Louisville Head Coach Bobby Petrino, Heisman Winning Quarterback Lamar Jackson & Pre-Season All-American Cornerback Jaire Alexander opened the podium sessions at the 2017 ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, NC.
BOBBY PETRINO: Thank you. It’s great to be back in Charlotte. We were here a couple years ago for the Belk Bowl and stayed right here at the Westin. Everyone treated us great, our fans and our players had a great experience. And this is the home of one of our players that I brought with me today, Jaire Alexander, so that makes it special, and his parents are here somewhere, so it would be good to say hi to them.
As far as our football team goes, I really liked what we got done in spring ball, you know, as far as the defensive side of the ball goes. We do return a lot of starters and veterans, but they had a lot to learn. We brought a new defensive coordinator in, Peter Sirmon, who I really like. I think Peter is a tremendous motivator and a great teacher, and really understands what the players are going through and does a great job of understanding and coaching them.
And then we brought in Lorenzo Ward as our secondary coach. Lorenzo had worked for me previously. He’s a high-energy guy and a great teacher, and I think will really help us with our ability to play hard and play fast.
But our players had to learn new terminology and kind of compare the schemes because there was a lot of things that carry over and a lot of things defensively where Xs and Os are the same, but it’s what you do within the Xs and Os that count and the technique that you utilize and the speed that you play at, and I’m excited about what I saw from our defense in spring.
As far as offense goes, we have more depth on the offensive line. That will help us. There will be competition. It’ll make everybody better there. Obviously our offensive line takes a little bit of criticism from last season, but it’s really on the entire offense, on me, on our coaches, on our wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, quarterbacks. Any time that we get sacked or have a negative play on offense, it’s everybody, so it wasn’t just the offensive line.
We did bring in a new offensive line coach in Mike Summers, who I’ve worked with. I think this is the fifth time that I’ve hired Mike, and he’s a really good coach, a really good teacher. He’ll help us a lot. And I think it’ll be the first time in my career that we have the fifth coach on offense, kind of doing it in anticipation of the tenth assistant, which I thought we would get immediately, but now we need to wait until January to see that happen.
I’m excited about our running backs. Reggie Bonnafon has been back in the backfield full time, does a great job back there, is big enough to pass-protect, has great hands and really can run with the ball after the catch, so the more reps that we give him from that, the more touches we get him, the better football player he’s going to be. I kind of felt like last year I didn’t get him the ball enough and we weren’t able to utilize him as much as we were the year before, so we’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen this year.
Malik Williams is back off of injury. Malik was really coming off at the end of the year last year and got injured covering a kickoff. He’s a great kickoff cover guy. But running the football he was really maturing, was getting more and more reps, and he’s a very talented guy. He’s 216 pounds, and he’s fast. I think that’s the thing that’s really special about him is he can take it the distance and go score.
And then Jeremy Smith would be the other guy who’s coming off injury that should be back full speed here when we get started up in — I want to say August, but it’s actually July 31st.
And then Lamar had a good spring. We did work him more underneath the center. We wanted to get him comfortable doing that. In fact, the first week of spring ball we stayed under the center. He can really drop and throw it from under there. He does a good job in the run game. The best thing about Lamar is it was never an issue of taking the snap, so he could always take the snap. It was just getting used to the footwork, getting to the right mesh point to help the running back out, and I think it’ll help us be a harder team to defend. I really believe that.
But he worked hard on his progression reads. He took a lot of pride out on the practice field, understanding the coverages, what the safeties are doing, and going through his progression. He also worked real hard on his footwork, making sure he gets set, gets his back leg under his hip, and when he does that and stands tall, he’s a very, very accurate thrower. He’s a great deep ball thrower, and you know, it was fun to really go back this summer. My little brother came in town, who’s the head coach of the University of Idaho, so we went back and watched all the video from last year, and it was fun to watch the throws that he made and the plays that he played throwing the football that we didn’t even watch the running game, so it was an exciting time for us.
