By Rob Moseley
Brady Hoke’s hiring as Oregon’s defensive coordinator was announced Jan. 16, and he arrived in Eugene the next day; within 48 hours he was on the road recruiting, where he’d spend 11 of the next 13 days. Only in the last week has he been able to take up shop in his new office in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, and take stock of the UO defensive unit he takes over for the 2016 season. Hoke spoke Wednesday with GoDucks.com; the transcript below is edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: You spent the past year away from coaching. How did you approach that year coming out of your four seasons as Michigan’s head coach? Was it the plan to get back into coaching after one year?
A: There were some other opportunities we could have taken after Michigan, but at the same time it was worth stepping back a little bit. Getting into the radio stuff kept me very engaged in college football. I had come out here a year ago spring (to observe Oregon’s practice in 2015), went to a couple different schools where I wanted to look at what they were doing, either offensively or defensively. I think it was TCU, Oregon, Oregon State, Tennessee in the spring. And then in August I did some stuff with Sirius – went to Georgia, Clemson, Florida State, Ole Miss and Florida -- so got to hit those five schools, watch a couple of practices. I’m always big into how guys practice, and like anything you want to keep evolving. You want to evaluate what went right and what went right, and at the same time keep evolving, so it was good.
Mark and I have known each other 14, 15 years. I was at Michigan, he was at Boise and we both recruited San Diego. We kind of got to know each other a little bit. Kent Riddle, who was a student coach for us at Oregon State (where Hoke was an assistant 1989-94), and Mark were together at Boise. So I got to know Mark that way. I’ve known DP (Don Pellum) for 25 years, probably, since I was at Oregon State; again, recruiting together, flying to visit recruits, whatever. And then obviously going against each other, knew Steve Greatwood, all the guys who’ve been here for multiple years. So the year was good, for a lot of different reasons. But professionally it was really good.
Q: What did you miss the most about coaching?
A: Kids. I mean, that’s why I got into coaching. Being around kids and helping them develop as men, helping them develop academically, and helping them from a competitive standpoint be the best they can. I used to tell my wife, at 2:25 when we had meetings (at past coaching stops), whether I was position coach or head coach, that was my most fun time of the day. Because you’re all football. Two-a-day camp – I love two-a-days. Because it’s all football, and it’s all about being with them. Last week we had a morning workout, and it was awesome to be around the kids.
Q: You were hired late in the 2016 recruiting cycle. What impact did you feel like you could have on that class?
A: I don’t know what kind of impact I had; hopefully something. Moving to the 4-3 front we had to get at least one more big body inside, and we got that with Wayne Kirby.
Q: You have a reputation as a great recruiter, is that a passion of yours?
A: Yeah. I mean, No. 1, that’s the life blood of your program, is those kids. But I like people. I think it’s fun to go into the homes. It’s about the people you get to be around and meet with. Here, similar to other places I’ve been, we’re going to recruit families. We’re going to recruit guys of high character and integrity. Now and then you’ll have a guy who slips a little bit, and then it’s your job to have that relationship to get them back on the right trail. And believe me I know that, because my first two years of college I had a heck of a lot of fun. And if it wasn’t for a coach who really cared about me as a person, I wouldn’t be sitting here.
Q: What have been your initial impressions as you set up shop here, in particular given the unique dynamic of having coach Pellum, who you replace as coordinator, still on staff?
A: No. 1, this is a great football staff, and great men, who really, deeply care about the kids on this football team. When this whole thing was going down, Don called and we talked for probably 45 minutes about how this would work. I’ll be honest, if he wouldn’t have called, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job, because I have a lot of respect for Don. Ron Aiken coached probably my best friend’s son at Iowa, Greg Mattison’s son Bryan, so I knew what kind of coach he was. John Neal and I coached at Oregon State for two years. In a lot of ways, Ron was the only guy I really didn’t know well. But it’s been great, the fit and the dynamics of how we’re working together. Like I told all of them, I’m going to lean on them. I don’t know a great coordinator who doesn’t lean on the other guys on the staff. From that standpoint, it’s been awesome.
Q: It’s been noted you haven’t been a defensive coordinator in title for a college program, but Mark Helfrich said you were intimately involved with the defenses at your other stops. What does that mean?
A: Well, I’ve always coached a position. At Michigan I coached the two inside guys (on the line); as the head coach at San Diego State, I coached the front. At Ball State, I coached safeties for two years, I coached inside linebackers for two years, I coached defensive line for two years. So yeah, I’ve been very involved, as a head coach, on the defense. When I hired Rocky Long at San Diego State, I didn’t really worry about being the guy calling plays, but I called plays the last three years at Ball State. Then at Michigan I hired Greg (Mattison), who is pretty good.
Q: Moving to a 4-3 here, how different is it going to look and what kind of a transition is it going to be for the current players?
