Armed Forces Bowl Press Conference: Head Coach Quotes

TIM SIMMONS:  Coach Skip, your comments about preparation and just being in the bowl game for the third straight year.

 

COACH HOLTZ:  On behalf of Louisiana Tech University, what an honor it is for us to have the opportunity to be here. We had a chance to go to three bowl games in three years and those three being in Dallas/Fort Worth and New Orleans, which has been great for our alumni base, our students, our fans, for everybody to have a chance and come and support them.

Being here in Fort Worth has been a great week for us. Brant does an unbelievable job with the functions for the players and the organization of the bowl. The thing that's been the most impressive about being here this week has been the number of volunteers that worked with the Armed Forces Bowl. The friendly service, everything has been really top‑notch in everything we've done. So it's an honor for us to be here.

The bowl preparation we had.  After the championship game, the staff was on out the road recruiting for a week.  And we had an opportunity to start on Navy and had a week of practice there in Ruston before we came over here.  And we had a chance to polish things up here the last couple days. Any time you play an offense like this, you wish you had a whole other week or two weeks or three weeks.  But, unfortunately, we play the game tomorrow. So we've got to be ready.

And I think we've had a good couple days of preparation here. The facilities here have been great to work with. And I think we're really excited about having the opportunity to play Navy tomorrow at 3:30.

 

TIM SIMMONS:  Coach Ken, obviously, it has been a busy time. Three games in four weeks. This has probably been an unusual December for you.

 

COACH NIUMATALOLO:  I, too, first of all, would like to thank the Armed Forces Bowl and Brant. It has been a great week for our young men. We really enjoyed ourselves, being able to get away from the Academy, enjoy themselves. It has been a great time for them.

Would like to thank Lockheed Martin for our title sponsor for this great bowl and all of its festivities. Congratulate Coach Holtz and their team. Look at what they have done this year, two of their losses to power five schools and a close loss to Arkansas.

Coach Holtz talked about a couple more days of practice. We would like a couple more players on the field to stop them defensively. (Laughter.)  Nobody has been able to stop them. One of the best offenses in the country.

And, as I look at both of our teams, very similar. Had some tough losses down the road. Doesn't take away from the great season both of us have had for our seniors. Really proud of the way our seniors have responded this year.

Like everybody else, you have injuries and adversity. And just been proud of our young men and how they have endured this, this year. We are looking forward to playing a really good football team.

Coach Holtz is one of the most respected coaches in our profession. Been doing this for a long time. So we're honored to be here.

 

TIM SIMMONS:  Skip, talk a little bit about your team offensively and defensively. Some of the players to watch tomorrow.

 

COACH HOLTZ:  We've had a couple of players that have statistically had really outstanding years. Our quarterback, Ryan Higgins, has done a nice job as a senior starter with this being his first full‑time starting role. And the job that he has done stepping in, he has been very patient, waited his turn. Proud of what he has been able to do as a quarterback.

Two receivers, one who is here with us today, Trent Taylor, who has caught for over 1,000 yards the last couple years.  He's a guy from Shreveport that's come in and has just really played well for us as a leader, as a football player. He's the guy that, when things get tough, he's the one that wants the ball under his arm and he's going to make something happen for you.

The other one on offense would be Carlos Henderson who, again, those two receivers, both over 1,000 yards. And Ryan Higgins.  And our tailback Jarred Craft has been 1,000‑yard rusher. We have been blessed to stay healthy. And those guys have done a nice job on the field with a senior‑laden offensive line that have played really well for us.

On the defensive side of the ball, we lost eight starters off last year's team. Out of those eight starters, five of them are on a NFL roster right now, which was great news in the off‑season. And you celebrated the success of those young men. But, when you came to fall camp, you realize the challenge of having to replace them began.

There were a lot of new faces on this team defensively. A couple of the staples, Xavier Woods, our free safety who started all four years since he has been here. Number 7 has just been a great leader for us there and has done a really nice job on the back end.

And a couple young guys on our defensive line in Jaylon Ferguson and Deltrick Cantry, two defensive ends who have had success rushing the passer. I don't know how much good that does us this week, but had some success this year in being pass‑rush defensive ends.

But we have a kicker in Jonathan Barnes who has really had a productive year for us. Like I said, we have a handful of guys that have really stepped in. We have an unselfish attitude right now on our team.  And I like the way they are coming together, even with the two losses to end the season, which was disappointing, I know, for everybody involved. But we're really excited about having the opportunity to step out on the field in the bowl game and have a chance to play a top 25 team in Navy.

 

TIM SIMMONS:  Ken, can you talk a little bit about the midshipmen, offense, defense, special teams.

