THE MODERATOR: We are joined by Louisville. Coach Petrino, take it away.
COACH PETRINO: It’s great to be here today. I always feel like this shows that football is right around the corner and we get to start practice on the 3rd. It is an exciting time for us.
It’s also great to be back in Charlotte and at the Westin. We were here a couple years ago for the Belk Bowl. Had a great experience. Our players, fans, coaching staff, loved it here. An amazing bowl game, appreciate everybody that put that on for us.
Really looking forward to the season. I’m excited about getting started. I really feel like we have a lot of experience coming back. A year ago we had a tough start to the season. We were playing a bunch of young guys. What they did is they stuck together, they worked hard at practice, they took the losses hard. They found a way to get better and improve as the year went on and win some big games.
We finished the season very strong with a fun comeback against Kentucky, and a great bowl game down in Nashville against Texas A&M with a big win.
We went into spring ball with a team that worked extremely hard and has a lot of confidence. I feel like we have the depth you need to compete and we’ve got experience at almost every position coming back.
What the depth will do is allow us to get better in practice. We’ll go out on the practice field and guys will have to work hard to maintain their spot on the depth chart or work hard to take somebody’s spot on the depth chart.
One of the things I do, I always try to tell our players that they’re the ones that set the depth chart, not the coaches. How you go out and practice, what you really tell your teammates, because your teammates know who the starters are, who should be playing.
This will be a very, very competitive fall for us here to see who is going to open the season as the starters. We have great leadership on this team. It’s something that I feel really good about. We have really good team chemistry. We have a bunch of guys that like to work hard together, aren’t afraid to say they love each other, which is something I feel like is lacking in the world nowadays, something that our players do a great job of.
They’ve done a great job this summer getting out into the community, giving back, enjoying it while they do it with a big smile on their faces. A team that I’m proud of the leadership and chemistry that we have right now.
There’s high expectations for this team. Something that I have for them, something I embrace. I know our players have very high expectations. Our administration certainly does. Our fans do.
We have a goal to win a national championship at the University of Louisville. I always try to make sure our players understand you have to have enough courage to tell people what your goal is if you’re ever going to accomplish it.
We know it’s a tough road. We’ve got to go through Clemson and Florida State just in our division, two teams that have been to the national championship game, and one that’s wearing a ring. We know it’s a great challenge, but one that we’re certainly looking forward to with a lot of energy and a lot of excitement. Like I said, we can’t wait to get started.
I have two young men with me today that I’m very proud of that have put a lot into developing as players, developing as students, and do a great job in leading our team. Our quarterback Lamar Jackson and our starting middle linebacker Keith Kelsey. I hope you enjoy them. I know they’re excited to be here and they’ll do a good job.
With that, I’ll turn it over to Lamar.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll take questions for Lamar.
Q. In your opinion, what can you say about where you’ve grown the most and how you’ve kind of handled the fact there’s a lot more expectation for you this year?
LAMAR JACKSON: I’ve been growing a lot. In the past game, I’ve becoming a student of the game, hitting the books hard. Coach been on me a lot. Standing on top of my throws. He’s been on top of me about that, too. Trying to become a dynamic quarterback.
Q. Lamar, we talked this summer a little bit about your evolution as a quarterback. Now that you have that level of expectation, you have that comfort level, what do you think we’ll see this year as far as your game? What is the biggest improvement you think you’ll make this year?
LAMAR JACKSON: I think you guys are going to see a whole lot of everything from me. Giving my all out there on the field. Last year we were trying to show everyone we were a young team, we could go out there and play. This year is a whole ‘nother story. More mature, older now. We’ve been hitting the books hard, like I said before.
Q. You obviously had a strong finish to last year. From those last two games where you put up crazy stats, what kind of confidence did that give you?
LAMAR JACKSON: It gave me a big boost. I just went out there and coach told me to have fun. I went out there with a smile, not rage that I had to show everyone. Just had fun, show what we could do. Came out with a victory. That’s what it’s all about, winning.
Q. Pass protection was an issue for Louisville, especially early in the season. Last in sacks allowed. Did it get better as the year went on? Did you feel you were better protected as you went along? What’s the outlook for this year?
LAMAR JACKSON: It wasn’t a lot of the linemen’s fault. When I watched film, it was actually protecting. I was just running, like, on my own, get sacked. It wasn’t really the line’s fall on some of the occasions.
This year everyone know what they’re doing. We’re not young anymore. We’re older now, like I said before. Our line’s going to be pretty good, great.
Q. When coach he said you were coming to Media Day, how have you grown in that aspect?
LAMAR JACKSON: I’ve been having a lot of training on my interviews. How am I doing? I’m doing good, all right (smiling).
