Longo press conference highlights: pleased with UNC's focus vs. Miami; looking for better short-yardage execution vs. Wake Forest

Brant Wilkerson-New

How do you replace a guy like Nick Polino?

You know, it’s funny because we just got Nick where we wanted Nick. The good thing is we didn’t have an answer at center yet from the spring, then we went into August camp looking for a center, so we had two or three guys that were snapping a lot, that got a lot of reps at center. When you’re working three guys in with the Blue and the Whites or the ones and the twos, you have to share more reps than maybe you wanted to; kind of like we did at quarterback when we had three of them.

 The benefit to that right now is that there were three guys getting reps and now that Nick is not going to be with us for a while, we have two other guys who have gotten a lot of reps and a lot of snaps and a lot of work at the position, so it’s just next man up.

Brian came in two weeks ago — Brian Anderson — for the two 90-yard drives, so we did those with our backup center at the time and he played three-plus quarters on Saturday against Miami, I think, one of the more physical teams we’ll see this year. Right now, we’re just prepping the two and the three and we move up and move on, and that’s not out of disrespect to Nick; he did a phenomenal job and he’s a leader for a football team, so we’ll miss him, but in the meantime we’ve got to move on to the next guy.

How happy have you been with how Jace Ruder has handled not being the starter?

He’s handling it like a professional. He was very energetic on the sideline on Saturday. He does a great job coaching receivers. As soon as we make an adjustment they’re free to go, he leaves and goes and grabs the tight ends, or the receivers, or the running backs, and he’s talking about the adjustments. There’s dialogue between he and Sam all game. He’s involved and knows every play call and kind of goes through the game mentally so if he gets called, he’s ready to roll.

Sometimes, you can kind of fade and sit in the back and not be involved, and that’s not how he handles it. He’s prepared to be ready to go at just about anytime and that’s what you expect from your backup quarterback.

How does Sam Howell’s fourth-quarter performance speak to his “it” factor?

I think so; I really do. He has just a calmness about him and I heard Mack talking about it at some point over the weekend. There’s just a very natural poise; he’s mature for his age and it’s interesting because he’s sitting in a high school class in December and here he is leading us to two comebacks in the fourth quarter.

It really lends to his demeanor and also, he’s supremely confident right now. I think players in any position have confidence when they know what they’re doing and I truly think that’s a benefit of this offense; we keep things simpler so that there’s not as much thinking that has to go on when they’re out there. We’re really constantly grading our players as to whether they’re getting to a point whether they’re truly playing the game instinctively or not, and I think we’re getting closer and closer as each week goes by.

What are your takeaways from the Miami game?

I would mirror what Coach Brown said. I thought we were happy with our short-yardage stuff opening game. We did not perform as well on short-yardage stuff Saturday against Miami; they were very good up front. We need to win the physical battle, do a little bit better of controlling the line of scrimmage in short-yardage situations , so that’s one area.

I think I’ll never be happy with third downs; it could be 40-, 50-, 60-percent. Third downs, that’s the toughest down in football and you’re constantly working to do better on third down and I think the best way to do well on third-and-long is to stay out of it. The more we improve our first- and second-down production, the more we deal with the third-and-shorts and don’t have to deal with the third-and-long.

I was happy the no penalties, with the exception on the one delay of game and I was happy that we secured the football and didn’t have any turnovers. Those were two keys against winning the game against Miami and we got that done.

What went into the 4 and 17 playcall? 

We had a conversation just about, there’s two scenarios; ‘Is there a chance to manage the clock?’ There really wasn’t, so the best option was to go for it.

You don’t feel great when you just gave up two sacks, so we went with a different protection and we went with a clear-out concept. We have two in the offense that we like and I just chose the one I thought was better for Miami, Toe ran a really, really good route and we did a good job of picking up their third-down pressure and Sam threw a dime and it got us a first down.

Those are hard; there aren’t a lot of 17-yard plays in college football, so they executed and the rest was history.

Dazz Newsome had a few drops last year. How have you seen him change since you arrived to become a guy that has a higher level of focus?

I’m smiling; there’s two things.

One, his concentration is the issue. When someone doesn’t catch the ball well, it’s focus and concentration, so that’s improved. He’s getting older, he’s maturing, he’s stronger, he’s smarter. He wants to look at what are his weaknesses and he’s trying to improve on them, so he doesn’t want to make those drops this year and he hasn’t so far.

