ML: "It’s been a good day, other than a little bit of rain shower. It was really good to get started today with our young players. To a man, they impressed me; I wasn’t disappointed with where anybody was, in relationship to what we expected through the draft. It was a really good start. It’s obviously evident that both Tyler (Eifert) and Giovani (Bernard) will be able to help us offensively and have an opportunity to carve out roles and niches early on in their rookie seasons. I’m excited about that. The game is not going to be too big for either one, and that was really evident through the first two practices out here today, in what they’ve been able to handle.
"The next guys – the defensive players – I feel really good about. Both Margus (Hunt) and Shawn (Williams) are guys who will continue to compete for more and more opportunity, and have an opportunity to earn it. They’re guys that are on the come in their game, and that’s what we really expected. But they’re doing a good job of showing well out here, with what we’re to do here. That’s been good.
"The offensive linemen, as a whole, we’re really excited about them, with the three guys that we picked.
When you said Rex Burkhead was ‘what you expected,’ what did you mean?
ML: "Just the quickness in line, the ability to stick his foot in the ground and go from Point A to Point B. Just the things you saw from him on tape. His abilities as a receiver. I think he’ll be a guy also who will really uplift us on special teams and compete to be one of our core guys."
So much of football seems to be having a feel for the game. A lot of young guys struggle with that, but it seems like you think some of these young guys have it:
You had guys out there today –
ML: "Great opportunity. DeQuin has been around for a little bit. But it is good to get back and play football. J.K. is kind of running the show, so it’s good to have him in there. He should have been at last year’s camp, and life would be a little higher than it is right now (laughs)."
Is that an ‘I told you so’?
ML: "I always tell those guys that if they go somewhere else, they don’t always get the opportunity. We’re going to give you an opportunity here if you’re a young guy. I think that goes too with the CFA guys that we’ve signed. To a man, I was impressed with them today. I felt good about those guys. So it’ll be a competitive camp, and that’s a good thing for the football team. Those guys will have an opportunity to compete and have a chance to show in the preseason, and if it isn’t here, maybe it’s somewhere else."
What was intriguing to you about
ML: "He’s such a good athlete. He’s got the long legs, long arms. But he’s so underdeveloped physically. That’s what you’re looking for: a guy with the physical upside. Playing where he played there, at Southern Illinois, he’s on the come."
ML: "Brandon’s been around with our guys a little bit here, so that’s been good. He’s making a big conversion from a guy who played small college football as a defensive end. He works his tail off."
He’s been here a couple weeks for off-season, is it almost like:
ML: "It’s starting over, basically. It’s like any other rookie. He’s really starting over. Basically he had three days last year. That was it."
What are your thoughts about
ML: "He’s got all the want-to, and there was a big progression technically from practice one from practice two. That’s all we need to keep seeing from him. Kenny Riley reached out to us. He lives not far from where he grew up. We were able to put him in touch with Kenny and they had a good talk. Kenny kind of told him his story about how he made the transfer from offense to defense because he had those skills. A thing we weren’t necessarily sure about with Onterio was ‘Does he have the quickness to be a corner?’ After watching him in two practices, I don’t have any doubt of that."
So right now it’s just technique?
ML: "Oh, yeah. He’s being asked to do something that he necessarily hasn’t done for about four or five years, since he was in high school at Hargrove."
Back to Brandon, what did you see in him that you guys were willing to stick by him for this past year?
ML: "It’s not that necessarily that we saw anything, we just felt like unfortunately for whatever reason he was…well we should probably quit talking about Brandon because he’s already done what he’s needed to do, and that’s it."
Is part of it that he was willing to man up and take his responsibilities?
ML: "Again … we drafted ten guys, and we’ve got a lot of other guys here."
Any of the tryout guys catch your eye today?