 

COACH NIUMATALOLO:  Again, very proud of especially our senior class, the way they've led this year. Last year's winningest team ‑‑ excuse me ‑‑ two years ago was the winningest team in school history.  And this senior class came and took it upon themselves to have their own identity. We had one starting ‑‑ returning starter on offense with Jamir. We had a lot of question marks on offense.

But really proud of the way the guys stepped up this year. Most notably, we had Will Worth that end up stepping in for Tago Smith, who was our starting quarterback, got hurt in the first game.  And Will had a tremendous year. Did a lot of great things. We didn't catch as many balls as Trent did.

But Jamir ‑‑ I mean, our leading receiver, probably the best receiver we've had since I've been here at the naval academy. It's been a great year both on and off the field.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling one of our reporters going into our championship game I feel really good. This is as healthy as we've been going into any part of the year. And I think I jinxed our program. Some guys went down, and guys stepped up. Zach Abey, young freshman, stuck it to a pretty tough situation going into the Army game. I thought he responded well in the second half after a tough start.

But we got a senior‑laden line. A lot of them, this is their first year starting. Mo Maurice, Adam West, Blake Copeland, guys have done a really good job up front.  Running backs, Dishan Romine has been a guy that's been our leader with our running backs.

And on defense, we have our best defensive linemen here in Amos Mason. He has been a great leader for our defense and for our team. Has kind of been the catalyst along with Michael Thomas and D.J. Palmore on defense. We're looking forward to this game a little bit. Like I said, we have seen how prolific they are and how they move the ball against everybody.  It will be a tough game. I think both sides are looking forward to this great matchup.

 

TIM SIMMONS:  Skip, talk about Navy and the people that stand out on the Naval side.

COACH HOLTZ:  I have really been impressed with Ken. I can say I have been a fan for a long time watching from afar.  I feel like I'm sitting here in stardom a little bit after watching him on television, the success that he has had and the job that he's done with his program. The biggest thing that I look at, when I watch this football team, especially on the offensive side of the ball, is the precision in which they execute their offense. Whether you run the ball or whether you throw the ball, it's still about execution. It's still about ‑‑ the game is about blocking and tackling. And I think they are an extremely well‑coached team. They do what they do incredibly well. They lead the country in third‑down percentage. You know they're going to be on the field. You know they're going to score points. As a defensive football team, you're just trying to find a way to get them behind the chains at some point in time.

I know with injuries to two of their better players through the course of the season, the quarterback and slotback ‑‑ but, again, with the system they have, people step up and they step in. That's part of what happens in sports. But really been impressed with what they've done offensively.

When I look at the defensive side of the ball, they are primarily a zone‑coverage defense. They keep the ball in front of them. They don't give up a lot of big plays, and they give themselves a chance to compete. You know it's going to be a battle. It's going to be a very difficult game.

The special teams, you think maybe we can get a leg up on special teams. But they lead the country in kickoff coverage. They've got a group of young men that play incredibly hard that are very well‑coached that are physical. And it's got all the makings for a great matchup. It's definitely going to be a challenge for us and one we're looking forward to. I congratulate them on their season. I know the sacrifices and the commitments that they make with their ‑‑ it's not just football and school. They have got a lot of other responsibilities there and great respect for the military academy and having the opportunity to play this game.

 

TIM SIMMONS:  Ken, talk a little bit about Louisiana Tech.

COACH NIUMATALOLO:  I think everything starts on any offense with the quarterback. And Ryan Higgins is as good as I have seen on tape. Gets the ball out of his hands quickly. They do so many things that present issues for you and they stretch you vertically and horizontally. When you play in a bowl game, you have got everybody's tapes. You see the whole year and see what different people have tried to do and everybody has tried everything. Blitz, play coverage, drop 8, bring the house, play zero. I mean, it just ‑‑ they got answers for everything.

So it's going to be a tough matchup for us because they get the ball in space to guys like Trent.  And they're hard to get down. And you kind of look ‑‑ throw a bubble screen.  And you think you have played it great. And, man, that was a nice fit up on the perimeter pretty good. You look up, and it's second and 2. They gained eight yards.  And looked defensively like they did things well.

It will be a tough matchup for us because what they do schematically, and they have got good athletes on the edge.

Defensively, they are more of an attacking team. We don't really know how they will play us because what we do is so different. So we just got to wait and see. They got a lot of athletes that can run. Like Coach says, it will be a great matchup.

 

TIM SIMMONS:  Skip, introduce your players.

COACH HOLTZ:  We have two seniors that are two of our four captains that are here, one from offense and one from defense. Wearing Number 5 tomorrow will be Trent Taylor who was the inside wide receiver who has now set the all‑time school record for the number of receptions in his career. That's saying something with some of the players that have been through there and the success that they have had.

Just a competitor. I say this all the time, that a lot of people may look at Trent and say, you know what? He's not as tall as I thought or he's not as fast as I thought. But the guy's got a heart and a competitive nature like no other player like I have ever coached.

