ReliaQuest Bowl Head Coaches Joint News Conference
ReliaQuest Bowl: Mississippi State vs Illinois
Thursday, December 29, 2022
Tampa, Florida, USA
Raymond James Stadium
THE MODERATOR: Thank you for being here. We especially thank the coaches for taking time out to spend with you all today outside of their practices and preparation for game day.
We'll start off asking each coach to give an opening statement, then we'll open it up to Q&A at that point.
As the home team, Illinois, we're going to start off with Coach Bret Bielema opening statement.
BRET BIELEMA: Very excited to be here. Just came from the practice field. We really enjoyed our time here. Came down on the 26th. Some great interaction. Today they're getting a chance to go to Busch Gardens, excited about that.
This for us is Tuesday of game week, so we're locked into our preparation phase now. Still letting them bounce, a little bit of fun during the day, partaking of some of the things the bowl game has set up for us.
Obviously had a chance to visit with Zach at the press conference. From our fan base and university, obviously condolences for Mike, a very special coach, I know someone that's on our hearts and minds for him and his family but also Mississippi State.
I think this game is about the reward for our guys that went through a really kind of a tale of two different seasons. Start off a little disappointment with a Big Ten loss at Indiana, then a six-game winning streak, then three tough losses in a row, rivalry win against Northwestern.
Coming here to Tampa, a bowl experience I've had with Jim and his organization as a coordinator, head coach also. Very excited to be here. Looking for an opportunity to play on the 2nd. Thank you.
THE MODERATOR: Coach Arnett.
ZACH ARNETT: First and foremost, we would like to thank the ReliaQuest Bowl. First-class experience. Our players are having a tremendous time down here in Tampa. We got to get out of some colder-than-usual weather up there in Mississippi. It's been enjoyable for us. We're headed to the practice field next.
First and foremost, it's been an amazing experience up to this point. We can't thank the bowl committee enough. Obviously we're extremely excited to represent the Southeastern Conference. We're playing a phenomenal opponent who when you turn on the film plays the game the way it's supposed to be played. I know our guys have a deep respect and admiration for how they play the game.
Ultimately we're going to have a good time here, but there's two hard-nosed football teams that are going to line up and hopefully put on a good show for all the fans in attendance.
Obviously we are very appreciative of all the different signs of support for Coach Leach and his influence on the game. The thing we've talked about, and Coach Leach's family has expressed to us, we don't want to get lost, but this is ultimately a reward for our players for the job they've done this year and the success that they've had.
8-4 football team. They've done a tremendous job this year. This is a reward for their efforts because we would not be here if it wasn't for the work they put in all year round.
We're excited for one more opportunity. The best way we can honor Coach Leach is to go out there and play the way he expects us to play. That's with tremendous toughness. We know Illinois is going to do that so we're excited to share the field with them.
THE MODERATOR: Questions, please.
Q. You both talked about the rewards of coming to a bowl game. How do you balance the reward with staying focused on the matter at hand?
BRET BIELEMA: Unique experience for me this year. Bowl games, seven straight at Wisconsin, three of the five years at Arkansas, never had a player opt out of a game, right? That was the first challenge. We had three good players opt out. That's the first unique challenge.
We actually had four practices before we knew our opponent. As soon as we came bowl eligible, I started an in-season, eight-week program that allowed our developmental crew to go on an eight-week window of strength and conditioning training. We had five practices devoted to them. We practiced about 40 to 50 guys.
So that was the biggest reward, right? It's really kind of almost like a mini spring conditioning for our younger players. Then even after we became aware obviously we were playing Mississippi State, a very good team, we really didn't transition to Mississippi State preparation till after three more practices where it was good on good. We got good at football again. Then the last 10 practices are all devoted to Mississippi State.
The reward, just scheduled everything on the front end here, let them have an aquarium day, our guys hopped on a boat, saw dolphins. I didn't really join them, but they really seemed excited about it. Not a lot of dolphins in Illinois.
Today I could tell by the attitude walking in the door. I have a team meeting every day, I kind of start the day off with a schedule, what's going to go on. Earliest morning we've gotten guys up. 11:00 game, I wanted to transition into that. The mood wasn't there.
