Talk about Devin’s play through the first three games and how well he’s played.
“He’s played great. He’s really locked in mentally. He’s explosive, he’s running around the field, he’s becoming a leader. He’s [doing] exactly what we asked from him and what we expected. We saw it in him in the spring and in camp and everything like that.”
On kickoffs, obviously you want more in the kick return game. What can you do there to kind of make that better?
“Kick return’s a very difficult thing to do, to block guys that are running full speed. I feel pretty confident about it. I know you haven’t seen the product, but we’ve gotten guys that are gaining valuable experience. It takes a while to get the knack of it and I think we’ve got the guys in place now that will be able to open some stuff up. I feel pretty confident that you’ll see some explosive plays out of that phase coming up here soon.”
Is Kekoa still going to be the guy or have you opened that up a little bit?
“Um. it’s always open. It’s always open. If he’s not returning for touchdowns then it’s an open competition, it’s an open battle. He’s still back there, as are others.”
Donovan, I assume, could get a look?
“Yep, he’s in the battle too. Yes.”
We saw in the Cincinnati game every time Donovan would come off the field it was like you were right there with him having conversations. How big of a leap did he take from that week? Obviously we saw him score the touchdown, but mentally how did he respond?
“Yeah, it’s enormous. To me, I think that catching a punt outside in an open environment like that is the hardest thing to do because the wind takes it, the ball takes it. For a freshman to have to do that, those game reps are invaluable. We can do everything we want in practice, but when all the pressure’s there and people are humping down and in college football everybody’s releasing everybody, those reps are invaluable.
“He just continues to lock it in and get better at it. It’s funny: you don’t want that stuff to happen, but that happening is going to make him so much better moving forward here. I have 100% confidence, coach Harbaugh has 100% confidence in him. He’s going to be an explosive playmaker back there. He’s just got to work through some things. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
[Hit THE JUMP for some boggling Nordin numbers, more on DPJ, and confirmation of Don Brown's precognitive powers ]
Do you worry with a young guy like that mentally if you take him out of the game, maybe you lose him or something like that? Or is that not the case with Donovan?
“You do if you’re not communicating properly with a guy. We try to be open with these guys. I think they’re mature and they understand. You kind of rely on the communication you’ve had in the past and then when it does happen, the communication you have at that moment. Our coaches are all professionals at that so no, did not worry about that mentally. As you see, he was able to rebound and he didn’t go in the tank and he came in and had a heck of a game last week.”
Donovan also took charge out there against Air Force on special teams and fielding those punts. How important is that? I think of baseball, communicating with people, standing your ground. Why is that important there?
“Because obviously as a punt returner you’re the only guy that can see the ball on your team. You have to direct your entire unit on what’s going on, so you have to completely take charge because you are the leader of that unit. For a young guy, I get it to an extent. He’s trying to catch the ball first, he’s trying to get to where the return is going, he’s trying to wonder ‘Should I fair catch it? Should I return it?’ There’s a lot of things going in his mind and the kind of taking charge might take a backseat in that moment.
“Well, I think he realized now that it can’t take a backseat. He needs to take charge out there and it was just growing pains. Like I said, you’re right, he did take charge. It was an emphasis for us in practice to get him seeing that and doing that first and understanding he’s the only one that sees the ball the entire play. He’s got to be the guy that gets his team away or sets up his blocks and does that, but he did a great job last week.”
How much of that decision-making is on him out there on the field? Is that predetermined or is it once the ball’s in the air? I guess it’s probably different punt to punt but how much is on him?
“Yeah, it’s really all on him. We’ll give him little tidbits and understand different hangtimes and how a ball comes off a foot and how each punter is different, so we’ll give him little tidbits.
“Not to make excuses for him because he wouldn’t want us to do that for him, but it’s the first time he’s seen any kind of roll-our rugby-type punt in a live situation and it comes off way different, the ball, so I think that was something that he had to work through as well. But those decisions are on him. Obviously he has little cues on if he’s fielding the ball here or if the hangtime is here or if it comes off the ball this this is what we want to do, but when he’s out there it’s got to be one the punt returner.”
Quinn Nordin seems to be an interesting guy, interesting personality. What’s he like in the special teams meeting room. Does he break up the mood at all?
“Yeah, Quinn’s like any other position kind of guy. He’s got a confidence about him. He’s got kind of a swagger about him. He’s very personable. He’s great to be around. He’s a great teammate. He’s a guy you could see fitting in anywhere. He has the mentality where he could be the quarterback, he could be a receiver, he could be a D-back. He just goes out, he loves what he does, and he’s confident in it.”
Is Brad Robbins a guy who could still get a look at punter?
“Oh heck yeah. Brad is coming along really nice. We’re very happy with him, his progression there. He’s getting close.”
Do you ever tell James Foug not to have it touchback?
“Do we ever tell him to have a touchback?”
No, not to.
“Oh, yeah, so that’s a weapon we have right now going for us. He’s got a heck of a leg. He’s got good placement skills, so we can kind of mix stuff up with him and that’s what we’re doing. We’re allowing that. We’re going to utilize that weapon. Kickoff’s been really good and hopefully we can continue that by placing the ball in different areas. I think that’s going to be expanded on as well.”
How big a strength is special teams for this team right now?
