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Q&A with Duke D-line coach Rick Petri

On Thursday, Duke announced Rick Petri was hired to coach the defensive line, the same group he coached at Miami in 2010. Petri made a significant difference for Miami's defensive line, which led the nation in tackles for loss. He spent six seasons with Duke coach David Cutcliffe at Ole Miss, and I caught up with Petri while he was on the road this week:

What do you think you can do there with the talent you have to work with? What’s he told you about what’s on the roster? They really struggled to get to quarterbacks last year. It seems like of all the position coaches you’ve really got your work cut out for you there.

Rick Petri: Now you’re scaring me.

No pressure.

RP: I’ll be honest with you, the only thing I know is that they’re young. That’s a double-edged sword. It’s good in that you can make them what you want them to be, but it’s also bad in that they haven’t experienced much, so it’s going to be on the job training. That’s really challenging for a coach and can give you a lot of grey hair, which I already have, so I don’t think they’ll get too much out of me on that end. The youth is good and it’s bad. I enjoy the challenge. I’ve coached from Division II up to what some people would say the higher levels in college football and I liked teaching at every level. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-round draft pick or a walk-on, I’ll teach you the same and try to push you the same and make you the best player you can be.

How did coach Cutcliffe sell you on this? I know he’s got things going in the right direction, but what really attracted you to the possibilities there?

RP: Him and his goals and his direction and his plan on meeting those goals. I definitely feel like there’s a commitment from the university to him and the football program, and you’ve gotta have that in anything you do. You’ve got to have commitment from the top and I definitely think that’s there, so whenever you have that, and you’re in a great conference, you have a chance to improve. You’ve got to worry about improving first, before the rest of it.

And you made a lot of improvements at Miami. What in looking back was your biggest accomplishment in your mind you were able to do with that group?

RP: If you look at defensive linemen sacks, 18 to 29 ½, I think we improved our TFLs on the d-line by 12. … I’m very proud of what they did there. I’m very proud that they became much better technique players, and they played with effort. They were really willing to learn.

I know Duke is working on bringing in better, faster, more talented athletes, but is there any reason to think you can’t eventually produce similar numbers with the athletes you have to work with at Duke, or is that an unrealistic goal?

RP: No, I think it’s realistic. You’ve got to recruit athletes, like you’re saying. There’s so much about the game that’s pre-snap. You look at pre-snap tendencies, are you studying the opponent? A guy can be a really good football player just by what he works on during the week -- studying film, studying the scouting report, studying the opponent, understanding splits, understanding stances, understanding backfield tendencies, all those things. If you have a pre-snap clue, a key that helps you understand which way they’re turning in protection, what type of protection you see, all those things are going to help you become more productive, and none of that depends on what you are physically. That’s what you’re willing to do away from the practice field and willing to do in the classroom, in the meeting room, or in the weight room. Those are things anyone can handle with the desire to do that. … Those are things you can do to help players.

How tough was it for you the way things went down at Miami?

RP: It was disappointing. Anytime that happens like that it’s disappointing. You develop a relationship with your players and then all of a sudden it’s gone, when you think you’re just starting. But one door closes, another opens and you get a new opportunity. I wish them the best. I’ll always think very, very highly of those young men. We really got close in that year. I know they’ll be successful. Hopefully I’ll help them. Hopefully I did help them and they’ll be better down the road, but that opportunity is gone, and I’ve got to take advantage of the next. I’m very appreciative of coach Cut giving me the opportunity.

You’re a good coach, but it seems like good coaches have a tough time sticking around because they’re good. So I have to ask you, are going to stick around for a while?

RP: Have you looked at my career?

All 34 years of it?

RP: There’s never been a lot of one’s or two’s. A lot of five’s and six’s and 10s. There were a couple of three’s, but at South Carolina we got let go. I left Louisiana Tech and went to Miami. I’m not a tumbleweed that way. I like getting in somewhere and being part of something. But the flip side of that is this business has made it much harder to. But no, I’m not looking to leave.

The only other thing I wanted to ask you was about recruiting. You get thrown into it a week or so before signing day. How do you approach that?

RP: I’m sure most of the recruiting is pretty well, they’ve got their guys. What I’d like to do is get a chance to meet the defensive linemen who are either committed or are being recruited and try and start a relationship. Every coach has an area. Hopefully I can get out in the area I’m assigned so I can get out and touch base with the high school coaches and start developing relationships, because recruiting is that, and I’ll go from there.