A: It’s going to be a transition for some of them. The whole thing is, philosophically we want to be explosive defensively. People are going to say, what’s that mean? Well, from the 4-3 you’ve got a chance to be more disruptive, rather than two-gapping. I think there’s reasons to two-gap, but our base out of a four-man front – and sometimes that will look like an odd front – but it won’t be a two-gap. But we want to be explosive. Negative plays are critical. How we play in the red zone is critical. Having an identity is important – physical, tough, aggressive. Part of it is teaching the methods or the principles of the 4-3, and then you get into the sub-defenses, and that’s when at times you’ll see some different fronts. We want to try and disrupt, and give people enough different looks that we can dictate the tempo, if that makes sense.
Q: Have you had much chance to evaluate the returning players, and get a sense for how they might fit the new schemes?
A: Not really. One thing I asked the coaches, don’t tell me anything. I don’t want to have any preconceived opinions. I want to make my own by watching the guys, and seeing how they compete – and that’s a big thing. We want them to compete in the classroom, compete in the meetings, compete in everything we do. Our goal is to be better today than we were yesterday. And that’s not just the kids, that’s all of us. We have high expectations of the kids, and they should have high expectations of us, of how they’re going to be taught, how they’re going to be mentored, how they’re going to be loved and cared for.
Q: What film do you watch to get an assessment of the veterans?
A: The only thing I’ve watched is TCU, Oregon State and USC, because I’m kind of working backwards. Right now we’re just trying to get through a playbook, and the biggest thing is not to go too fast for them. Because it doesn’t matter what we know, it’s what they know. You can see a big, thick binder over there; I’ve got four of those, from four different years, with different adjustments. So there’s a lot. But like I said, it doesn’t matter what we know. If they know it, and they can play fast and play physical and play with great effort, that’s what we care about. They make take the wrong step now and then, but if they’re playing with great effort, it’s going to make them right.
Q: Coach Helfrich gave the impression you’ll be pretty mobile during spring practice, assessing the various position groups and overseeing installation of the schemes. What will be your approach?
A: I think that’s the best way to do it for now. They have to know the fundamentals of the game, the strengths and weaknesses of each defense, the support systems, the techniques. If we’re supposed to be one-by-seven (yards) off the wideout, we better be damn sure we’re one-by -seven off the wideout. If we’re supposed to be a foot-five (alignment) as an end, we better be a foot-five as an end. The little details are what make you great. And then the effort and the physicalness that you play with. The pursuit to the football; we want to have 11 guys at the ball when the camera stops. And I don’t care if we’re playing a tempo team, get your butt out where you need to be for the next play. I’ll be honest, tempo’s never really ever bothered us.
In the spring, No. 1 we’ve got to find guys who are first-line guys. And we’ve got to change some positions and transition some guys. And then hopefully develop some depth. In this day and age of football, especially against certain teams, you’re going to want to play 22 guys on defense, or 19 at least. It helps your defensive morale, and also in the fourth quarter you can finish games.
Q: Given the way you need to practice, in order to stay healthy, you don’t get much live hitting. How do you become a team that tackles well?
A: Tackling is about understanding where the ball’s going to be funneled. Everyone’s got to understand what the weakness of a call might be, because there’s no perfect defense. Tackling becomes about angles to the football; football’s kind of geometry. You’ve got to have leverage on the ball. We talked about the support systems, but also who’s the chase player, who’s the cutback player, and does everyone understand? And what spread teams try to do in one-gap football is make you go one more gap, by making the quarterback a runner. So from that standpoint, everybody’s got to understand where the leverage is and how we want to take angles to the ball. And you’ve got to try and do the best job you can simulating things at full speed. That’s part of what you have to do in practice, and how you set your practices up.
Q: Are their certain stats by which you measure your defense?
A: It depends. If you’re playing Stanford, it’s going to be different than if you’re playing Arizona. You may use points by possession against Arizona; against Stanford it may be, all right, let’s not give Christian McCaffrey more than 100 yards rushing. Obviously points per game is important. Takeaways. And that’s part of being explosive, is creating those opportunities. Tackles for loss. Third-down defense. And then really, red zone. Because when you’re playing spread teams, if you can hold them to field goals, you’ve got a chance.
Q: You think you’ll be in the booth or on the field once the season rolls around?
Q: Wrapping it up, having been a head coach, is that the ambition again? Do you have a sense of a career trajectory from this point forward?
A: You know, not really. I’m excited as heck to be at Oregon. We lived out in the Northwest for six years, so we know it. And working with Mark and for Mark, there’s not a better individual to be around. I’ll be honest, I’ve wanted to go back to calling defenses. I think if I would have ever become a head coach again, I would call defense. Because the strategy, I love it. I love everything about it.