It’s been fun. It’s been a fun experience. At first I was like, Media Day, I don’t want to do this, coach. I’m growing, so I have to do what I have to do. Responsibility.
Q. I see you’re wearing a cross around your neck right now. How important has your faith been as you’ve continued to grow as a football player?
LAMAR JACKSON: I’ll start off like this. Every morning when I wake up, I pray. Without God, I wouldn’t be able to be here right now or on the field. God come first more than anything to me. That’s all I got to say. God come first, yeah.
THE MODERATOR: Lamar, thank you. Keith, you’re up. We’ll take questions for Keith Kelsey.
Q. You found a really good groove, 107 tackles. What are your expectations for yourself?
KEITH KELSEY: I have a lot of expectations for myself. I’m also focused on the team, trying to go out there and win as many games as possible. Without my teammates and coaches, I wouldn’t be able to be the player I am today.
Q. What is the competition like among the linebackers? How do y’all push each other?
KEITH KELSEY: We push each other every day. It’s a lot of great guys. We have a lot of great players. It’s competitive in everything we do. We could be eating, try to see who eat faster. Play the game, see who could have the most tackles, sacks. At the end of the day it makes our team better and us better as players, so…
Q. You have the luxury of having your entire secondary return. They led the league or tied the league in interceptions. How much of a comfort is that in the middle of the defense to know the guys behind you are among the best in the league?
KEITH KELSEY: That’s a big help when your DBs have can like that. We have guys like Josh Harvey-Clemens, Trumaine Washington, Shaq Wiggins. It really gives us a help. It helps our guys up front, as well. You know when the quarterback throws the ball, you know they have a chance of making a play on the ball.
Q. If Coach Petrino would let you tackle Lamar Jackson, what would make it difficult to try to do that?
KEITH KELSEY: He’s such an electrifying quarterback, he’s very fast, shifty. I know coach is not going to let me tackle him in practice, so I’m not even going to think about that (smiling).
Q. When you look at your decision to come back and why it was important to be at Louisville, what can you say to that decision, and your vision for this last go at it for you?
KEITH KELSEY: It was a big decision of mine. Being it’s the last time I get to go out here with my brothers, my coaches, being able to play at Papa John’s Stadium my last year, it means a lot to me. I’m just going to come out and give it my all my last go around.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll excuse our student-athletes. Guys, thank you very much. We’ll bring Coach Petrino back up to the podium and start our Q&A with coach.
Q. Bobby, what do you think of Dino Babers, his fit at Syracuse? Looking at his offense, what stands out to you having to play that in week two?
COACH PETRINO: Dino has done a great job everywhere he’s been. I remember way back when he was at the University of Arizona. He’s been one of the guys that has changed some of college football with the tempo and the spread offense, how fast they go. It’s going to be a great challenge for us to make sure that we can handle the tempo and get lined up and not make assignment errors in that game because they really do execute fast.
It’s been impressive to me what he’s done at all the places that he’s been. He’s a very successful guy. I run into him out on the road recruiting. You can see why he’s been so successful.
Q. What can you say since your return to Louisville have been the biggest improvements going into this season, what you’ve seen out of each of the units as a whole?
COACH PETRINO: The first year that we came in, we had a very, very talented group coming back. The problem was there was like 23 seniors. I think we had three or four juniors that came out, too. We had a really good year. I was impressed.
We had a couple close games that we didn’t win, Clemson, and for a while we had the lead against Florida State. But we won some big games that year, too. One of my most memorable games would be going to Notre Dame and beating Notre Dame there just simply because growing up, my dad, my grandfather, uncles, everybody was Notre Dame fans. That was certainly a memorable win for us.
Then they were all gone. It’s like, okay, we’re starting over again. So last year we knew there could be some growing pains and some struggles. What I’m really excited about now is the actual depth that we do have.
Standing here a year ago I didn’t know who our starting offensive line would be. We didn’t have a starting quarterback named.
To be able to really understand the players that we have, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are throughout the entire depth chart, I think we can get better quicker. We can make great strides when we get started in camp.
I know we did over spring. I thought our coaches did a really good job of working hard on our individual players getting better, then their position groups getting better, which made our offense, defense and special teams better.
Q. Looking back at Syracuse, the Dome can get pretty loud. What are some of the challenges of playing in such a loud environment?
COACH PETRINO: Well, it is loud. There’s no question about it. Being indoor, the echoes. The number one challenge there is to be able to communicate on offense, but also to be able to communicate on defense, particularly at the tempo they’re going to play at. Third down always becomes an issue. You have to make sure you have the ability to use silent cadence.