He brings it every single day, and I am really proud of what he has accomplished on the field. I said to the staff, we are going to realize just how good Trent was when we don't have him anymore. It almost got boring to go to the press conference and talk about everybody else.  And some would say, "Oh, what about Trent?" I'm sorry. He had another 10‑catch, another 100‑yard performance today. He just was consistent in what he does. But really proud of him, what he has been able to accomplish and what he means to our football team.

Xavier Woods, Number 7, our free safety, is a senior from right down the road. Trent is from Shreveport. And Xavier is from Monroe on the other side. Both of them within an hour of Ruston. And Xavier has come in, much like Trent, played as a true freshman, been a four‑year starter for us. Has had a phenomenal career in what he has done. I believe he is one of the leaders in interceptions not only on the season but from a career standpoint.

He has been the quarterback of the defense. He has been the voice. He's been the player. He is the one that everybody looks to. When it came to voting for captains, these two were the majority with what they do in the classroom, what they do on the football field, the leadership they provide, they are totally committed to what they're doing as students and as athletes. Really proud of both of them. These are the two that are with us today.

 

TIM SIMMONS:  Midshipmen, we can have you up here. Ken, if you can talk about each one of them.

COACH NIUMATALOLO:  We have two seniors here ‑‑ Amos Mason from Nashville, Tennessee, and Jamir Tillman, from Las Vegas, Nevada. I think the biggest compliment I can pay these guys, if we are looking for players around the country, this is the blueprint of what we are looking for. Really good football players, good people, good students. Coming to the Naval Academy, it is not an easy place to go to school. They have excelled in all phases. Militarily, academically. It's hard enough to play Division I football. They have excelled in all of it. They have been our leaders both on and off the field. Amos, our best defensive lineman, is a state champion in wrestling. You look at him.  He's a handsome, good‑looking young man but tough as nails. He's a tough competitor. Pound for pound one of the strongest guys we have had in our program.

I have already talked about Jamir, the team clown. He's a jokester, but a competitor. And I have enjoyed coaching him over the years. He and I are very similar. We are very emotional. And sometimes in games he gets a little too hyped up after.  Somehow get him down. With that said, we're going to miss this guy. He is the best wide receiver that we've had in my 19 years here at the Naval Academy.

 

Q. Talk about preparation with this offense. I know that changed with what you have done in the past couple years on how you have handled the bowl prep. Talk how practice changed a little bit.

COACH HOLTZ:  Normally, what we do is we try to do some bowl preparation.  But we also try and do some spring practice with younger players, guys that have been on the scout teams trying to look at cards, trying to give them the opportunity to get into the offensive and defensive huddles and start hearing play calls and get about ten days of spring practice with some of our underclassmen.

With what we've had to do, we've really had to be primarily on the scout teams. We haven't had an opportunity to do a lot of good‑on‑good work on this bowl game because trying to simulate what Navy does is virtually impossible. I mean, we can draw the lines and say you go there and you go there. But the pad level, the precision, the speed in which they execute it, read, and run it has made it very, very difficult.

So it has been primarily scout teams with what we're trying to do to get ready for this bowl game. And we've kind of missed the spring practice component of it a little bit. But it's kind of, like I said, the uniqueness of their offense and what they do. You have to prepare for it.

I'm just grateful this is in a bowl game and not during the regular season where you have two practice days.  Because that's very difficult to get ready for in a couple days. It's been a little bit different. But I think for our defense, it's exactly what we've needed to be able to be competitive in this game.

 

Q. With you guys playing in a conference championship game and the Army game being later, how has that affected the preparation for this bowl game in terms of timing and what you're able to get into prepare for Louisiana Tech?

COACH NIUMATALOLO:  I think the one thing going into the Army game that was unique, normally, going into Army week, we would have two weeks, sometimes three weeks to get ready for Army. So it allowed us to rest up a little bit. I normally use some of that time to give our guys some rest.

This year we didn't have any rest. We had to go straight into the championship game. And so it affected our Army preparation just from a rest standpoint.

But our bowl preparations have always ‑‑ I mean, it's not ideal. But it is what it is. And I have said this every year. We can't complain, because right after the game is finals. The NCAA has allowed us and Army to have one more week to go out on the road because we have that late game. So everybody else is a dead period.  But we're able to go out that last week, this past week. So the coaches are on the road recruiting trying to catch up because we haven't been on the road. It's something we have to do.

And the coordinators come later back in that week to have two walk‑throughs.  And then we had two practices before we left, and we had two practices here. That's definitely not enough to get ready for this team. But this is our 13th bowl game in 14 years. And I would love to have more time. But just the way the Army game falls and our finals and our dean of academics is not going to change any of that, so we can get more practice (Laughter.)

