From the Assistant's Point of View: David Blackwell Q&A
By ODU Athletics
ODU added four new assistant coaches following the season. ODUSports.com will sit down with each coach to discuss their career, joining the Monarchs and much more. Today we introduce defensive coordinator, David Blackwell.
Q: How have your first few months been?
A: It’s been hectic, you know, moving, getting the family here, doing all that and obviously installing the defense but it’s been a fun hectic. It’s obviously a great place to live. A big vibrant university, everywhere you go on this campus there are things being built, construction everywhere, which is progress. I think anytime you go on a college campus and you don’t see dirt being turned there is something to be concerned about. I mean obviously you drive around our campus and it doesn’t take long to see all the growth that is going on, not just athletics but all over, so it’s been fun.
Q: What does it take to install a defense?
DB: To me, it takes patience. The first thing is, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so we wanted to be very patient and start slow and let our guys master something before we moved on to something else. We really didn’t want to rush, if we came out in the spring with maybe a quarter of the package installed then we were going to be happy with it, pleased with it because the big thing is for the guys to understand what they’re doing and to be able to play fast. I think it takes patience, sometimes there is a tendency to want to put everything in at once and get as much in as you can. We took a different approach, to go slow and be sure we knew what we were doing before we moved on to the next thing.
Q: When you were putting your defensive staff together, was it helpful to have somebody like Jeff Comissiong still on staff, who has experience with the players that were still here?
DB: Absolutely, and with both GA’s still being here it really gives you a sounding board. An idea of number one, of what we have and number two, what we are facing. They all have a great feel for the teams in this league and the offenses in this league. One of the toughest things with a new staff coming in is to gauge what’s our talent level in comparison to the teams we are playing against and things like that. So those guys are able to give you an honest answer about those kinds of things.
Q: When you were at East Carolina last year, what did you think of Old Dominion?
DB: Looking across the field, I thought it was a talented football team. I think in some ways they were similar to us, a really dangerous team that when things clicked was a really good team. Defensively looking across the field, taking a peek it was hard not to notice the defensive front. Guys like Oshane Ximines and Tim Ward. Those guys are impressive looking players, so it was frustrating from our standpoint as a staff, coach went back and looked where they came from and it was a lot of North Carolina guys that he had circled during the game. Guys that we were playing against that he was really wanting answers on how they ended up at Old Dominion and not East Carolina.
Q: Last year, at your alma mater, things didn’t quite go as you had hoped, but what did it mean for you to coach at East Carolina?
DB: It was fun, everyone knows your alma mater should hold a special place in your heart, I talk to our players about that all the time. Coaches will come and go, but this will be your university for the rest of your life so take pride in Old Dominion, take pride in your university. I obviously take a lot of pride in mine, now come September I want to beat them, but it was a great experience for me to go back. I knew I was coming into a tough situation, so I had my eyes open. The defense was dead last in the nation when we took it over and we made a lot of improvements. We improved over a hundred yards a game and almost two touchdowns a game and played with a little more swagger and a little more pride and obviously a lot more effort. I think we made a lot of strides and with another year under our belt we really could’ve kicked the door in defensively, but obviously I’m excited to be here. One of the things, the mutual interest from the minute Coach Wilder called me, knowing how well coached his team was and how hard they were to defend. I said absolutely I was interested. As we moved forward with discussions it quickly became evident to me that I thought it could be a really good fit.
Q: You touched on it a little bit, but how hard will it be for you when East Carolina comes here in September?
DB: To me it will be another game, honestly. It’s no different from the first three. In this profession you become loyal to the job, you’re loyal to the university that you work for, and the players that you’re coaching and things like that. I’ve got great memories, obviously there are players on that team that I’m close to and things like that so it’ll be a little different coaching against a team that I’ve spent years of coaching. Only once, I coached against Pitt one time when I was at South Florida, other than that I don’t think I’ve ever coached against a team that I’ve worked for. So, it’ll be a little bit different, but again, as you get to game week, every game, preparation wise, whether it’s the Norfolk Peewees or the Washington Redskins, you’re going to prepare the same way.
Q: Four out of the last five years, you’ve coached a conference defensive player of the year, is that something you can explain?
