This week, I finally had the chance to catch up with the man who will be in charge of Wisconsin's defense in 2011. Chris Ash has spent only one year on the Badgers' staff, but his work with the defensive backs last fall helped him land the coordinator spot after Dave Doeren left for Northern Illinois. Wisconsin's secondary made significant strides in 2010 under Ash, recording eight interceptions and two pick sixes.
Here are Ash's thoughts about the Badgers' D:
What has it been liking making the transition to the coordinator post this spring?
Chris Ash: It's been a lot of fun, a great learning experience. I've wanted to be in this position for my whole coaching career, and I've worked hard to make myself ready once I got the opportunity. Hopefully, I had some good thoughts and ideas on how I wanted to do things if the opportunity presented itself. With the new guys on staff, Dave Huxtable coming from Central Florida and DeMontie Cross coming from the Buffalo Bills, they've got great experience. It's been great this offseason with those guys.
What has been the biggest adjustment so far?
CA: In the meeting room, the biggest change is just having the final say. Everybody's got great ideas, we all come from similar backgrounds and we see things the same, but we also see things differently. And when we see things differently, somebody's got to have the final say. And that responsibility's mine right now. To make those decisions has been different.
The biggest change at practice is when we've got non-scripted, 11-on-11, move-the-ball situations, as a position coach, I'm so used to getting out there and coaching the DBs after every play: good, bad, corrections, whatever. And as the coordinator, I can't necessarily do that because I've got to worry about the next call. So I find myself at times running out there to correct somebody, when in fact I should be back worrying about the personnel and the situation and the next call.
How did you react when Bret [Bielema] told you that you would be moving into this role?
CA: The first reaction is being excited. I'm humbled that he would even consider me for such a position. There are a lot of people around the country who are probably better coaches and have more experience than me who would like to be in this situation. When he did come to me and say, 'Hey, I'd like to make you the defensive coordinator,' I was humbled and eager to get ready.
How would you describe your philosophy for the defense?
CA: Dave [Doeren] and I came up in this profession together. We were both coaching at Drake University at the same time, learned a lot of the same things we both believed in, so we have a lot of similarities. Things that might be different, just the way we adjust to formations, the way we adjust to shifts and trades might be slightly different. If there's something I've done in my background, if I'm going to call it, I've got to be comfortable with it and I want to do it like this. Philosophically and schematically, there's a lot of similarities, but there are some subtle changes that people may see.
What are the values you're trying to get across right now this spring?
CA: We want to build an identity. When people see us on film, what do we want them to see? It doesn't matter about the front, the coverage, the blitz that we call. There are a few core things we want to see on tape. We want to see our guys playing hard and with great effort. If we play as hard or harder than anybody else, we're going to have a chance to win regardless of the call. We talk about playing with great fundamentals, better than what our opponent has. We talk about being tough. If you can play this game with toughness and be violent and get off blocks, you give yourselves a chance. And the last thing we talk about is just the consistency with which we do our responsibilities. The more we're in the right spots, the tougher we're going to be to beat and if we make ourselves hard to beat, we're going to win a lot of games. As long as we turn on the film and we see those four things, we'll give ourselves a chance to win.
How has it been looking for leadership this spring?
CA: The good thing here is you recruit well, and you're going to lose players, whether by graduation or leaving early to the NFL with a guy like J.J. Watt. But if you're recruiting well, it's really the next-man-in mentality. We have a lot of guys who have played here, whether it's one years or two years or whatever, who have taken the next-man-in [mindset]. It's been really nice to see guys come out of their shell because it's their time to shine.
Who are some of those guys?
CA: Guys like Aaron Henry. He's been a natural leader, but being moved to safety [from cornerback] last year, he was still unsure of himself on the field. Now he's found a position, he's played well, he's been very productive on the field, and it's time for him to be a leader, not only in the secondary but on the defense. Some of the guys up front, Jordan Kohout, Pat Butrym, guys who have played a lot are really starting to provide a lot of leadership. Those are guys who have been around for several years who are doing some good things.
J.J. did so many things for you guys last year. Who steps in to fill in there?
CA: You can't ever replace a guy like J.J. Watt. He was such a talented individual, played the game so hard and with great passion. It's really replacing his production by committee. We're not asking one guy to step in and be him at end. Guys who played last year, like Butrym, Kohout, Beau Allen, Louis Nzegwu and [David] Gilbert will up their production, and that increased production from all those individuals will give us something close to what J.J. gave us.
What's the outlook like at linebacker, especially with Chris Borland coming off of injury?
CA: We're going without Chris this spring. He's been out after shoulder surgery. Guys are in there right now, Mike Taylor and Kevin Claxton, two guys who played for us a year ago, are really having nice springs. At our middle linebacker position, Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong, guys who were slated to be our first- and second-team players, are out with surgeries from last year. We've got a guy, Marcus Trotter, who was a redshirt for us last year on scout team, running with the first team. You talk about one of the most improved players on our football team. We had no idea what we'd get out of a redshirt freshman. He's making mistakes, but he's flying around out there, playing the game hard and having fun doing it and doing way more than we thought we'd get out of a redshirt freshman.
But once we get Chris back, he's a great playmaker. He's physical, he's tough, he plays hard. He's going to bring a big boost to our defense.
Who else has taken on a bigger role with the defense this spring?
CA: At our corner position, we've got two guys back who played for us a lot last year, Antonio Fenelus, Devin Smith, who was our starting nickel, those two guys we kind of take them for granted. They're there, they're consistent, they quietly go about their work and they work hard to compete every day. They're leaders by example.
What was the biggest key to the improvement you made in the secondary last year?
CA: It's the same kind of message I'm trying to preach to the defense. We've got to compete every single day. At Wisconsin, we're not getting four-, five-star recruits. We're getting the hard-hat, workman type guys, and we've got to compete every single day. Last year, the DBs did that. They got better as the season went along because they competed in practice. That's what we're trying to do with the whole unit.
They were in the right spots and were able to take advantage of offensive mistakes. You talk about getting takeaways and producing plays, it's not so much that you made a play, but you were in the right spot and you took advantage of an offensive mistake. The ball was thrown a little high, a little to the left or right, a receiver doesn't catch the ball and it bounces off his hands or shoulder pads. Who's going to make those plays? It's guys who are in the right spot and hustling to the ball. That's what we got in the secondary last year.
How do you stress that competitiveness right now?
CA: Last year, we had some success, winning the Big Ten and having a chance to go to the Rose Bowl. The biggest thing is, are guys satisfied or are they hungry? I think we've got guys that are hungry. They've tasted that success. They want to maintain that high level, and the only way you're going to be able to do it is continue to improve.
We talk every single day that you either get better or you get worse, nobody ever stays the same. We can't afford to walk off the practice field and feel we got worse because we didn't compete. We're not trying to compare any individual to another individual or ourselves to any other team. We're trying to get better every day as individuals and if we do that, collectively our defense will get better. Our guys are really buying into that so far.