game with Vanderbilt on Saturday. You can hear the game here on NewsRadio WGNS beginning at 5pm pregame.
Coach Rick Stockstill Audio:
Darius Harris, Tavares Thomas Audio:
Head Coach Rick Stockstill
"I appreciate everybody coming here today. It's fired up time. It's been a great four weeks and we're ready to roll. I'm really proud of our team and their effort that they've put forth this camp at a mental standpoint as well as a physical standpoint.
"We've got Vandy to open up. This is the fourth year in a row that we've played them. They got us last year, and I think the big difference last year was their front seven dominating our guys up front. We couldn't establish the run, had a hard time with protection, and it's an area that we need to improve on this year. And then defensively, we started so slow last year against them. Their first three possessions they score and it's 21-0 in the first quarter. After that we settled in and played pretty good defense. Vandy started out really good last year, then struggled but finished on a high note beating Tennessee.
"They've got an experienced team coming back. They've got their quarterback, they've got eight starters on offense. They've got a smart and tough quarterback (Kyle Shurmur) that I respect immensely. They lost Ralph Webb at running back. He was a big 230 pound running back that was physical and ran downhill. They've got good players and some transfers that will change their team a little bit.
Defensively, a lot of respect for what coach Mason has done from a defensive standpoint. Charles Wright, their defensive end has wreaked havoc on us the past couple of years. Their linebacker, Josh Smith, a local kid, I've watched him play a lot of ball since he was in high school, and again I respect him as a person and as a player. They play a lot of man coverage, so we'll have to win a lot of 1-on-1 matchups. There's always a lot of unknowns with the first game, there's a little bit more unknown with this Vanderbilt team. I'm sure Coach Mason will still have his hand in the defense a little bit, but he's not the defensive coordinator anymore. They've got a new defensive coordinator and a new special team's coordinator, so all those things go into the unknown of our first game. We've got to be ready mentally, play smart football, both from an assignment standpoint and from a discipline standpoint. Offensively we have to run the ball better than we did last year, and we've got to do better protecting the ball than last year. Again, I have a lot of respect for coach Mason and what he's done there since he's been the coach and I expect this to be an exciting game. We're jacked. We're ready to roll."
On Vanderbilt being more of a running back by committee type team compared to previous years:
"I think they leaned on Ralph Webb the previous years because of some inexperience they had at quarterback. Last year, I don't think Ralph's numbers were as good as previous years, and I don't know if he was hurt or not, but their quarterback was a lot better and a lot more consistent last year. They threw for almost 3,000 yards last year, so they were more balanced in the passing game last year than what they were the past couple of years. The transfer they got from Illinois, we played against him in '15. He's a guy that can run, he's got great speed. So they've got good running back. I know they're going to miss Ralph Webb and his production but I know they've got guys capable of replacing him."
On what he saw from Kyle Shurmur last year:
"He did a great job of play action. They hit us in the mouth early. They came out the first three drives in a row and scored points and put us on our heels. He can make all of the throws. He's a senior now, and he's seen a ton of snaps. He's an excellent quarterback and I'm sure he's a great leader for them and confident going into his senior year."
On if he thinks the offensive line is in a better position this year than they were last year:
"You never know until you get there. We'll have three of the five starting linemen in that game last year start this week. I think all three of those guys are better than they were last year. The new guys coming in are going to play. I've got a lot more confidence in our offensive line. Coach Mallory and Coach Polley have done a great job from the spring, to the summer, and to august. So I like our offensive line. We're a more experienced offensive line than where we were last year at this time. I like their toughness. You never know until you get out there to play but I feel a lot better about where we are at this year."
On Darius Harris starting at middle linebacker and the experience of the other linebackers:
"Darius is a very talented player, he has played inside, and outside. He's a smart and tough football player. Avery Jones hasn't practiced, he's been hurt. We need some depth. I've got a ton of confidence in Cody Smith also, I think he'll be a good football player for us. But Darius has played, and has seen a ton of snaps since he's been here so we're going with him."
On his running back situation:
"We're a lot healthier this year at running back than we were last year. If you remember, we had to bring Ty Lee in at running back. He started the second game at Syracuse. Reggie James was getting snaps at running back against Vanderbilt last year because we just got decimated with injuries at running back. Tavares Thomas really gave us a shot in the arm last year. He didn't know what he was doing, he was running on pure instinct. He was a 250 pound linebacker that you ask to be your running back and he hasn't done it since high school. So he's had a whole offseason, winter, spring, summer, and August to get his body into running back shape, to get his vision, and his footwork. So I feel really good about Tavares. He's a phenomenal, fantastic, human being. He comes to work every day. He's a tough, physical, hard-nosed runner. We have Terrell West, who missed most of last year, and came back towards the end. He's had a really good camp. We also have Brad Anderson who we can sprinkle in. So I feel really good about our running back situation right now."
On the emphasis of forcing turnovers and facing an experienced quarterback:
"Sometimes, with turnovers, you can do everything you've done as a coach or a player and you just don't get them. We've emphasized it more, but not that much more that we've done before because it's something that we've always done. Last year was a year where we didn't get that many but we had ample opportunities to get more than we ended up getting. Our guys have done a ton of ball skill drills this offseason. I think they did a lot better job this summer of working out on their own. They incorporated those turnover drills into their voluntary workouts. And it carried over to August with what they're doing with their coaches now. A lot of times the ball doesn't bounce your way but if they do this year we have to take advantage of it. When you get less than one a game like we did last year. That's not a good stat and it's not indicative of how well our defense played last year."