DB: You know, Stephen Hodge at Fordham was the first one, and then Devaunte Sigler my first year at Jacksonville State won it. Stephen played nickel for us at Fordham, then the following year, Devaunte was a defensive tackle. The next year we went to the national championship game and had the best defense in the conference and didn’t have that guy, so it was a little different for me. Then the following year, Darius Jackson won it two years in a row. So actually, it’s five out of six, then Nate Harvey at ECU. I think part of it is the aggressiveness we play with defensively. We have guys where even last year with some of the problems we had at times, we still finished top five in the nation in tackles for loss. So, the aggressive approach we take defensively of getting people behind the chains gives guys the opportunity to make plays so some of our guys put up some pretty good numbers through the years and we’ve had good players, honestly. Devaunte Sigler and Darius Jackson at Jacksonville State, both guys have played in the NFL. Now Stephen Hodge has not, but he was just a tremendous player in the Patriot league and last year Nate Harvey was just a great story for us at ECU. A fifth string running back that we converted to outside linebacker that led the nation in tackles for loss. I think our scheme puts them in a position to be successful, but ultimately, it’s the players, you got to have good players to do that.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk about the bandit position. What do you look for out of that position and how do you find it?
DB: For us it is doing a little bit of that this spring, we tried a bunch of guys at that position. You’ve got to have a guy in that position who is instinctive and slippery, just has a knack for making plays. We are still working towards that, but I think we’ve got a couple of candidates that really have an opportunity to be special at those positions.
Q: When you were at Jacksonville State, obviously there was an incredible run there going to the FCS title game, best defense in the country, what was that like for you?
DB: Again, it’s a lot of fun to win at a high level so I had opportunities to leave almost every year I was there, but none of them in my mind were good enough opportunities to outweigh leaving the place you can win 10 or 11 games a year and compete for a national championship, that’s a very special place. When you take the top five to 10 FCS jobs in the country, they are really good jobs. So, for me, I’ve coached at Clemson, I’ve coached at Pitt, I’ve coached at South Florida, I’ve coached at Fordham. When you’ve been around the ringer once or twice in this profession, I’ve learned that coaching is coaching no matter where you are. The field is the same length, the stadiums may be a little different, but once you get out there and play there’s good coaches at every level of football. That was a place where the head coach I worked for created a great work environment, it was a nice place to live and we knew we could be successful so it was easy to put down roots when you’re in that situation.
Q: You’ve coached FBS and FCS, what are some of the differences and similarities of those levels?
DB: Well, like I’ve said, football is football. One of the things that is similar is, and I think people are starting to realize you’ve seen guys go from the FCS level and have great success at the FBS level, but there’s a lot of good coaches at every level of football, including high school. You see guys like Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris who have come out of high school football, and Todd Graham who have been very successful at this level. Then the financial aspects are a big difference, each level you go up the salaries are higher, the pressure is higher, the microscope you are under gets a little brighter. The obvious parts, the stadiums, the fan support at the highest level. There is a unique thing about Death Valley at 8 o’clock kickoff against Florida State on a Saturday Night. It’s a pretty cool environment. We were top five in the nation at Jacksonville State on attendance and fan support in FCS football. We created a great environment; I mean obviously an 85,000 seat stadium in comparison to a 25-30 thousand seat stadium made a big difference.
Q: Your brother is also a coach, what kind of relationship do you have with him?
DB: We used to beat the crap out of each other growing up all the time, but I’ve actually coached against him twice. When he was the offensive coordinator at South Carolina State and I was at Clemson. We stay in touch and talk a good bit. He’s currently the offensive coordinator at Alabama State. He’ll call me and say ‘Hey how would you defend this’ or ‘If I did this to you, what would you do?’ So, we talk football a good bit, we’ll talk several times a week and it always starts football related then ends up ‘hey how’s your daughter doing’ or ‘how’s the family doing?’. It has been fun for me to have a brother in the profession, somebody I care about who I pull for and I know he pulls for me. My poor mother, when I was at Clemson, she used to call it the trifecta, if we won, my brother won and South Carolina lost it was a good weekend. If I won and he lost, she never could have a great weekend. She needed both of us to win. I know he’s excited about their season and I’m excited about ours.
