As I arrived at Griffiths Stadium on Tuesday, the lack of snow and mild temperatures made it feel as though I should be walking to the field for a spring camp practice.
Unfortunately, we’re still three-and-a-half months from spring camp. However, that time will be put to good use by Head Coach Brian Towriss and his staff, putting together the 2012 edition of the Huskie football team.
After the graduation of veterans on both sides of the ball, the Huskies have their work cut out for them. Although some positions are deep with game-ready talent and can be filled from within, others will require a greater focus during recruiting, as new starters and developmental players must be brought in.
As coaches Jason Sulz and Doug Humbert worked in the meeting room, I met with Coach Towriss in his office to get his take on his team’s fortunes last season and what the team’s priorities are as recruiting heats up.
Today, we will focus on the 2011 season and some general questions about recruiting. Friday, we will delve into the needs on offence, with the defensive needs discussed on Monday and the special teams and final comments coming next Wednesday.
Dallas Carpenter: The team had a lot of turnover on offence prior to last season, including the loss of all-Canadian veterans (including receiver Jade Etienne, quarterback Laurence Nixon, and offensive tackle Patrick Neufeld), and players leaving the team or missing the entire season due to injury or eligibility issues. Considering that, do you still feel it was a positive year, since you finished with a winning record and another trip to the playoffs?
Brian Towriss: Yeah, I thought it was. Obviously, we didn’t get as far as we wanted to get – we wanted a shot at the conference title, again, and we came very close to having that shot in the playoff game. Given the fact that we ended up without (running back Jeff) Hassler, when we thought we would have him, that was a big factor.
We knew there was a chance Neufeld wouldn’t be back, but we also thought there was a chance he would be available. You inject three pretty good players into our offence who all had eligibility left, including Etienne, and things might have been different. But, two of those guys had an opportunity to play in the CFL and one of those guys chose to pursue a greater passion, at this point, to play rugby. That’s part of life in this business. I’m happy to see both Etienne and Neufeld back here now, going to school and finishing their degrees.
But, yeah, we took a bit of a blow and were younger than we expected to be on offence, and it showed. I think that being young and inexperienced at quarterback, not as experienced on the offensive line, and then not having as much depth and talent at tailback, when you put all those things together, you know you’re not going to put up the same offensive statistics and points that you had in the past.
I thought the young kids that were in there worked hard and got better, and they will be counted on pretty heavily again this year. But, last year, we were at a point where we weren’t as experienced or quite as talented as we were before. But that’s what we have offseasons for.
DC: On the Internet football forums, following the season, you and your staff faced a lot of criticism, including charges that you didn’t utilize quarterback Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren to his fullest abilities and that you didn’t have receiver Jerit Lambert on the field enough. How do you respond to this, and, looking back, is there anything you would have done different last season?
BT: Well, they’re not at practice every day and they’re not at meetings to hear what goes on there, so that’s why it’s hard to understand why we choose to do things how we do them.
You know, hindsight is always 20/20. You always have the opportunity to look back and say “what if we would have done this,” or “what would have happened had we made that move.”
It took Jerit awhile to figure out what we were doing. We knew he had tremendous talent, but that he needed more practice before he had a bigger role. The other factor is that we had some other players who played some pretty good football for us, like Jeff Moore.
Looking back on it, had we known where we were going to end up, we may have tried to get the ball to Jerit a little more than we did. He started to see the ball a lot more near the end of the season, and then he got hurt and didn’t play in the playoff game. It was as a return guy where he had his greatest impact. It took the best punt returner in the conference (Luke Thiel) to go down before he had a chance, and then he became, arguably, the best returner in the conference before he got hurt. Of course both Thiel and Lambert benefited from the guys in front of them who got downfield and blocked for them, so a lot of credit goes to them, as well.
But that’s something we’ve talked about a lot since the end of the season.
DC: You can always second guess yourself when things are over.
BT: Yeah. You think we didn’t sit in here every day and talk about who was going to get it done for us at quarterback? I mean every single day, for hours. It’s easy at the end of the game to say this guy made some plays and this guy didn’t, and if you had the answer 100 percent of the time, that’s the guy that would have been playing.
DC: Fair enough. Let’s leave last year behind and shift to this year. I notice that players are still coming and going from the clubhouse on a regular basis. Now that the new football gym is complete, has it led to more players coming in and utilizing the facility for their off-season training?
BT: Well, we used it all fall. It made our meetings more efficient and it gives us the opportunity to walk right in right after practice and work out.
We’re really just getting started in the offseason stuff here right now. We’re going to see 25 or 30 guys, or more, in there now on a regular basis.
DC: Have the new facilities and things like the gameday footage and fan support shown on the recruiting DVD made an impact on the kids you’re recruiting?
BT: I think the facilities have been a strong influence on them, and it has certainly opened some kid’s eyes. The gameday stuff is no secret to the kids in Western Canada, now, because they’re on the Internet all the time.
So a lot of the kids who we’re going after already know, but it has a real big impact when we go into schools and show the DVD, it maybe piques the interest of some who didn’t know before. The reputation of our program gets us in those doors, too. But the new facilities are selling feature once we get them here, I’ll tell you.
Check back Friday for the second installment of the four-part interview with Coach Towriss.