“I mean…I don’t think it’s for this team or for any team in particular. We want to be a strength no matter what. Special teams is a beautiful thing because you’ve got offensive guys, you’ve got defensive guys, you’ve got specialists all coming together on one unit and you’ve really got to cater to the team [and] what do we need now. If we’re playing lockdown defense and the offense is doing well, moving the ball, we’re not going to come after punts. We’re going to do what the team needs at that moment.
“We talk about with the guys all the time, we better be ready because at times they’re going to need us. That punt return for a touchdown: we felt we needed to make a play and we were able to do it. I think special teams, you’ve got to feel out the game in order for how to call a game on special teams. We’re just supporting the offense and the defense in the regard that we’ll be there when they need us and we’ll have to be completely—there’s times in a game where you just have to make sure that you execute and aren’t looking for that big play; the execution is more important than the explosion, if that makes sense. I think that’s how the mentality on that unit is.
“We’re locked in. I love the guys we have. I love the meetings. I love that from the starters to the fifth-year seniors to the freshmen, I think we’ve got this thing where these guys are locked in and want to contribute and want to be on the units.”
How do the needs of this team from its special teams unit vary from last year or the year before?
“I don’t think it’s much different. I think it’s the same. It’s game by game rather than team by team. It’s what’s happening in that particular moment in that particular game is what we’re going to be asked to do.”
Devin Gil didn’t look out of place in his first series against Florida. Talk about his progress and where he’s at right now.
“Yeah, I love Devin. He’s a guy who just comes to work every day. He’s getting better and better. He’s smarter. I don’t think there’s any kind of holdback on putting him in the game if need be. He’s another guy that’s contributing on special teams as well, but he’s progressed really nicely.”
MGoQuestion: We mentioned kick returner, but how have you felt about your kickoff return team’s blocking?
“Well, yeah, I kind of answered that. We’re working through some things in terms of—it’s a hard thing to do and experience goes a long way in kick return. It’s just the different knacks and how peoples are scraping and doing different things on kickoff. Being able to see that is an important thing. I think we’re really, really close. I really do. I’m not ready to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to throw out this kick return and redo it.’ I feel like we’re close on it. I think we’ll see some explosive plays. It may not happen this week, but it will happen. I have a confidence that it’s going to come there.”
I know Mike’s [McCray] the elder statesman there, but is Devin [Bush] sort of setting the tone for that group?
“I think they feed off each other really, really well. They get along really well. They enjoy each other. They’re guys that are able to pick up each other when needed, so I don’t think one of them sets the tone for the other. I think they’re operating really well together.”
What’s Devin still getting better at? He’s flying around the field but he’s still just a true sophomore. How much better can he be?
“Oh. it’s just the knowledge of everything. It’s picking up and being one ahead of the offense. I think one of the beauty things that I just think to myself about Don Brown: he’s always a step ahead. It just feels like to me he’s always a step ahead. He tells Devin what Devin’s gonna need in a week. He’s a step ahead of everyone.
“I think when Devin starts understanding that, how to be a step ahead like Don always is, that he’s just going to get better and better. He’s going to understand how people are attacking us and it will make him better, and obviously getting off blocks and doing the little things. Football is beautiful. You can always get better. I think Peyton Manning I read somewhere was trying to get better my last game I ever played. I think Devin’s got that mindset.”
Does he talk a lot? Around us he seems to carry a quiet confidence.
“Yeah, I mean, he’s…he’s a talkative kid. He opens up to the team and to the coaches and stuff. I wouldn’t say he’s quiet. It’s just the way he carries himself, very humble. He just kind of comes to work every day but he talks. He’s not a shy kid.”
Rashan said that Quinn’s been hitting 60-yarders in practice. What’s the longest you’ve seen?
“Oh, shoot. Trying to think back. I know he’s hit 66-, 67-yarders. I know he’s hit that. Probably right around there. I think if he had a really good day and was nice and rested he probably could go from 70.”
Would you like to try that?
“No, no, I’d like to score touchdowns. [laughs] He’s a good weapon to have.”
Where would you guys be comfortable in a game? I know with the wind and stuff like that—
“That factor—the wind is big. Even though you may not feel it on the field, when it gets up there that thing takes it. He’s…55 is a comfort zone, I guess, but again, the wind kind of factors into that. But there’s a comfort zone and then it’s like a, hey, let’s go let him try it depending on the situation in the game and stuff. But I think 55 is a comfort zone.”
What kind of asset is it to have a guy where you’re comfortable to kick that type of distance?
“Yeah, it’s a huge asset because it just opens up the decisions for the head coach on whether we have to go for it, whether we have to do a really short pooch punt, whether we can take an attempt at getting the 3; I think that’s a huge asset.”
Sorry to go back to Donovan but you mentioned earlier how he’s going through so much of this for the first time. Is there a balance you need to strike between letting him do what’s natural so he’s not thinking too much and also—
“Yeah, of course.”
How do you work that out?
“That’s a great question and it’s right on. You can’t give a young guy too much because then he freezes and maybe that could’ve contributed too and that could have been my fault in that game maybe. It’s like, hey, did we give him too much to think about—because that’s everything Coach goes through. You’re thinking about that. It’s like, well, he faced the rugby for the first time, he faced this for the first time and this and it’s the first game outdoors and all that stuff. Even if—I take a lot of the blame on myself and the coaches, too, to make sure we progress him the right way, but it’s something we factor in constantly. You’ve got to make sure that these guys are comfortable, can play fast, and can be who they are. You think about that when you’re setting up returns. It’s all aspects of it.”