Q: You’re a defensive guy and he’s an offensive guy, is that something you talk to him about a lot?
DB: Yeah, I also give him a hard time because we shut him out when we played against each other, so if he gets to talking too much, I always remind him of that, then he reminds me that they didn’t have Clemson players when he was at South Carolina State. It’s good to have somebody you trust, that has got your best interest at heart. Someone you can talk football with and they’re not going to say oh he’s going to do this or he’s going to do that. So that’s always a good thing and it’s always good to talk to people on the other side of the ball. That’s one of the things that I have always been open about as a coordinator with the offensive staff everywhere I have been. Brian Scott and I do a great job communicating with each other about what we’re installing, what we’re doing, what do you need to see, if there is something they need to see a little bit more of we will try to make it work as best we can as long as we can stay on our track and they do the same thing. So, we’re really all in this thing together. It’s not so much about trying to beat our offense all spring and summer, it’s about getting better so we can win football games because ultimately, we have got to win together in the fall.
Q: Last year’s defense lost a lot of starters, how important was the spring to have guys learn your system?
DB: I think probably for the kids it was, in some ways, was better that we were installing a new defense and things like that because it kind of gave everyone an equal opportunity. I think sometimes when you have a veteran defense coming back and the pecking orders are already set it can be a little bit difficult as a new staff comes in. But I think with all the turnover player wise, it was a great opportunity for us to come in and install a new defense, and say hey here we are, day one, everybody is on equal footing, let’s see who the best players are. As spring went they did, so I thought that overall, as much as I would like to have Oshane, sometimes you look at film and say there’s a couple of those guys you would sure love to have back, but I think we’ve got a couple of guys that I know people probably haven’t heard of and that’s always the case. You’re going to have a few guys that people haven’t heard of, then all of a sudden, they show up and it’s like wow where did this guy come from. Maybe they were behind a great player, didn’t get as many reps or something like that. So, it’s a new opportunity for a lot of people.
Q: How did you get into coaching?
DB: I had a career ending neck injury when I was a sophomore in college so they put me to work in the weight room. I worked for a semester with Jeff Connors, the strength coach at East Carolina and after that semester I decided I didn’t want to be a strength coach. That was not the path I wanted to take. I was always grateful to him for that opportunity. I went and sat down with Steve Logan, who was head coach at the time, and said I would really like to get into coaching so he said well let’s put you to work. He put me to work on the offensive side of the ball with Jeff Jagodzinski, who was our offensive line coach at the time. I worked for him for a semester. Then we hired a new defensive coordinator mid-year, Larry Coyer, came in from Ohio State. We were mid-way through spring ball and Coach Logan called me into his office and tells me he’s moving me to defense. He said Coach Coyer liked my energy and how I coach so they moved me to defense in the middle of the spring and I’ve been on defense ever since. My neck injury is probably the worst thing to ever happen to me from a football standpoint, but the best thing that ever happened to me from a career standpoint. By the time I graduated East Carolina, I was coaching my own position as an undergraduate assistant. Then I went straight to Illinois State with Todd Berry and kind of bolted from there. When I got hired at Pitt, I was the youngest full-time coach in the Big East at 27 years old and at Clemson at 30, as the youngest full-time coach in the ACC. So, I got a head start on this profession early, so it worked out for me.
Q: What has changed since you started at Illinois State to now?
DB: It is a hard life as a defensive coach nowadays. The fast-paced offenses and the way the rules are make it extremely difficult, putting a lot of stress on the defense, but it makes it fun too. When I got to Illinois State in 1996, we led the conference my last two years at Illinois State, we were top offense in the league. We averaged about 30 points a game, 31-32 points a game, whereas you average 31-32 points in a game nowadays, it’s just a decent year, you’re probably the middle of the pack in the conference. If you’re not at 40 or above, 31 a game back then you would be top 15 in the nation, now you won’t be top 40. It flips defensively, back then if you held somebody to 17 points game on average you wouldn’t even be top 20 in the nation back then, now you’re probably top five at 17 points a game. We set our goals at 100 yards rushing a game, 100-300 yards offense in a game. It was almost unheard of for somebody to get 400 yards back in 1996. Now you have people, if you hold them under 400 yards it’s a good day. When you play Houston, they come in the game averaging 520 yards a game. No one had held them under 50 points yet and when we played them, we gave up 30 and I felt awful. The coach came up to me after the game saying you all kicked our tails; I’m thinking what we gave up 30 points! That’s where offense has changed.