I have a freshmen talent show pool, without hazing them, they're showing their talents, they get a chance to come up. Joey Okla did a Conor McGregor impersonation that was to die for the other day.
Today Elijah Mc-Cantos and Gabe Jacas had a dance-off that was pretty entertaining. We kind of sprinkle that in.
ZACH ARNETT: Yeah, definitely not difficult to reward the players. Obviously all the different bowl events that are put on. The hard part is making sure they know they're getting ready to play a football game, too.
Convenient for us. You turn on film of your opponent, your players realize pretty quick that we got a hard football game coming up January 2nd. Made it easier to balance it out.
Echo what coach said. Your early practices are more like an early spring, you're working the developmental guys who need extra work. The guys who played all year, they're coming off a long season, so you're getting them back to 100% healthy. As you get closer to the game, you ramp it up, get into your normal routine.
We're headed out for our practice this afternoon. Tuesday game for us. We'll see if we didn't enjoy ourselves too much last night.
Q. Bret, you talked about how this could be a springboard to next year. Running back and DB, with guys opting out, who do you expect to make an impact?
BRET BIELEMA: As you guys know, we really got banged up in the secondary at the end of the year this last season. Obviously Spoon and Syd were huge parts of our back end, our success.
We have been able the last two or three games to get Xavier Scott. Had a tremendous role, really from the Michigan game on, played a lot of football for us. Josh McCray, the opposite side of the ball with Chase. Josh has been 100% involved in bowl practice. He actually did the devo practices, he was cleared to play at that point.
He's basically a guy we were counting on big things since he ever started. He's never been full strength since Indiana. Almost ran over me today. He looks pretty good.
A guy, Tyler Strain, really had a nice couple games there at the end. Got knocked out of the Purdue game with a concussion. Came in and done a nice job.
Obviously the way these guys play offense, our secondary is going to have to be at its best. Coach Henry, new play-caller. He literally play calls all year during practices, scrimmages. This is something that is new because it's new, but not really new to our guys. I haven't seen any hiccup in what they've done.
Q. Zach, for you guys, I know it's announced that Emmanuel Forbes will be playing, Cam, a bunch of guys that are headed to the NFL that decided to play in this game. How important is it for this team to honor Mike Leach, how much of a motivating factor has that been for some of these guys to play this game?
ZACH ARNETT: I think you probably have to ask them individually.
I know most of them have expressed they were playing prior to Coach Leach's obviously unfortunate incident. I just think it speaks to the guys we got in our program, guys who like playing football, guys who want to play for each other, the other guys in the locker room. I think it said a lot of those guys individually.
They're Mississippi State guys. Line them up, they want to play with their teammates, finish the season off with them. Those are obviously guys you love having in your locker room and you appreciate what they've done for your program.
Q. You were dealing with a lot after Coach Leach's death. How has the team responded? What has practice been like since then?
ZACH ARNETT: Practices have been good. I think our guys like getting into a sense of normalcy and routine. Obviously any time you go through a loss like that, that's what family is for, and that's what a football team is.
Been good for us to get back together, to spend a whole lot of time together and go to work, so...
Q. You've had coaching departures as well. You have 10 assistant spots to fill. What is your plan to do that?
BRET BIELEMA: I'll actually name a DB coach in the next days. Literally the day I made the transition, I knew who I was going to hire. It's actually somebody I interviewed before in the original process that I didn't get to. That one kind of has been sitting on ready. When he joins us, he'll be more of an analyst, eyes in the sky on game day.
On-the-field positions have been filled for the bowl game within our staff, with quality control assistants. On defense Ryan Simerson and Alex Panos, student assistants for us, let them step into the role as GAs, helping defensively what kind of we laid it out here. Henry is taking the back end overall.
Coach Buh is taking the linebackers inside and outside with Preston helping him. Then Jamo is taking the defensive line.
Danny Cameron, who has been with us all year as an offensive analyst, he worked in the running back room, videos, tips, all that stuff. He's been doing that all year. Easy transition to put him into the running back room.
Like I said, I'll fill the defensive back position very quickly, but I'm going to wait to hire my running back and my outside linebacker job until after the bowl game. There's some NFL people involved as well, so I may wait actually till later January till the NFL season is done.