On if he likes being an underdog:
"I've been an underdog all my life. Every time we play somebody here, we're the underdog. We were the underdog against Arkansas State in the bowl game, we were the underdog against Syracuse. That's us. That's why the chip on our shoulders are big. We have to prove it every day. Everyday someone is doubting you as a player, a coach, a team, or a university. That's your motivation. You go out and prove them wrong. We leave out of here with our heads held high and know that we're not the underdogs but that's what people think we are."
On being a team that has proven to upset teams:
"We're not going into an SEC stadium or an ACC stadium scared. We've done it and we go into those stadiums as much as we go to C-USA stadiums. We have four away C-USA games, and three away SEC games, so we're not going to walk in there with our tails tucked between our legs. I don't care what conference you're from, who you are, how many games you've won. Like I told the team, we're going to get down and dirty and just go play ball."
On this being the last year playing Vanderbilt:
"To me in just makes sense with the proximity of the two school, and I think it's been good for both schools. I don't know what the talks have been about renewing it, but it's a game to me that makes sense for Vanderbilt and us. I've enjoyed it. Going across the street to play makes more sense to me than going up to Minnesota to play, or to Syracuse."
On his thoughts on watching Ty Lee play:
"Ty was a very dynamic high school player. Obviously he's not very big. He comes from a great high school program where they coached him hard. Ty is a smart football player. He's a very versatile football player. He's played running back in high school and here. He's played receiver and returned kicks. So he's a very dynamic young man."
On the energy around the team heading into week 1:
"They get tired of going against each other. The first four or five days you're in shorts and shoulders pads, then the next week you're full pads and going against each other. Then the third week you get tired of seeing each other. The defense knows what the offense is doing and the offense knows what the defense is doing. This week, now your energy is amped to another level. In football, these guys practice 250 or so days out of the year to play 13 times. That's a lot of practice for only 13 games. So this is the fun part for them."
R-Sr. LB Darius Harris
On Vanderbilt Quarterback Kyle Shurmur
"He's a very good quarterback with a lot of experience, so we just have to have a good week of preparation and watch film so we can know his tendencies and what makes him uncomfortable."
On last year's game against Vanderbilt
"We definitely want to put that behind us. Last year, we started slowly and got down 21-0. This year, we want to start out fast, especially since we've been here before and I think we have a better understanding of our defense compared to where we were last year. "
On the second year under defensive coordinator Scott Shafer
"Last year, I felt like we didn't really understand the defense as much as we do now. At this point in the year, we have a much better understanding of it which means we can play faster. That helps us a lot when preparing as a defense."
On having confidence as the underdog
"It's all about how you practice. It's not just going to happen when you show up on a Saturday, it starts tomorrow at practice and making it perfect so we can go on the road Saturday and get an upset like we did at Syracuse last year. They're a good opponent, an SEC team, but the guys in our locker room truly believe we can win this weekend."
On the defense's emphasis on forcing turnovers
"Heading into camp this summer, forcing turnovers was a major emphasis for us. We've been matching hands and working on catching balls. We're trying to do the little things to capitalize off of the opportunities we missed last year."
On how, as a team captain, he is preparing his defense
"It's certainly on me to have this defense ready and to make sure that everybody knows what they need to do, knows their assignments, and knows their opponent come Saturday. If they line up in a certain formation, we have to know what they like to run out of that formation."
On how game week is different than camp
"It's very exciting. You battle each other so much throughout camp that you get tired of it, you want to see a new opponent. This week we get to see some new faces and get to go against somebody else besides our own team."
Sr. RB Tavares Thomas
On his move from linebacker to running back
"The biggest change for me was getting into Coach (Tony) Franklin's system and doing a lot more running than last year"
On how the offense plans to have a better start against Vanderbilt
"We have to be more physical in the box so we'll be able to run the ball."
On what the team has seen about Vanderbilt from watching film
"I watched a little this morning, and they're a very physical defense and they run to the ball."
On what makes him the most excited about this week
"Pass blocking, trying to help out Brent (Stockstill) and give him a good first week."
On how to build off of last year's upset wins over Missouri and Syracuse
"Our team knows it's able to play and win those games. We don't have to just go into those games and think we don't have a chance."
On being an underdog against a Power 5 team
"You always want to prove that you can play with and against those teams."
On what it takes in the locker room to pull off an upset
"We have to get behind guys like Malik Manciel, Darius Harris, and (Chandler) Brewer. They're big motivators, they keep us going and our confidence high."
On how his offseason was different because of the positon change
"Well I had to do a lot of running and watching what I ate. My diet changed a lot and I ran much more than I did last year."
On his first time seeing Ty Lee
"My first memory of Ty was watching him play against Syracuse, where he just did everything coach asked him to do. He gave us exactly what we needed in that game."
On the Blue Raiders' offense
"I'm very excited to be a part of an offense with so many talented guys. One of my personal goals this season is to catch a touchdown pass from Brent (Stockstill) so I can be a part of history."