ML: "Yeah I think there are some guys with ability, as always is the case. We’ve ended up signing a guy, at least one every year, that has ended up being able to stay around in some fashion. It’s a good group of guys that are fighting. We had 40-plus guys out there working today. We lost a guy today to some soreness, but hopefully we’ll get him back tomorrow morning."
Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons I’m sure had his eyes peeled out there trying to see what might be available:
ML: "He’s been pleased with what he’s been able to see. He wants to see if some of these guys fit in and can replace some of the guys that matriculated on through the system this year. I think that’s important. We’ve got some opportunity open for guys to step up and earn those things on special teams in every area."
It seems like you guys reached out to
ML: "Roy showed up when I was watching a lot of the defensive players in the Big Ten play. He made some contested catches, some runs after the catch. I don’t know when it was, but I walked past (Bengals WR coach) James Urban and asked ‘Who’s the kid at Michigan?’ He told me about him, and James talked to him before the draft, and right after the draft we talked to his people and told him that we’d like to offer him a shot here.
"I think it’s worked out well. I had the opportunity to talk to Coach Hoke (Michigan head coach Brady Hoke) last week, and he went out of his way to sing his praises. How the kid was able to go through the changing in coaching staff and offensive styles and offensive systems and just keep being the kind of guy you want to have on your football team. He told me how proud he was of that. He caught 70 passes, maybe, in his second year, and then the numbers kind of went down based on what they were doing offensively, so there was a little bit of a change. He told me the kid just kept coming to practice every day and working every day and being a great team guy. I think that’s the kind of guy you want to give an opportunity to."
ML: "Yeah, they’ve got some height to them and some length. Cobi is a young guy who has a chance to really develop, and the other kid had a little bit of a story and a transfer, but he’s got some speed and some raw athleticism."
Brian Gamble from Ashland sounds like he’s in the same boat as Onterio McCalebb, mostly an offensive guy who’s got some defensive experience:
ML: "I’m not as familiar with him yet as some of the other guys."
ML: "Yeah, he really has. He kind of got his feet tangled up this morning and did a split like a gymnast, so he’s got some flexibility, too (laughs). I was cringing. But he’s what we’re looking for. All three of those guys – (TJ) Johnson, (Tanner) Hawkinson – they’re all guys that you want to have and develop in your program. It gives us an opportunity for some real, true depth and development on the offensive line. We know what a critical area that is in the National Football League. You need to have guys that are in the pipeline developing, and I think we have an opportunity now with those kinds of guys. We found Trevor (Robinson) last year, and with what (Clint) Boling and (Kevin) Zeitler have done, and
"We’ve got Dennis (Roland), and we’ll get Travelle (Wharton) back now, so we’ve got a pretty staunch group up there. That’s what we need to have. We need to have some development and let some guys grow and get ready to play, so if they’re ever called upon, they’re ready. Because as you know Dave (Lapham), more than anybody in here, about how important it is to play together. So guys that have been in the system, if you have to plug a new guy in, you don’t have to miss a beat. They’re familiar with everybody setting the same, and all the footwork is the same and everybody’s working in unison."
In camps like this, you have to learn how to practice, and the tempo. Is there always a guy trying to do a little too much who you have to calm down?
ML: "They’re all trying to be right. But the key to being right at this point is more to stay off the ground and not have collisions and contact that would put somebody in jeopardy of getting injured. Because they’re not used to practicing like you practice here in the NFL. They don’t go through that regimen as much like we do. We’re practicing good guys vs. good guys quite a bit. And that good guy on one side is just as valuable as the good guy on the other side.
"So it’s really, really important that we learn that. I thought we got off to a pretty good start, better than sometimes – better than most times, actually. And I think we’ll be better at it tomorrow and continue through so that a week from now, when they get in with the rest of the guys, they’ll have a better understanding of how to do it. Because that’s the thing, you just always worry.
