Brian Strandley is in his third season as defensive coordinator at Idaho State. He's trying to rebuild a defense that finished last in the Big Sky Conference in several key categories last season: scoring, rushing and total yards, as well as turnover margin. I spoke with him Saturday afternoon at Holt Arena, after his defense looked much better in the second scrimmage of the pre-season. Here's how our conversation went:
1. Give me your overall assessment of where your defense is right now.
Strandley: I think we're doing a good job. We've got new systems going in right now and at the beginning of camp, I think their heads were spinning a little bit. But I think the difference you saw from today's scrimmage from the last one is I think guys are playing faster. We haven't gotten any faster as individuals, I just think they know more what they're doing. They're more comfortable with what they're doing and you see guys breaking to the ball faster and you see guys getting off on the ball faster, not so much worried about, 'What am I doing here? What am I doing?' but they know what they're doing so all they're worried about is reading their keys, getting off and playing the ball, so I think that was the big difference between this scrimmage and the last one.
2. Tell me about this scrimmage. What were you pleased with, what did you like in this scrimmage, and what areas do you still need to work on?
Strandley: I think, like I just mentioned, I was pleased with the fact that we played faster here today. The first scrimmage, we bent but didn't break, but you don't always want to do that. You wanna go after them and you wanna stop them. We got more three-and-outs and the kids played at a much faster pace, I thought, today. And there was more contact out here. I thought we tackled better. Initially, the first scrimmage we didn't tackle very well. The first couple of series in this scrimmage we didn't tackle very well, but then we started cracking some heads, we were wrapping up and doing those things. If you're not doing that, it doesn't matter what we're doing on defense, so I thought our tackling was much better.
3. Let's talk about pass rush, where do you expect your pass rush to come from this year?
Strandley: We expect it to come from all over the place, okay, but No. 1, it starts with the D-line, no question. And (defensive end) Sean Rutten has improved a great deal as a pass rusher in this camp, and he's out there, he's playing faster, he's got a larger array of moves, he feels better at that position now, and coach (d-line coach Joe Cullen) has done a real good job with him. (Defensive tackle) Demetrius Amos is rushing the quarterback better at times and he's showing great improvement there. And then we're looking at some other guys too. (Defensive end) Jake Rouser has improved as a pass rusher. (Defensive end) Rustin Phillips has improved as a pass rusher. (Defensive end) Jeff Tuua has gotten better as well, but there is some competition for some spots there, as well, there's no question and we might take a look at a linebacker playing that position if we get them in some third-and-eight situations. And also we're going to bring different kinds of pressures, too, so our backers have gotta get used to this blitz scheme, and they're getting better at it, too. So we'll bring it from all over the place, but we expect it from a four-man rush.
4. Talk about newcomers, new kids in camp, who are you most impressed with?
Strandley: Right now, we like all of our freshmen d-linemen. They're doing a good job. (Freshman DT) Minh Williams is a big, ole bull rusher, he's a big man that we haven't had for awhile, that big sized kid. Jarrid Nash (JC linebacker), he didn't play today, but he's done a great job as well. (Defensive back) Phil Pleasant has gotten better from his true freshman year, and he's playing some nickle now. He's not a newcomer, but he's running with the 1s right now, and he's doing a great job. (Boise State transfer DB) Keith McGowen shows great, great potential at corner and we just gotta iron out a few things with him. He's a playmaker, but there are still a few things technique-wise we're still working on with him. And (linebacker) A.J. Storms (who moved from safety), I guess you can call him a newcomer at linebacker, I tell you he's really fitting in that position very, very well.
Arizona State, the season-opening opponent for Idaho State, played its second scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday. Sun Devil observers are predicting this will be ASU's best defensive team since 1996, and the defenders dominated the scrimmage on Saturday. ASU Coach Dennis Erickson also publicly confirmed that senior Danny Sullivan will get the call at quarterback when the Bengals come calling on Sept. 5.
Meanwhile, second-game opponent Oklahoma was ranked third in the nation in the first Associated Press poll released this weekend. The Sooners will likely be the highest-rated FBS team Idaho State has ever played when the Bengals travel to Norman on Sept. 12.
Also, ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper came out with his top 15 college players this week, and the Sooners had four of them, including quarterback Sam Bradford, rated the best NFL draft prospect in the country by Kiper. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was ranked No. 4, and left tackle Trent Williams and tight end Jermaine Gresham were also in the top 15.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan --it ain't easy, but it's always fun.