Two years ago when we played there, it was very loud. We played there my first year when I was at Louisville the first time. Another really good game. You have to be able to be able to communicate, deal with the noise, and not have it affect you.
It usually comes up in situations where there’s pressure involved, the game being on the line, third downs, fourth downs. We have to prepare our players for that. We’ll do some things in camp so we’re able to communicate and deal with noise.
Q. What has Lamar’s emergence at quarterback meant to your offense? Running and passing, what would you like to see as improvement?
COACH PETRINO: That’s a great question. Last year, he’s a tremendous talent, unbelievable ability with his legs and running, making plays. But the thing that stood out to me so quickly and early in practice was his ability to throw the ball, his vision, the things he could see down the field, snap his wrist and get the ball there.
What we did this spring is we kind of took the running game away from him and worked hard at making him throw from the pocket, making him keep his vision downfield when there’s pass-rush around him. Like he said up here, there were times when his instinct was to move and leave. Sometimes that caused sacks more than other issues.
He really matured. He has a great understanding of the game now, of what we’re trying to do offensively with him. He’s getting better understanding what defenses are trying to do. He’s got great poise.
If we can get him to throw the ball down the field and be accurate with his passes, that will open up his ability to run the ball even more.
Q. Aside from winning games and championships, how do you measure whether or not a season is successful, upcoming year or past years?
COACH PETRINO: The number one way I measure a season is how we improve as it goes on. What is your attitude. What are we doing in practice. How do we overcome obstacles. That really is so much of college football. It’s a long season now. The conference that we’re in is very, very competitive. Every team we play is going to have good players and be very well-coached.
The challenge for us is to be able to win games in the fourth quarter which takes attitude and discipline and depth. The better we practice, the more depth we develop. We’ve been able to see guys that don’t play a lot in the first four games of the year help you win games the last two or three games of the year.
We’re going to work hard at practicing hard and getting better as the year goes on.
Q. Can you speak to Devonte Fields. The guy we saw at the end of last year, is that the guy we’ll see more of this year as opposed to the guy that took a while to get going?
COACH PETRINO: I think we got a good chance of seeing that early in the season.
Devonte joined us late last year, came in in August, the day before we started camp. When you’re talking to him, did you run, did you lift?
The answer is yeah.
I worked hard.
When they’re not with the team, they’re not doing the conditioning that our strength staff is having them do, you don’t get in the same type of shape.
What happened was he came in, he got very sore. His body ached. He broke down a little bit. It took him a while to get back. Also he hadn’t played for a while, so his instincts, his abilities, were rusty.
What happened, he just got better and better and better each week. I think the last six weeks of the season he was as dominant a player as we’ve had the luxury to coach. He can really rush the passer. He’s very smart in the run game, so he can fall off blocks and make tackles in the run game.
He understands protections, so he cannot only utilize his abilities but his mind on how to beat and a track protections.
I think he can have a great year for us. He needs to stay healthy. We need to find matchups for him where he can utilize his ability.
Q. Your team was near the top of the league in most defensive categories, yet at the same time maybe the challenge will be larger this year. Looking at the returning players in the league, 90% of the offensive stars are back. How good are the players on the offensive side? What are the challenges awaiting your defense?
COACH PETRINO: You’re right, when you look at the offensive weapons we’re going to face, you have a couple guys that are definitely frontrunners for the Heisman. You have speed. You have size. You got some good offensive line coming back. Certainly our defense sees that as a challenge.
What we’ve been able to do on defense is, number one, stop the run. We’ve been great with our defensive front, keeping our linebackers free. Our secondary has been able to recognize run-pass, help fits in the run game. That puts pressure on the offenses now to throw the ball.
Then what we’ve been good at is harassing, hitting and sacking the quarterback, something we’ve been able to do with the four-man rush, five-man rush or pressure packages where we bring six guys. What that has led to is turnovers.
I think it all kind of works together. If we can stop the run, tackle well, then you put offenses in a situation where they have to throw the ball. Now we’ve got some good pass-rush guys and some good schemes to get after their pass protection, guys that can cover long enough to give us a chance to get to the quarterback and create turnovers.
We have smart players on defense. They really do a good job of teaching the scheme. Our guys understand the scheme. We’re able to make adjustments as the game goes on.
That’s one of the great challenges in coaching, is to get better as the game goes on so you’re a better team in the second quarter than you were in the first, and a better team in the second half than you were in the first half.
I really feel like our defense has been able to do that.
THE MODERATOR: Coach, thank you.
COACH PETRINO: Thank you very much.