Phil Longo talks relationship with Sam Howell, line improvement and challenges of Virginia Tech defense

Brant Wilkerson-New

Coming off North Carolina's first open week of the season, offensive coordinator Phil Longo spoke with the media about the Tar Heels' improvement and preparing to meet Virginia Tech.

Highlights from the conversation:

On what he wanted to accomplish on the open week

You know, when you’re getting better every week like we are, sometimes I dread the open date because you want them getting back out on the field and staying in the rhythm that you’re in. But there are benefits to it, also, if you handle it the right way. I think one of them is you get to kind of go back to basics and refocus on fundamentals and on technique, little things that maybe you don’t have quite as much time to address when you’re in the schedule, a regular workweek where you’ve got to play on Saturday. And I think the other thing is you get a little rest time and you get a little healing time. And I think that was really good for our team. So those are probably the two biggest benefits for us being off.

What about your coaching and relationship with Sam Howell has helped him improve? 

 I’ve always felt, and I don’t know how other coaches feel, but I’ve always felt like having a good personal relationship with the quarterback’s that are playing and running the offense has always been a benefit for me and for the teams that I’ve been a part of, because you know, you get to a point where I know what he’s going to do on certain plays, which might be different than maybe coaching a different quarterback.

Different quarterbacks think differently, they see things differently, they have different confidence levels and different aspects of their ability. I think I have a really good feel right now for where Sam is and what he’ll do. I think he would tell you he probably feels the same way about me. He pretty much knows what I’m going to call. When we go call games together, he can call most—he knows what I’m going to call. So there’s a benefit there because of, there’s more of a personal relationship. And it’s easy to communicate during a game. It’s easy to communicate non-verbally during the game, just certain signals, a smile, or a tap on my head.

Those are things that happen from spending so much time with each other. And so I think it’s a huge benefit for Sam and I, and now we’re trying to develop that with Vince a little bit. So I’ve been meeting with the two of them individually like I always do.

Is that why you coach from the sideline rather than the press box?

It’s a big reason why I’m on the field, no question about it. I think I’m detached from the quarterback and from the rest of the team when I’m in the booth. And when I said when y’all asked this in the preseason, you have to have confidence in the guys that are up in the booth, which we do, obviously. It’s really a non-issue after that. I don’t know that I would ever go in the booth. I would find a qualified guy to handle what we need to do upstairs because I think the relationships and being down on the field with the guys that are executing the game plan and being a part of that communication is absolutely vital.

When did you last coach from the booth?

Oh, the last time I was in the booth was unwillingly in 2009. That’s the last time.

In particular, how has Sam Howell improved since Week 1?

You know, Sam, the fun thing about Sam is I keep challenging him and he keeps responding. And we’re doing that with the team. We’re challenging the offense, Jay’s challenging the defense, the coach is challenging the staff and the players to do more. But from a quarterback standpoint, we’re not giving him more to think about each week. 

But there’s 101, four verticals and there’s doing the good thing, and then there’s an advanced four verticals, as an example. And a little bit more progressing and understanding some things that you’ve learned from experience down the road. Sam’s getting into those things now.

When we teach each play in the offense, we said, ‘Look, if you want to be good at this play, here’s what we need to do, boom, boom, boom. If you really want to be great, here’s what you do, boom, boom.’

We’ve got to advance ourselves. You’re not ready to teach those advanced things early in the spring, when you’re installing, and most of the time you’re not even willing to do that in August because they’re just not ready to handle it.

But we’re beyond the 101 stage. I mean, Sam, he studies the game, he cares, he’s passionate about it. That’s all part of what makes him as good as he is right now, and we still have things we need to get better at. But I really like where the process is and I like the fact that he accepts just about every challenge I give him.

Can you step back and appreciate that you seem to be set at quarterback for the next several years?

You know what, and I said this earlier too, I’ve been really spoiled. I’ve enjoyed coaching most of the quarterbacks I’ve had in my career. Most of them have been really, really good. I’ve just been blessed with having some guys on the roster that can execute what we do. And so, each one of them is individual and each one is a little different, so you’ve got to coach them a little bit differently. That’s the other thing that maybe the personal time with Sam has afforded me, is just it’s given me the opportunity to realize how I need to coach Sam. I’m coaching Sam and Vince differently right now. That’s why I meet with them individually. I think right now, during the season, you have a hard time stepping back and appreciating anything because you’re focused on the next game. But I do appreciate how well and how hard he works. I think that’s why he’s been able to help the team the way he’s been able to.

How important is it to stick to your offensive philosophy, despite not having a scholarship quarterback behind Howell? 

Well, two things I would say. One, you never go into a game knowing if you’re going to run it 51 times or pass it 51 times. It’s really dictated by what the defense gives you. I would also say a number of those throws are just extended running plays, in an effort to get our back the ball. So the numbers are a little deceiving. We’re throwing and it counts as a pass, but it’s a perimeter run or a vertical run or what have you. The sack that we gave up, a credit to our line, it really wasn’t them, Sam dropped the snap on that particular play and that’s what created the sack. So I was very happy with the execution by our O-line and our RBs and our tight ends in pass pro. Sam’s also been helping our protection because he’s making even quicker decisions now getting rid of the football more like you would want to in this system, and it makes it harder to scheme pressures to get to him.

Have you tweaked the offense because you're down to one scholarship quarterback?

