Phil Longo Press Conference: Sam Howell's Growth, Preparing for N.C. State and Receiver Play

Brant Wilkerson-New

North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo met with the media on Monday morning to discuss the Tar Heels' victory over Mercer and look ahead to Saturday's rivalry matchup with N.C. State.

Here's what he had to say.

On the things he helped Sam Howell with early in the season.

The process in this offense is always the same. You’re going to teach the foundation offense, which is the bulk of what we run every week anyway. And you want to get as good at that as you can. And where each quarterback goes from there is basically dictated by his ability. I’ve had quarterbacks that took a long time before they really started studying film and learning the game and so from a mental standpoint they progressed slower.

I had a quarterback that didn’t comprehend the same way. It took a lot of reps for him to learn and not just watching film and those types of things. Everybody is different and the speed in which they progress and the speed in which we maybe add some things or allow them to have a little bit more input. And the decision-making ability on the field is all dictated by how they handle it. So that’s a tribute to Sam because we let him handle everything we do in the offense. There is no reservation about running anything right now that we do.

Does he have a tremendous amount left to learn or is he that far advanced?

I don’t think it’s a matter of what else he has to learn. You know you need to learn every week when you face different defenses, because you want to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each so there’s a different challenge every single week. In terms of learning the offense, it’s a competitive challenge to him. He loves it. He loves the game. I’ve said that 100 times. He is not afraid to put in the time it takes to learn. And he’s been a pleasure to coach because as we challenge him a little bit more each week, he takes it and he’s been able to handle it. When you have a great player, you’re just working on trying to run the stuff that you know and trying to be as efficient with it as possible. And I think throughout Sam’s career here, looking forward, that’s going to be his goal and that’s what it should be, to try to be as efficient as he can possibly be running our stuff.

What area has he progressed most since South Carolina?

Having the ability to play at the speed of the game. You got a corner blitz, he handles it. They bring a safety pressure and a backer, he knows how to handle it. He runs the RPOs, really without issue. He gets through progressions fast in the passing game. We have our handful of plays each game that I know he’d like to have back or I’d like him to execute better, but mentally I think he’s on. He’s where you want your starting quarterback to be, and the challenge now will be to just try and be as efficient as we possibly can. I hate to keep saying the same stuff, but that’s what it is. The offense is in, the quarterback knows it. We’re going to work to become more physical up front, we’re going to work to protect better. We’re going to work to get guys open like we have. We’re going to work to continue to improve the run game. It’s those things that need the attention. With where Sam is right now, we just have to keep improving, the all-around package that he is right now. For a freshman going into the last game of the regular season, I don’t know if you could ask more than what he’s doing right now.

Is his deep ball elite?

It’s pretty instinctive. When he first got here, we tried to get him to elevate a little bit more. He has such a strong arm, he throws a lot of low lasers, a lot of low rain bows. And they are a little bit harder to catch at the other end. So we worked on throwing what we called bottle rockets, putting a little more height on it. We have some speed, the speed can run underneath these high balls. And so, he’s done a really good job. He did it in the spring. We kind of improved that this spring. He drops fades in and post cuts and the deep throws in nice. And I think when you put the ball in a position where the receiver doesn’t have to slow down, and he can run through the football, it lends to being more efficient down the field. And we’ve been obviously very happy with our deep ball game.

Is there a type of receiver you recruit for this system?

Speed is the premium. That’s the No. 1 thing. I think the first thing I would fall off a receiver for would be a lack of speed. Second thing is change of direction. There are a lot of things that go into a good receiver. But change of direction and speed are necessary prerequisites. But if you don’t have those two, we’re probably going to move on and look for someone else.

On his communication with Sam evolving

It’s the part of coaching quarterbacks that I enjoy the most. I mean, I wear them out a little bit. I think we spend a lot of time together. Probably more time than any of them would prefer. But we spend a lot of time together and there is such a value to that and meeting one on one, because you just know each other’s body language and gestures and movements and facial expressions and so it is. It gets to be really, really easy to communicate with a simple gesture or signal or something, or you mouth something. That’s why I want to be on the field because I want to be able to communicate with Sam. And now he communicates back as much, if not more. And he’ll tell me if he doesn’t like something. He’ll tell me if he likes something. If he wants a play, he’ll suggest it to me. It’s really no different that the verbal conversation we have on the sideline in between drives. We’re just prepping for what we’re trying to set up. Trying to set up some things on one drive for the next one and we discuss it. Some things we both agree and like, and some things we don’t. We’ll trash it and move on. That’s all, to me, a benefit of meeting one on one and putting the time in that we did.