The reason I was smiling is the other thing is, he didn’t have contacts last year. Here’s a receiver that needed contacts and he didn’t play with them and Coach Galloway and I asked him in the spring, ‘Do you have any? Do you wear them? Have you ever gotten your eyes checked?’ Lonnie sent him to the eye doctor on a Monday, he came back with contacts. Sometimes, you catch the ball a little bit better when you can see.

Is Sam Howell the dream match for your offense?

I think any time you have a player that wants to put in the time and know the system the way he does, and obviously can throw the ball the way he does, we don’t have to have a runner at quarterback, but it helps when he has some mobility because it makes the second-level defenders have to defend him both throwing the football and do you drop back and take away a route or do you sit home because he can go throw for eight? Sam can do that, so I think a guy like Sam and a guy like Jace, those guys fit this offense perfectly.

How do you keep Jace involved as the backup?

A lot of that falls on Jace and the way he approaches it. We’re very fortunate and the reason I say that is that if the time comes when we actually need him to win a game, he can go do that because he prepares all the time, he has the right attitude. He’s more about the team than he is about himself and he’s everything you want a quarterback to be.

I don’t have any reservations about playing him and I don’t know that we’re in a bad spot if he’s our starting quarterback — we had to pick one, Sam’s doing a good job — I think when Jace gets his opportunity, he’ll make the most of it.

What stands out about what Wake wants to do defensively?

Wake’s a little bit different than the two teams we saw; they play a lot of zone coverage, they’re extremely disciplined, they’re very, very well-coached. I worked with a coach on that staff there, so I know what he’s all about. 

They’re going to be in position; you’re not going to get them out of position with too much stuff, so I think mistakes this week will probably hurt us even more than in the last two weeks because they’re going to fit their gaps, they're going to be where they need to be in coverage, they’re going to squeeze holes, they’re going to squeeze grass — it’s not going to be there for very long — and they’re going to give us a bunch of different pictures. They’re a little bit more multiple in coverage than the two teams we’ve seen previously.

What does it mean for Sam’s confidence in leading two fourth-quarter comebacks?

It’s interesting that you ask that. I think the development of the offense in this system is just like our tempo in the game; we’re only going to go as fast as Sam feels like going. If he needs to slow something down to think about or ID something, then we’re going to slow down, because if he doesn’t know what’s going on, then we don’t have a shot.

As he continues to get better, we’ll continue to play faster and that’s happened in the past two weeks. That whole process occurred and we went through that whole thing in August camp and so, now we’ve got two guys that can run it pretty fast and they make pretty good decisions. One of the things for Sam from game one to game two was to minimize his missed assignments and he did; he went from seven to two, and that’s kind of where’d we’d like to have our quarterback.

I think the sky is the limit for him because he has the athletic ability to do whatever he needs to do. He can make all the throws, he can run the ball when he has to; it’s going to be his focus from down-to-down, making the right decisions for the offense.

On the other end, we’re trying to keep it simple. Going a little conservative in the first half was for Sam’s benefit and I think we needed to do that and I’m really not as concerned with everybody else’s opinion as I am with the development of our quarterback and that’s what we needed to do to kind of bring him along to this point. I don’t know that he can’t handle everything we’re doing in the system now.

So you won’t be conservative in the Wake game with him?

No, we weren’t conservative last week. Playcalling was a wide-open book this past game. It was nice to be able to address it and approach it that way and it’ll be that way the rest of the system now.

It’s just that first half against South Carolina, you’re going to be smart and put him in good positions and once you realize you didn’t need to anymore, you open it up and let him go run the system.

What can you tell us about Javonte Williams in terms of his approach to the game and his personality?

Javonte is a great blend of speed and strength. He’s as nice a kid as you’ll meet and I don’t know he’ll want me saying this, but I think he’s a lot more confident in his own ability this year than he was last year. That’s feedback that he provided us.

I think he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now and I think at some point in the South Carolina game, he realized he belongs out there, he’s just as fast or as strong as everybody out there and he’s obviously one of our primary weapons offensively.

How do you find the balance between the three running backs? Antonio was kind of the odd man out last game.

They aren’t being played situationally. We have our pecking-order 1-3 and the distance is so minimal because all three are talented.

From week to week, Coach Gillespie is going to manage those three to keep them all fresh. They’re all weapons so we want to use them all and we want to keep them all fresh. The rule in that room right now is that if they’re hot, they’re staying in; the only reason they come out if is if they’re tired or if they need a little bit of a rest and we’ll rotate through with the next guy.

If we play all three early on and one of them is playing well and running well and seems to be a matchup for the defense, we’ll continue to ride with him for a little bit longer.