Publisher's Note: The following is the second of a two-part Q&A the CN staff did recently with ISU football coach Dan McCarney for our upcoming 2003 football preview issue of Cyclone Nation Magazine. Part one was posted yesterday. For more information about how you can subscribe to Cyclone Nation, please click on the following link:
CN: The offensive line was a work in progress last season. How much do you expect it to be improved in 2003?
McCarney: I'm very optimistic. I think Marty Fine did a heck of a job this spring with those kids. Luke Vander Sanden's health is real important to our offensive line, and he's done an excellent job at center. Aaron Brant and Seth Zehr are two of the best offensive linemen we've brought in since I've been in the program. We're going to continue to let them battle at right guard, but they will both definitely play in the first game. Aaron's up to 314 pounds and Zehr is 285. Brant's really got a Big 12 body already, even though he's just an 18-year old freshman. Zehr is starting to look like a Big 12 offensive lineman.
CN: Would you rather have an unsettled quarterback position and the best set of receivers in the league, or the best quarterback in the league and an unsettled group of wide receivers?
McCarney: I'd rather have an established quarterback. It's not easy playing receiver, but that's a position that sometimes guys can come in and play sooner a little easier than others. Youth at wide receiver doesn't always kill you, as long as they have ability and are easily coached. But youth and a lack of experience at quarterback can really hurt you sometimes.
CN: How important is it to improve last season's lackluster running game?
McCarney: It's really important and we've addressed it because we weren't satisfied. We could run it on average defenses, solid defenses and poor defenses, but once you get into the heart of the season you don't see many of them. You see outstanding, great, top 10 ones.
It started in the locker room in Boise. We were getting physically beat up front and weren't physical enough. We were getting stalemates instead of knocking people off the football. We've got a good system in place and it's a proven system. We can run the football and know what we're doing. But we got knocked back off the ball far too many times and didn't get enough movement.
We were average at best in the offensive line and running back. That hasn't happened since we've been here. We've been better than that most years. That's the challenge and the same thing I talked to my players and coaches about. We've got a great running tradition here that we've got to get back to.
McCarney: From what I saw in the spring, I thought they had a chance to be as good as that defensive line and hopefully better. That's a lot of athleticism and speed on the edge out there with Tyson Smith and Cephus Johnson, and a lot of heart, character and toughness inside with Jordan Carstens and Nick Leaders.
Any good rush defense has to have a nose guard, a MIKE linebacker, and physical safeties. You look at our defensive lineup right now and it looks pretty good there. It gives you hope with Leaders, Carstens, Brandon Brown and JaMaine Billups back there at safety.
I liked the personality of our defense this spring. There are a lot of tough guys that like playing together. I think this is going to be our best secondary. Brandon can be and should be the best linebacker we've had since I took the job. Joe Woodley's a throwback to the old days and I love him. He's not fast enough, but somehow he makes plays.
We need to continue improving and did that last year with our rush defense. We were up to fifth in the conference in total defense and improved a lot on forcing turnovers. We were pathetic in goal line and short yardage defense. A lot of that is attitude and that was poor. Those things are unacceptable and we addressed it as soon as the season was over.
CN: How does your two-deep look behind the defensive starters?
McCarney: I think this can be a deeper unit. Tim TeBrink could play three of those positions right now. Klayton Shoals showed flashes this spring that he maybe had a chance. Beau Klaffke is 275 pounds right now and is starting to look like a Big 12 defensive lineman. Korey Smith reminds me a lot of a younger Kevin DeRonde. He'll run through the wall and he's starting to develop physically. Hopefully Andy Leaders can give us eight to 12 snaps a game. He's coming off of knee surgery and is about 280 pounds.
Erik Anderson and Jamar Buchanan have to give us some depth at SAM linebacker. Kyle Smith, Chris Whitaker and Boyd Viers – if he can ever come back – could give us some depth at MIKE. Then Matt Robertson and Jimmy Morris have got to be depth guys at WILL.
I'd be shocked if anybody can break into that secondary, barring injuries. You've got Billups, Anthony Forrest, Marc Timmons, Harold Clewis, Steve Paris, Ellis Hobbs, Johnny Smith and Brian Ollie that have played on gameday.
CN: Is Jordan Carstens the embodiment of what Cyclone football is all about?
McCarney: No question he is. He was 228 pounds when he came in. He reported to camp as the last guy in. Mike Woodley saw him in the Shrine camp and came back and said there's something special about that kid, so we worked him in. He was the last guy we brought to camp. He was an under-sized tall, skinny kid. Yet he wouldn't take any stuff from the other kids. He wouldn't back down. I remember those big seniors, like Ryan Gerke, just whacking him. I knew we had something special then. He has a great work ethic and is an ambassador and academic All-American. He exemplifies all of the good about this program.
CN: On to special teams. Given how Adam Benike struggled at times this spring, is the kicking game now a question mark?
McCarney: I don't think it's a concern, but we do need to find out who our starter is. For whatever reason this spring, Benike struggled a little bit. But you'll recall two springs ago, Benike didn't have a real good spring and ended up being an All-Big 12 guy for us last fall. It's also a credit to Tony Yelk's improvement and his focus on getting the ball up quicker and higher.
CN: What's your overall assessment of the special teams?
McCarney: We've got a lot of the important guys coming back. Snapper Eric Schmitz is coming back. He had some personal problems and that was part of him leaving. His grandmother died, he was real close to her and dropped out of school. We're appealing right now to the Big 12 to get a hardship to get him back. He was the best deep snapper we've had.
Many of those other positions are back. The philosophy, and I'm going to preach it to them again, is ‘are you good enough for special teams' and not ‘are you too good for special teams?' A lot of the best players from Oklahoma and Kansas State are all over the field on special teams, and it really stands out because they always have great defenses and special teams.
We've got to eliminate the inconsistency of our special teams. We were either really strong or stunk it up. We saw a real marked improvement in our punt return and punt block units last year, but little improvement in our kickoff return game. We've already addressed all those things and have a plan.