Q: If you could be the college football commissioner and change one rule, what rule would you change?
DB: That’s a really good question. Obviously as a defensive coach, it gets very frustrating with the targeting rule, because it is not always applied the same way. You lose a key player; I think it is a very harsh rule for the immediate throw out. Obviously for the concussions and things like that it has been a really good thing. That’s a really good question, selfishly as a defensive coach I would say they have to slow the game down a bit. In the fairness to offense, that is not always fair. I would say the biggest thing to me is the intent to deceive plays. I don’t mind the tempo or all that, but some of the stuff people do, the trickery and things like that with substitution violations or the fake look in the sidelines kind of thing where you get direct snaps to center and things like that, I think are just a little over the top. But to me, other than that, I think we’ve got a good product, that’s why college football is so popular. I think they’ve done good with the rules. They’ve obviously made the game fast paced and fun to watch so people are watching at an all-time high, there’s really not a whole lot I would change. From a defensive perspective I would say limit the offense a little bit, give us a little bit better chance sometimes. Let us play at 12 and they play at 11, that would be one. I think the overtimes would be something to look at. Some of these seven overtimes get a bit ridiculous.
Q: Do you like what they did with the overtime rule?
DB: Yes, I do because I think about how everybody talks about player safety. I know Jacksonville State last year had one with Kennesaw State that was 24-24 at the end of regulation, and it ended up 70-69 or something like that. It got out of control. I think these kids get tired; from an area of a safety standpoint I think it’s a good rule.
Q: What are your recruiting philosophies?
DB: Length and speed. Honestly, defensively at this level of football, you’ve got to be willing to project guys. They’ve done a really good job here of that in the past. You take big body types that can run and figure out what they’re going to be. I think that an overall philosophy would be that. You take length, guys that are long and can run and athletic. Maybe a power five school is looking at him saying where is this guy going to play and we say we’ll figure it out when he gets here. Taking a chance on the kid, when they’re looking for more of a finished product. You’re trying to recruit a 6-5, defensive end who is 240 pounds and runs a 4.6, unless he’s just a really bad player, he’s going to have multiple power 5 offers. So, we’ve got to try to find that same kind of body type, but he might be 195 or 200 pounds coming out of high school. You look at him and you project that you can grow him into a big defensive end. At South Florida, Coach Leavitt did a great job of that when I was there. We ended up with some really good players doing that. I think coach Wilder has been very successful here with that mindset. Our number one thing defensively is length and speed, and play making ability, guys that can make great plays, impact the game.
Q: In 1996 when you started coaching there was no social media, how do you handle that now in 2019?
DB: You’ve got to learn it. That’s one of the things that Larry Coyer, who I mentioned earlier, defensive coordinator when I was at Clemson. I went to visit him a few years ago and I was amazed at his skills on the computer. He was near 70 years old at the time and he really knew the computer. He made a comment saying, you’d better stay up on things, better know how to do things and that really carried over into college football in the recruiting aspect. I’ve heard a lot of older guys saying ‘oh I ain’t doing that twitter stuff or I’m not getting on facebook or I’m not doing all that’. Well, if you’re not then, someone is. My 12 year-old son, that’s how he communicates, he’s on Instagram, he can text, that phone goes everywhere with him. You can complain about it all you want to, but if you don’t do what they’re doing then you’re going to fall behind.
Q: How nice is it to have the new stadium?
DB: It’s unbelievable. It’s going to be a great recruiting tool. Obviously, it’s impressive looking, it looks Division I. One of the first things you see, depending on which way you come to campus. It’s definitely something for our whole university to be proud of. As for the football program, I think it’s a classic look, looks like a big-time stadium. For our guys, I know they’re excited, the guys that have been here. For us new guys coming in, without really seeing the old one in person, it’s exciting to be a part of the first ones to ever play in it. So, it’ll be fun.