Q. When it comes to the preseason opener, are there any things you have to see from the young guys during practices on campus before you would feel comfortable putting them into the game?
A. They have to be above the line from an assignment standpoint, and don’t get me wrong, in this first outing we do a lot schematically to bring the fight to them. We’re not splitting the atom here with game planning, so I’m not saying a lot when I’m saying they have to be above the line from an assignment standpoint, but that is the case. Also, they have to be above the line from a physical standpoint, and those things have been proven on the fields of Latrobe. Some guys can’t cut the mustard, and when that’s evident we move on from them. You have to earn the right to represent us in a stadium and be a part of it. Other men’s health and the collective performance of the group is at stake, and so it is a process, there is a certain level of physical attributes required. And also the mental game is a big component of it as well.
Q. You have used the phrase, “it’s not too big for him,” in describing how a rookie has reacted to his first taste of NFL football. What are you seeing in order to make that assessment?
A. That they play at full speed, whatever their full speed is. It’s amazing how people slow down when they lack understanding or they lack comfort. When I say something like “it’s not too big for them” really more than anything forget the quality of play – the mistakes, the production, etc. – it’s really about the fluidity of movement and that they’re playing at full speed.
Q. There have been some hot and humid days at Saint Vincent College through the first portion of camp, and football coaches traditionally have loved the heat. You even said that heat is great for team development. How is heat great for team development?
A. Because it accelerates the misery that we all crave, the misery that is a necessary part of the process of individual and team development. The game is ever-changing and evolving, but there is a certain level of mental and physical toughness that is required to be successful and will always be an element of play in this game. And so you come to places like Latrobe and put yourself through a process like this not only to ready yourself for the fights that lie ahead over the journey, but also to see who’s capable of delivering under those less-than-ideal circumstances. Who smiles in the face of adversity, who’s strong-willed, who’s capable of displaying that day in and day out. Those characteristics are essential for us in terms of being the type of team we need to be, and the process, particularly the hot days during these days of summer, is a big component of that.
Q. When asked about No. 1 pick Devin Bush on the day players reported back on July 25, you said, “He has a lot to learn. He has a lot to prove.” What have you seen from him since you said that?
A. That it’s not too big for him, at least during camp. There is fluidity in his movement, he does play fast, he has been productive. Communication is often a display of understanding, and he’s a pretty good communicator. So that tells us that he’s understanding what he’s doing and what he’s being asked to do. He’s got a big challenge in front of him tonight in the stadium, but I think he’s game for it. I know we’re all going to be excited watching him play.
Q. As you’re evaluating players, especially the young guys, over the course of a camp and a preseason, are there mile-markers in their development?
A. There are. We’re thoughtful about the groups that we put the young guys in within the training camp setting. Basically we’re running three groups, and the first group contains the veteran starters, the second group contains the guys who have been backups and have been in this thing, and the third group is made up of guys where it’s a first-time camp experience for them whether they’re rookies or otherwise. You have to earn your stripes, and you have to dominate the group you’re working in if you’re going to move up. The mile markers are: If a guy is consistently controlling what’s going on in the third group, then he gets an opportunity to move up to the second group. Sometimes those opportunities are born out of a lack of availability of others, and so when guys get an opportunity to move up within groups and display skill within those groups, those are mile markers. Inevitably, the second-team line is the Mendoza Line. I tell the third group all the time as they take the field, “Hey, in a month from now the third group doesn’t exist in the National Football League.” There are a lot of markers, a lot of crossroads, and we’ve been pretty transparent about acknowledging them.
Q. There is an emphasis on takeaways this summer, and you said after one practice that “often times the interceptions are just the result of very basic fundamental things.” What are those fundamental things?
A. Being where you’re supposed to be. Seeing what it is you’re supposed to see. And you can equate it to the number of tipped ball interceptions so far in training camp. In an effort to maximize those opportunities, guys have to have their eyes where they need to be. If you’re a centerfield player, but you’re eyeballing some imminent threat because of the speed of a guy running on top of you, then you don’t see the ball come out or the ball go through an intended receiver’s hands and you’re not in position to make that catch. Those middle-of-the-field players, they have to feel eligible receivers at the same time they can see the quarterback. So, lines of vision, having your eyes properly placed where they need to be makes you more opportunistic.
Q. So in some ways, you’re able to teach intercepting the ball?
A. There’s no question. In a base fundamental way, being where you’re supposed to be and seeing what it is you’re supposed to see increases your opportunities.
Q. When you make decisions such as giving certain guys the day off from practice, how are those decisions made? Is there any science or technology involved, or is strictly a gut feel from the head coach?
A. It’s all of the above. In today’s game, we have some science. We have GPS tracking devices on all of these guys that measure workload and work output. Collectively, individually often the overall collective health of a group might determine whether or not I rest someone or not in that group. There are a lot of layers to it. There are a lot of components to it. There’s some technology, there’s some collective awareness, there’s gut instincts A lot of fluid decisions that have to be made at this time of year.
Q. That information is presented to you at the end of the day? The start of the next day?
A. Continually. On a regularly scheduled basis, but also spontaneously throughout the day. Just depending on how the day’s going, I might ask for the work output of a position group, or someone within a group, just to information-gather about how to lead the rest of the day’s work. The infusion of technology in training is an awesome component in terms of the evolution of the game, one I don’t shy away from. I embrace it. It’s awesome to kind of look at how very differently a practice session is run based on that information today than it was 5-10 years ago.
Q. Have the second-year players – starting with Terrell Edmunds, James Washington, and the rest of the 2018 draft class – lived up to what you expect from guys going through their second training camps?
A. They have in this specific way: they all showed up with a level of conditioning that reflects the lap around the track that they have lived. Nobody came in less than ready. They all came in conditioned like professional athletes. Often times college guys come in less than ready, but they have no way of knowing that. When you go into your second year, you’ve lived it and so there is an expectation associated with that. All of those guys have met that expectation in terms of readiness. Now they just have to go play football, and when they met that expectation (of conditioning) that allows them to deliver the football aspect of it.
Q. Can you do anything to help them meet this level of conditioning?
A. Absolutely. There aren’t any restrictions on the number of hours we can put into preparation, like there are in college. These guys have spent a lot of time in our facility and in our weight room and with our strength, training and development staff and with our nutrition staff. That’s the best way to frame it: It’s much different than college, because they’re not limited by time; they don’t have classes. It is their job, not to mention they have a better budget when it comes to what they eat.
Q. This will be Teryl Austin’s first game with the Steelers as a member of your staff. Where will he be during the game?
A. He’ll be in the coaches’ box.
Q. What are his duties in-game?
A. It’s going to be a bunch of things. Teryl and I go way back. He’s a secondary coach, and so he’ll provide a set of eyes up top that’s associated with that base role. But he’s also been a coordinator, he’s been a head coaching candidate for a number of years, he’s very adept at the rules and understanding the points of emphasis from a rules standpoint. He’ll provide assistance in some of those areas as well. A lot of that will be developed over the course of the next four weeks during these preseason games.
Q. Might you be inclined to test the new rule regarding pass interference being subject to instant replay by challenging some plays just to see how the procedure plays out and how it’s going to be administered?
A. I’m not looking to do it for the sole purpose of challenging the rule. I think natural play is going to present those opportunities to us, and I want to approach it with the level of seriousness that I’m going to approach it in the regular season. I’m not going to be flippant about it. I’m interested in seeing how it unfolds during in-stadium play.