But he made a lot of strides. He’s going to continue to get better, and the best thing about Lamar Jackson is his attitude and work ethic. He comes to practice every day with a smile on his face and goes 100 percent. That makes everybody around us a lot better.
As far as the summer goes, our guys have been working hard. I like the attitude. I like the freshmen that are on campus. We had a good year of recruiting, particularly in the offensive line. The defensive backfield, who we’re going to need some depth from the new guys and be able to get maybe a nickel out of it, and some guys that can back up and do a great job.
I do really like the receiver group. They’re actually a little better than I anticipated. They’re fast and have good size and can really run after they catch the ball, so that’s going to be exciting to see how they get into the mix and what type of reps that they get.
We also got a big tight end that I’m real excited about that’s 6’7″, 265 pounds in Kemari Averett that can move and run, and I really think that he’ll have an opportunity to get into the depth and get some playing time if he can learn. You never know until you start practicing how quickly you can pick things up and adapt to the speed and how everything goes out there.
As far as fall camp goes, the first challenge of that was to really get it down on paper and see how we’re going to do it. They changed the rules on us right in mid-stream, and you could back up and start earlier. There are no two-a-days, and it is really a challenge. I think we went through it four, maybe five, different times on what’s the right way to do it. I don’t want to start too early. We’ve been real successful in opening games, but yet I want to get our practices in.
What we’re going to end up doing is starting on July 31st, which will be a Monday, and then we get 28 of our practices in. They get their days off. That way they get the weekend off here right before we get started. I think that’s important for them. I think it’s something that was real important to see what’s the best way for our football players, and not practice too long before the opening game. We need to catch up a little bit with the rules as far as the acclimatization period and with these adjustments because all the guys are on campus all summer long now anyway. In the old days, it was a great rule because you were able to bring guys in and make sure that they stayed safe and stayed healthy, but it’s a little bit outdated now, and particularly when you take the two-a-days away. Hopefully we’ll make adjustments on that next year.
But I am looking forward to camp. I think we’ve got a good football team. I think we’ve got a lot of competition that will go on in camp, and like I always tell the players, it’s their responsibility to show their teammates who the starters are, and the depth usually takes care of itself if they just understand that, that they’ve got to come to work every day, do a great job on the field, do a great job in the meeting room, and prove to their players who the starters are.
We have high expectations for this team. I know our coaching staff does. I know our players do. Certainly our fans and our administration have high expectations for us, and this is a really tough conference. It’s going to be very competitive. Every team that we play has really good players. Every team that we play is very, very well-coached, so we’re going to have to do a great job of being in great condition, developing our depth, and being able to perform in the fourth quarter when the pressure is on. I think that’s what you’re going to see, a lot of fourth quarter wins or fourth quarter losses this year throughout the conference.
We’ve got two great young men with me today, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner in Lamar Jackson. One of the unique things about Lamar is on our campus, our football team had the most community service hours, and the No. 1 guy in that was Lamar Jackson. So he not only is a great football player, but he loves giving back to the community, loves being around young kids, and he’s going to come up here and answer questions for you here in just a second.
And then we’ve got Jaire Alexander, who like I said, is right from here in Charlotte. Jaire is an unbelievable football player for us. He had a great year last year as our starting corner. I think he got five interceptions and made a lot of really big plays for us that gave us opportunities to win the game, and then he’s one of the premier punt returners in the country. It’s our job to get him some room, get him to be able to catch the ball with some room, so we really work hard on hold-ups and blocking because we know every time he touches it, he’s got an opportunity to go the distance. With that, I’ll just introduce Lamar Jackson first.
Q. Just wondering what you had in mind for an encore this year. How can you possibly improve on last year?
LAMAR JACKSON: Well, you know, start off with giving my all. We start with Purdue, and each and every game, just going to go out there and try to get a victory. I’m trying to win more games than last year, and the biggest goal is the National Championship.
Q. Lamar, just to speak on some of the guys that you think have stepped up at running back and at wide receiver, knowing that you had some guys move forward from their eligibility, just what you can say about some of the weapons this year.