We are, we’re going to be smart about what we do with any position if that doesn’t have depth. I think philosophically, it doesn’t change what we do from an offensive standpoint. I don’t know if it affects my playcalling or not, really. We’ve got to call and do what we’ve got to call and do to win the game. So that’s kind of the approach right now. Every coach looks at their position, we evaluate it and there’s certain techniques maybe in your power play, or four verticals, or the screen. Because you go back and you watch every play and you look at, what area in this play is not helping us execute or be as efficient or as productive as we want to? And of course, some plays we’re running really, really well right now and some we’re not. And you decide we either want to eliminate them because it doesn’t fit the character of our team or we don’t have the ability to really execute it. Or, hey, you know what, there’s a couple of things if we could just tweak this or improve this, it’s going to make this concept better and it’ll be a better play for us in the second half. So this bye week comes at a very opportunistic time. It’s halftime of the season, and it’s given us a week to evaluate our own offense like we do most of the time after the season. And then try to improve on the areas—you’re taking every weak link, and trying to make it a little bit stronger. That makes your whole system stronger. So that was the approach last week and this week has been all 100 percent Virginia Tech.

What else in the offense did you address in the open week?

Every coach looks at their position, we evaluate it and there’s certain techniques maybe in your power play, or four verticals, or the screen. Because you go back and you watch every play and you look at, what area in this play is not helping us execute or be as efficient or as productive as we want to? And of course, some plays we’re running really, really well right now and some we’re not. And you decide we either want to eliminate them because it doesn’t fit the character of our team or we don’t have the ability to really execute it.

Or, hey, you know what, there’s a couple of things if we could just tweak this or improve this, it’s going to make this concept better and it’ll be a better play for us in the second half. So this bye week comes at a very opportunistic time. It’s halftime of the season, and it’s given us a week to evaluate our own offense like we do most of the time after the season. And then try to improve on the areas—you’re taking every weak link, and trying to make it a little bit stronger. That makes your whole system stronger. So that was the approach last week and this week has been all 100 percent Virginia Tech.

On the progress of Beau Corrales since spring

Well, he has. He had a decent spring. Truthfully and I’ve told him this, I wanted to see more and get more out of him in August camp. He has a knack on gameday. He’s made a number of big-time contested catches for us on big downs. He’s blocking well, he’s running good routes, he’s doing the things that we would ask of our right wide receiver. And I think he’s a really good complement now to Dyami Brown. And I think the return of Antoine Green helps us spell and provide even more depth for the wideout position. So I think that’s going to help Beau and it’s going to help Dyami. They may play a few less reps during the game, but they’re going to be fresher while they’re playing. So hopefully that helps their productivity.

Has Javonte Williams' production surprised you?

No. I’ve just got to make sure we do a good job of continuing to feed him the football. He’s really physical, he plays with a really low pad level, with the exception of one play all year, he’s secured the football. There’s total trust in putting the ball in his hands. He’s a good pass protector. We saw that this spring, we saw that in August, so what he’s doing now is not a surprise. It’s just, what we’re hoping to get out of him, you hope that what you do in practice translates on gameday and for Javonte it has.

How has the offensive line improved over the past two games?

Well, a couple of things. Part of it is we’re healthy now. We were not healthy in the early stretch. The last two games we’ve had a lot of continuity because we’re playing the same five, six, seven guys. The other thing is the emergence of two more guys that gives us a chance to spell somebody if we need to. We’ve had seven that we’ve played in the last two or three games, and it’s really helped the overall production up front. Without having to roll through different guys due to injury, we’ve got some continuity. Guys are getting used to playing next to each other. And so that’s probably been the biggest positive. And Coach Searels is doing a heck of a job coaching them up. I think we’ll playcall and keep things simple for them, and try to stay healthy, and I think that bodes well for us up front.

What challenges does the Virginia Tech defense pose?

A lot. They’re going to crowd the box, they’re going to force you to make sure you stay on blocks and you finish in an effort to be able to run the football. 23 and 22 play awful close to the line of scrimmage. Both of them are exceptional football players. No. 1, the safety, we think is very, very good. He’ll be out the first half of the game against us this Saturday. He’s a good one. And 8 does a good job off to the edge at the D-end spot, so they’re going to crowd the box, they’re going to challenge us to win physically in an effort to run the football. And then with so many guys around the box, if your answer is to throw the football, then they’re close enough to pressure you, too. So we’re going to have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage. I think Sam’s going to have to quick-trigger the ball and we’re going to have to do a good job establishing the run game in the first quarter and the first half to be able to do what we want to do offensively.

On Dax Hollifield

I mean, he does a good job. He’s a high-effort guy. They’re splitting time right now with No. 34. So we’re either going to see him in the box or No. 34. 34’s probably a little bit quicker, not quite as big, he’s better change-of-direction guy for them. Whereas, 4 is probably a more physical guy when they want that kind of player at that position.

On coaching drops out of his receivers

Well the big misnomer is drops are all about whether you have good hands or bad hands. And it’s not. It’s eyes and focus. That’s what changes it. So we have addressed that with all kinds of different things during the week. It really comes down to receivers focusing in on the ball and finishing the catch. And that’s just discipline, it’s eye discipline, it’s focus on the football. We had more last game than I would care to have. Typically though, with this group, when you emphasize something, you get it. So the emphasis has been securing the ball and finishing the catch. So I would hope that that’s an area we improve on going into the Virginia Tech game.

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