The long touchdown passes, is that an indication of the receivers doing a better job?

They’ve really been doing a good job of that all season. I thought the learning curve occurred in the spring. Coach Galloway did a phenomenal job. When we got to camp, we really felt like we were starting to turn a corner. Those guys had thrown on their own all summer. So we were a lot closer to being an instinctive passing team, in the pass aspect of our offense, in the summer time than we were in the spring. We were trying to push Dazz along a little bit and it just clicked. Right now if someone gives us a matchup and we can take a shot, great. But if they don’t, we’ve done a really good job at running our underneath immediate game. And our guys do have some run after catch ability. So when we give them a shot at 12 yards or 15 yards, it’s not always a catch and tackle. It’s usually a catch and run, and we’ve benefited from run after catch yards all year. I’m really pleased from our receivers. I’d like to block better on the perimeter as an entire team skillswise, but from a pass game standpoint, I’ve been very happy with their production.

Will Dazz play this week?

Yeah, Dazz is definitely playing this week. No doubt.

Was there anything you found from the Mercer game that can help you going forward?

Going into the Mercer game, I said the same thing. It was more about what we do. And coach talked about it, and he’s 100 percent right. We want to play at a level that gets us 11 weeks better. If we could have played at a lower level and still won the game Saturday, that doesn’t help for our preparation this week. NC State is going to be 12 weeks better when they step on the field on Saturday, and so if we had taken a week off, or if we didn’t approach it the right way, or focus on the things that we needed to the right way, then we would be behind in our overall season preparation for this game and we didn’t do that. I thought we had a great week of practice. We had tremendous focus during the week. And I think we had one drop on a low ball in the game and outside of that we executed and did the things that we needed to do in a game like that.

I feel like we’re 11 weeks better, and right now we need to do a good job of preparing for State.

Where did the 68-yarder from Sam stand on one of his better throws?

He does two things. He has a really, really quick release. He has a strong arm. So he saw Toe breaking free and he let it role. Those are the kind of lower laser throws that I was talking about that we don’t want on the over the top deep ball. But when you have somebody open and they’re starting to extend away from somebody, you want to put the ball on them so you don’t give the defender a chance to retrace and recover and be at the strike point when the ball gets there. It’s just what he does. It’s one of his talents. It was a heckuva throw. It’s a shame we had the holding call, because I think it got Toe in the endzone obviously, maybe for the first time this year, and I think it was one of his better throws this season.

If you had to show a scout one throw, is there one that comes to mind?

I don’t know, I’d have to think about that one. He’s had a number of good ones. No, I think the fade throw that he made at South Carolina in the left corner to Dyami. Dyami made a great catch. That was a heckuva a football. He makes them every week, which is a good problem to have. We’re happy about that. To pick out one, that’s a tough one.

What do you expect to see out of NC State?

They are in different front than we’ve seen most of the year. They’re in their 3-3 stack front. They have more athletes off the ball, they’re more mobile. So the second level is going to be a lot more active to us, than what we’ve seen. Thankfully it’s not the same defense but there’s a lot of moving parts in our defense. And our defense is difficult and they’re multiple. And so practicing against them in the summer and throughout the season helps you with that with the activity. But they are going to be a three down team most of the game. They have a good mix of man and zone coverage. So they are going to make you ID coverage, some pre snap and some post snap. Those two differences, they provide different advantages. And we’re going to have to do a good job after we snap the football of IDing whether we’re getting manned up or whether we’re getting zoned, so we know how to attack when we’re throwing the football. And the run game, I say this every week but it’s true. They have three very good DLineman. I think 29 is one of their best football players. The nose guard. And he’ll be a challenge for our center. But we’ll have to do a good job stabilizing the line of scrimmage and establishing a little bit of a run game so we have the balance that we’re looking forward to.

How has Sam dealt with identifying coverage?

More of that falls on the receiver. We’re more concerned with whether it’s man coverage or zone coverage. And maybe a little bit of if a corner has safety help or not. But outside of that it’s progression football. And Sam has a very good grasp of coverages. But he does an excellent job of getting through a two- or a three-man progression or a three route progression quickly. We don’t want to hold the ball. We want to take stress off the O-Line. You’re looking at some quick hitters to get the ball out of his hand immediately especially early in the game. I think most coordinators want to do that. You want to get your quarterback in a rhythm. It’s going to be more about do we map out pressures and protect in our passing game. And the run game, we’ve got to do a good job of game planning to get good numbers at the line of scrimmage so that they don’t have one sitting there extra, when our running back gets to the line of scrimmage. That’s going to be key for us this week to run the football.