 

Q. I noticed one of the things I found very interesting about your great young men, Coach, are you have got a couple of pilots, branch deviation. But the bulk of the football team all branch Marine Corps. Is that something that's fairly standard from year to year, or is that something that's a little bit different about this group of seniors?

COACH NIUMATALOLO:  We probably have more Marine Corps than we've had in the past. Sometimes it goes 50/50 in the senior class. Probably a little bit more this year. But it just shows kind of the young men that we have.

I always say this but I feel very blessed to be the head coach here because you coach guys that are going to go serve our country. I think it's very appropriate for us to be in this bowl game because these guys for them, it's over after this. There is no NFL career, and their service is to serve our country.

But to go to the Marine Corps speaks volumes of the young men.  Even the Navy, both of them are serving our country. But there are things happening in our world as we speak, obviously some very critical things happened here in the last couple weeks, make this a pretty volatile world. So we understand directly where our young men could be, but it's just the type of young men they are.

 

Q. Coach Holtz, preparing for the triple option, anything you do differently? Anything in your past that you would reach back to in terms of preparing for that style of offense?

COACH HOLTZ:  I have had the opportunity to play Navy a couple of time.  When I was at East Carolina, we went up there and played them there and lost to them. Lost to them up there 24‑21, I believe it was. So I don't know that I can look back on my past experiences and say we're going to do what we did there.

It's just ‑‑ like I said, the hard part is it's going to take you a quarter, quarter and a half to get used to the speed of the game and the way it's all coming.  You can know what's coming, but it's almost like you blink and it's like, whoa, the game has got to slow down a little bit for us.

We have tried. Some of our practices have been without a football. They make you play assignment football. Both defenses are about running to the ball. And the way people are playing offense today, it's more about putting the ball in space and then defensively the way you have to stop it is you have got to run to the ball.

What they do is they prevent you from running to the ball. If you run to the ball and you are running and you don't know where it is, you can get in trouble.

And then that's where they hit you with the play‑action pass. When you watch them, they have hit you with their fullbacks up the middle. Their quarterbacks have hit you with big plays.  The pitches have hit you with big plays. But their play‑action passing game, that's their heavyweight punch. And if they get stopped because you're robbing Peter to pay Paul with your safeties involved in the running game, they're going to come back and hurt you with the play‑action pass.

So we've tried to do it without a football. We've practiced most of the week without a ball. Somebody has to be on the dive. Somebody has got to be on the quarterback. Somebody has got to be on the pitch. And then on every play action or everything that comes off the run, you just want to make sure somebody is running with everything. You can't just cover one guy. You got to cover everybody that's out.

So that's what we've tried to do. We've talked to a lot of people that have played it. Unfortunately, nobody has really had a lot of success against it. We're going to go give it our best shot. And, hopefully, we can get on our toes and play solid defense in this game and give ourselves a chance to compete.

 

Q. One thing I was curious about is if either of you would comment on it's not just a football game. There's a lot of the giving, and there's a lot of humble service. Just curious if any one of the coaches wanted to comment on the service aspect of it, the donation of the house, the car, the installing of the fire alarms, all of the events leading up and things that are happening as a part of the event.

 

COACH HOLTZ:  I'll be happy to.  I think having the opportunity to give back, whether that's going to a children's hospital, working with the American Red Cross, doing the things ‑‑ Some of our players were involved in the fire alarm installations and fire extinguishers and some of the veterans' homes. This is the Armed Forces Bowl.

I talked to our team about what a great opportunity for us, not just to play in a football game but to go to the Armed Forces Bowl and to play a military academy.

The respect that I have for the military academies and the job that they do, we have freedoms as a society that we put our head on our pillow every night and we take for granted. And there are men and women, not just presently and in the future but people in the past that have given the ultimate sacrifice for us to be able to enjoy these freedoms that we have.

And so this game to me, it's going to be ‑‑ it's going to be a great football game on the field. We have two really good football teams that are going to go at it and play really hard and play with class.

But at the same time, it's humbling for us to be involved with that. I know this is the Navy way of life. You know what I mean? This is what they signed up and what they do. That's why for us it is a bowl of respect and honor to have the opportunity to be here. And what little we could do to give back is minuscule compared to what the men and women of the academies give on a daily basis for us to enjoy our freedoms.

 

COACH NIUMATALOLO:  I just want to add to what Coach Holtz said, play‑offs are great. It adds a lot to college football and all the notoriety that goes with that.

But the one thing that people are against is getting rid of the bowl games because pretty much all the bowl games, there's some type of service or community acts of charity that are so much more appropriate and much bigger than the game. And obviously all the things that we do here in this bowl game, that Bryan and all of his staff does, here is tremendous.

We are fortunate as coaches to be able to coach this great game. And our young men feel very fortunate to be in this bowl game. All the other things that happen, especially the service and the charity, is really what all these bowls are about.