Having endured a 1-11 season as a rookie head coach in 2010, Larry Porter sees only one direction for his Tiger football team. Over the course of spring practice, he’s recognized some signs that his squad will indeed take strides in 2011. With the Blue-Gray Game just three days away (Saturday, 1 p.m., Liberty Bowl), Porter shared some thoughts and views on offseason progress.
With a season under your belt, have you approached spring practice differently than you did a year ago?
I think you have to, because you have a better feel for you team. So you can truly point at those things you need to improve upon.
Entering spring drills, what did you consider among your top priorities for building the 2011 team?
Defensively, we wanted to improve tackling and improve third-down defense. That was critical. We wanted to become a more cohesive unit. There were so many injuries last year, especially in the secondary. There just wasn’t any continuity back there. We wanted to establish some continuity with depth.
Offensively, putting in a new [spread] system, I wanted to cut down on the mental mistakes. We need to have more attention to detail, more discipline. And not just establish who our playmakers are, but find ways to get them the ball.
Last year’s starting quarterback, Ryan Williams, has left the program.
You’ve had Andy Summerlin taking the most snaps this spring, with Will Gilchrist backing up and a pair of newcomers — Domonique Harris and Taylor Reed — on the way. Will the quarterback position be wide open for competition in August?
I’ll tell you this: we’re not in a position right now to name a starting quarterback. If you look at the two guys we have in the program right now, Andy is more productive back there. He’s performing very well right now. Will he have a lead coming out of spring? I’d say yes.
In moving to more of a spread attack, are there specific skills you’ll be looking for among your quarterbacks?
There are three critical things you must see from a quarterback, no matter the system. One, they need to manage the offense. Two, their decision-making must be above average. And three, the overall productivity has to be such that it puts our offense in a position to be productive as well.
How has the offensive line looked (with only one starter, Ron Leary, back)?
I love our offensive line. We’re not where we need to be at this point, but I love it, because right now, in terms of chemistry and continuity, we’re better than we were at any point last year. From a technical and fundamental standpoint, we’re still building and putting it together. I love the progress we’ve made thus far.
We’re more than happy with Ron Leary’s productivity and leadership, with him being an anchor for our offensive line. But then you have a guy like [junior transfer] Jordan Devey who has done everything we’ve asked him to do. You have D’Angelo McCray, who has made the transition from defense to offense, and he’s been improving. You’ve got a young [redshirt freshman] Al Bond playing the center position. He’s had some growing pains, but he’s gotten better. Every single day he gets to practice against [nose tackles] Dontari Poe and Johnnie Farms. That will only make him better.
Who do you see as the leaders on the defensive side of the ball?
Poe, [defensive tackle] Frank Trotter, [safety] Akeem Davis. The leadership on that side of the ball is a lot stronger than on the offensive side of the ball.
What makes you feel the defense is a leadership well for this team?
First and foremost, you want to lead by example, with productivity. Then there’s the willingness to grab other teammates by the throat and get them going. The energy level, as a whole, is a night-and-day difference. The spirit of practice has been excellent.
A 1-11 season is hard to endure. Is there anything positive you can build upon from your first year as head coach?
School started January 14th. On the first day of classes, we had over 20 guys in the weight room, lifting. Unsolicited. Voluntary. That spoke volumes to me about their attitude, and their intentions of becoming a better football team. That work ethic, that spirit of “let’s get better” has been there the entire spring.
If there’s one element that must change for your team to see improvement next fall, what would it be?
It’s leadership. Our guys have to take ownership of this team. We’ve been focused on that in a lot of different ways. Guys have stepped up, and they’re holding each other accountable. They’re not afraid to get on each other, or to encourage each other. I knew it was different when we met as a team, and we’d bring it together at the end, and guys would say things like “family” and “team.” They’re starting to get it. It’s still a work in progress, but we’re light years ahead of where we were. You have to bring that to life in your program, a sense of accountability.