LAMAR JACKSON: I want to start out with Reggie Bonnafon, No. 7. He plays all types of positions: Running back, quarterback, receiver. He’s just a freakish athlete and he does a tremendous job with being coached, getting into position, trying to be the best at it. Jaylen Smith, wideout, No. 9, another tremendous guy coming back for me. Can’t wait to see him out there. It’s a lot of receivers who have — I can’t name them all, but you’re going to have to see for yourself.
Q. Last year here I remember you talked about being nervous about being one of the two guys that Coach picked to come. I’m wondering if you can talk about how you’ve gotten used to dealing with the media and how maybe you’ve learned not to let that hurt your play on the field, and how do you feel about being here this year?
LAMAR JACKSON: Well, last year, that was my first time being in front of you guys. I was kind of nervous, was kind of nervous this year, too, but you’ve got to get through it. Going to be here all day, and I’m loving it now. I see some of you guys’ faces. It’s good. I’m enjoying it.
Q. When you’re the defending, reigning Heisman Trophy candidate, does it remove pressure because you don’t have to win it, prove that you need to win it again, or does it add pressure because you have to live up to that standard? Do you feel like teams are going to be revved up to play against the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback?
LAMAR JACKSON: Well, you know, I don’t really worry about it. It’s done. I have it. I’m going to every game trying to win it. I’m not worried about the Heisman Trophy or anything like that. I wasn’t trying to win it last year. It happened. My teammates helped me out. My coaches helped me out. I’m just blessed and I’m humbled.
JAIRE ALEXANDER: Good morning.
Q. Jaire, what’s the biggest change in this defense? Obviously you’ve got a new defensive coordinator. What’s going to be the focus and the change versus the scheme that was run last year and the year before?
JAIRE ALEXANDER: Well, the biggest change so far is really personnel, being able to bring in newer players and coming in and being able to become a factor in this defense. Schematically, the defense is the same as the previous defense, just the verbiage changes, which we all know that.
Q. Jaire, just what you can say about being back in Charlotte and kind of putting Charlotte on your back when you’re playing for Louisville.
JAIRE ALEXANDER: It feels good to be back in Charlotte. Feels like homecoming all over again. I think a few people in here covered me in high school, so thank you all. I appreciate that. Yeah, it feels pretty good, though.
Q. There are 28 players here for this event, a whole bunch of them are from North Carolina and a lot from in Charlotte. Would you reflect on your high school playing experience in Charlotte and how that prepared you to play in the ACC at your level?
JAIRE ALEXANDER: Well, in high school, I was pretty good, AP Allstate two years in a row, but that did not deter me from the ultimate goal, which was coming to college and becoming a factor, whether that be on defense or punt return. Just becoming a factor anywhere. You know, also not having the scholarship offers from the Triangle colleges also motivated me to do better and go harder.
Q. Jaire, when you go against Lamar in practice, do you see much difference this year than last year, and off the field, do you see much difference this year from last year?
JAIRE ALEXANDER: Oh, yes, sir, definitely. Lamar is definitely more accurate. He puts a zip on the ball that I might not even want to pick off sometimes, you know. And even off the field, his humility speaks volumes because for him to win the Heisman and have a really good season like he did last year, to be able to interact with the teammates and other people like he didn’t win it, like if you never watched football you wouldn’t even know he won the Heisman. He’s real humble. He works hard on and off the field.
Q. Jaire, everyone has asked Lamar what he thinks maybe he needs to improve on. What do you think you need to improve on coming into this season?
JAIRE ALEXANDER: Okay, well, pretty much I feel like I need to improve on being more consistent in technique. Coach Petrino tells me all the time that I need to focus on my technique. It’s gotten a lot better, but still work needs to be done, and I will accomplish that.
Q. Coach, last year there was so much growth for Lamar Jackson. What’s the one message or the one thing you really harped on for this year for his improvement?