"We had to teach (Rey) Maualuga how to practice because he was used to being the big man on campus there (in college) at S.C. and knocking the snot out of everybody all the time. He had to learn that, how to practice. You may injure yourself or get somebody else injured, and they’re just as valuable as you are. So I think young guys have to go through that progression and learn how to practice that way. It’s better to be telling them to slow down than speed up. I know that."
Is that what you told your linebacker with Tyler Eifert in that first practice, saying ‘Hey, that’s our first-round pick. Keep him up’?
ML: "Well, yeah. The quarterback needs to get the ball outside so he doesn’t have to come back to the ball and run himself back into the coverage. You’ve got both guys stumbling over each other out there, and those are the things we’ve got to keep guarding against when we get the other guys out here and we go into the OTA sessions. We don’t want to subject some guy to a freak injury like that, because we know how many times guys stumble and fall. It’s football, but yet you hate to lose somebody for a period of time because of something like that."
How beneficial is it for Reid Fragel and TJ Johnson to get their contracts signed and out of the way?
ML: "The way the system works now, they’ve got a great summer job. I told them they’ve got new money. It’s the first time in their lives they’ve got some money in their pocket and not having to go to class all day long and everything. They’ve got a real good job that has an opportunity to make some real good money for a period of time, so take it seriously and do everything you can to stay here."
Do you expect any other guys to sign soon?
ML: "Yeah, I think we’ll push hard to get them all signed here very quickly. That way we can kind of turn our attention to some other things. Not that that has a bearing, because it is what it is out of that pool of money."
It looks like Eifert won’t need a long orientation:
ML: "No. He and Gio (Bernard) both. Excellent. Not every coach has an opportunity to study every player. You hear the defensive coaches comment on it, you hear some of the other offensive coaches from other positions comment on it if they haven't quite seen the guy. They know the guy is going to be a valuable addition to what we're doing. And can make an impact right away, and that's going to be great. We'll have some flexibility in a lot of different ways to do some things.
"(Eifert) is as advertised. What I was most impressed with is how he did a great job in the running game and the techniques he's being taught. I know he can run and catch, and turn get-back shoulder plays and all those kinds of things that you have to do in tight spots in the NFL. I know he can do all that. But the other stuff was impressive today.
When you mention the run game, do you mean in terms of blocking?
ML: "Yes. His body position and everything. When I was there in Pittsburgh, they drafted (Mark) Bruener (in the first round of 1995). You looked at his body and how (he) looked like a linebacker, and had that kind of hips and flexibility like a defensive end. And later in Baltimore, we picked Todd Heap, and watching Todd as a young player, blocking well, even though Todd didn't come out of Arizona State with that kind of reputation."
Have you ever had a back like Bernard since you've been here?
ML: "What everybody doesn't understand, when you look at Ray Rice when he was a young player, this guy is already a little taller, a little heavier. The only difference in the two of them is Ray's arms were two inches longer. If that matters. We're looking at comparisons of (Doug) Martin, and the back down in Jacksonville (Maurice Jones-Drew), and those kind of guys with that kind of stature. Everybody sees where they are now, but you also look at physically where they started out, and I think Gio’s got special ability that way."
But you haven't had guy here like that in your 11 years:
ML: "Rudi (Johnson) was pretty close to this. Rudi probably was not the receiver Gio is going to have the opportunity to be. He didn't have those chances at Auburn to develop that way. This kid has played in both the downhill, I-formation style running offense as well as the spread-out-the-field offense. He's had an opportunity to do it all like that.
"And he goes back to even his high school, St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), so he's had opportunity both ways. To me his running style is a lot like Rudi, although he's probably a little quicker than what Rudi. But obviously, the way they're built to the ground … We've got two styles of backs being productive right now in the National Football League, and he would be in that other style.
He's different than Rudi, Cedric (Benson), and BenJarvus (Green-Ellis):
ML: "Bennie's not the same as those guys. Bennie's a better cut runner than what those guys were, Cedric or Rudi. Bennie's different than those guys. (Bernard) is in the same style as Bennie, but a little more agile at this point, that's all."