BOBBY PETRINO: Yeah, we harp on more than one. I think one of the things that’s great about Lamar is he likes being coached. He listens. He really tries to do what you ask him to do, and he sees himself getting better. Again, I say the top three things that we really worked on, number one, was going through his progression reads, getting from one to two to three, understanding some combination patterns that we throw, where I go if it’s single high, where I go if it’s two high. So just really understanding the defense and letting the defense dictate where you throw the football.
The next thing was his sets. Like I said, when he sets in the pocket and he gets his back leg under his hip, he can zip it and be accurate and throw the ball as good as anybody I’ve been around.
And then the last part was being 100 percent in the run game. You know, we put a lot of pressure on Lamar because he doesn’t only have to make decisions in the passing game, but he has to make decisions in the run game, so he just has to be real disciplined and good with his eyes and make the decision and not guess. You know, sometimes he would get in trouble last year if he guessed or thought he could get the wrong read but still beat him. So he worked hard at that, and he’s doing a great job with it.
Q. Looking back, you’ve got the highest winning percentage in Louisville football history. Your team plays in a tough conference, as you said, with Florida State and Clemson. I was wondering if you felt you were appreciated and the program is appreciated around the country?
BOBBY PETRINO: That’s not for me to say. I feel like I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world. I grew up a coach’s son. I went right into coaching. That’s all I’ve done. That’s all I know. I get to go work with young guys every day and try to help them excel, try to help give them self-confidence, and do something I love to do. I’ve never felt like I have a job. It’s just a way of life for me.
Q. Was curious if you could just explain specifically how you came to zero in on Peter Sirmon as the guy to replace Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator.
BOBBY PETRINO: You know, you try to be prepared and have guys that you think are going to replace guys on your staff and keep files and work through it. I’ve actually been watching Peter for a long time. I had the opportunity when I was an assistant coach at the University of Idaho that his older brother John was our best defensive tackle on the team, and we tried really hard to start recruiting Peter when he was in eighth grade, freshman. He ended up going to the University of Oregon, so I followed his career there. And then I ended up coaching against him when I was with the Jaguars and he was with the Titans. Now, I don’t like the Titans much. We were 15-3 one year and all three losses were to the Titans. So when he first sat down in the interview, the first thing I said to him was I said, you know, Peter, I hate the Titans.
But you know, he’s just done a good job wherever he’s been. I also coached against him when he was at Tennessee, and he’s just a great teacher, a great motivator. He’s been in the player’s shoes. He’s gone through what they have to do in recruiting. He went through what you have to do in the grind and how you get your body to play and then how you go out and perform. I’m really excited that he’s on our staff.
Q. Bobby, I’m sure you’ve gotten this question a lot when you’ve talked about Lamar and taking reps under center, but the whole “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, what was the impetus behind all this extra work behind center and focus on the passing game?
BOBBY PETRINO: Yeah, to get better. To be able to — we felt like there are some things in our offense that we weren’t able to execute at times last year or the year before that. So we wanted to get better in our overall scheme of offense. I also feel like we need to take some pressure off of him where he doesn’t need to make a decision every single play out there, whether it’s throwing the ball and making the right decision or handing it off or keeping it or pitching it, making the right decision. So there’s some really good run schemes that you can do and some play action schemes you can do with the quarterback underneath the center.
It’s also to help him prepare for the next level. You know, there’s no doubt about that. One of the things our coaching staff believes and one of our missions is to try to help kids get ready for the next level, you know, get their degree, grow up, and help them be a young man, and also prepare them for — if they’re lucky enough — to get to go to the NFL, prepare them so they understand how to go about their business in meetings, how to practice hard on the field, how to get ready for games. So that’s part of it there, too.
Now, we do have a philosophy at the University of Louisville that we call FTS, which means feed the studs. Obviously Lamar is one of our studs. So don’t think that we’re not going to call quarterback run plays or zone read plays or option plays, because we’re going to give him his opportunities to make big plays and his opportunities to handle things that he did so well last year. We’re just trying to improve upon it and be a better overall offense.