Q. Coach Arnett, Will Rogers put up some pretty good numbers this year. Is he unfairly labeled as a system quarterback?
ZACH ARNETT: Yeah, he probably is. Obviously you judge a quarterback by how they perform, typically the record of your team.
Since he's been the starter, we won a lot of games. He's played really, really well. He gets us into the right place.
I think I can't speak to every offensive system, but I know in the last three years learning with Coach Leach, he gives the quarterback a tremendous amount of freedom at the line of scrimmage to really check into whatever he wants. Will has to be up there. One of the best ever doing it in his system.
Yeah, I think it would probably be an unfair label.
Q. The portal, great coming in, now you got to worry about going out. How much of a double-edged sword has that become?
ZACH ARNETT: It's the same for everyone, right? Obviously it's a new day and age in college football. Players have opportunities. If there's a better fit and opportunity for them, then they certainly have the right to go and do that. Obviously you have the right to recruit and try to improve your team.
Yeah, it's a reality we're all dealing with.
BRET BIELEMA: Yeah, when I took the job two years ago, I told Josh, coming out of COVID, entering the portal, it's really allowed you for a coach taking over a program, allows you to flip your roster pretty quickly into your skill sets, right? Not good, bad, indifferent. We were going to definitely do things different offensively and defensively than they recruited.
I didn't realize, I had a personnel meeting yesterday, and it was brought to my attention we are one of the top five or tied for second, whatever it was, in fewest guys in the portal. I didn't really know that.
I don't really count it. I didn't track it. I've been listening to some of these bowl games. I heard as high as 20 guys in the portal. To me that's, like, crazy.
Everybody runs their program a little bit different. We're a development-type program. There's been guys that came in, Tommy Devito, we're a different football team because of the quarterback. That was an immediate one.
Right now we have some portal guys we haven't been able to talk about yet. The portal thing is very frustrating because you can't sign them to anything. You can sign them to an NIL, if you want to burn it. And NLI, letter of intent, not NIL. It's not binding. They can literally take the scholarship and then go. There's no repercussions on them, it's just on the school.
We don't sign our guys. They're not literally going to be committed 100% to our program till the first day of class, for us, 17th of January, after Martin Luther King Day.
The NCAA is trying to catch up to it. The 85 rule scholarship has helped. I think it's a necessarily evil in the world we're in right now.
Q. Bret, where are you at health-wise? Anybody you don't think you'll have available?
BRET BIELEMA: We're actually 100%. The only guy, Josh Gesky, who is a backup lineman, he got injured in bowl practice before we left. He went through (indiscernible) today. I don't know if he'll play. He's a backup lineman on field goal.
Otherwise, everybody other than guys you know about, the guys that have missed the season all year, but should be good to go.
Q. Coach Arnett, players' availability for this game as well as health. On top of that, how have you yourself handled the transition to head coach and still being defensive coordinator, being involved in the offense?
ZACH ARNETT: Obviously we expect everyone who is on the trip to be available to play. We're at full strength as well.
Honestly, it's been a learning experience, to say the least, right? Obviously trying to prepare for a great offense, still being the defensive coordinator, call the defense, obviously also responsible for overseeing the whole program.
Fortunately for myself, got to learn under obviously one of the best ever to do it in Coach Leach. Just doing my best to replicate what he would do.
Q. Brad, you mentioned with Aaron Henry, not a new responsibility, but a new title. When you were able to make that announcement, how did you feel the team reacted to knowing what Aaron is about, what they're going to get?
BRET BIELEMA: Yeah, unfortunately because of the timing of the whole thing, I believe Tuesday morning I knew that Ryan was going to get the job. I was with Aaron. That's when I told him.
We were at home that week. Of course, that was the last week of live recruiting. I was telling people in the homes, everyone wants to know who is going to be the DB coordinator. They thought I was talking about me. No, the other side (smiling).
I really want to keep it under wraps for one reason. I think it's great telling your players first, right? It was the way it played out, I knew that wasn't going to be possible. Literally Taz called Aaron and I in the car. I told Aaron I was going to name him coordinator about an hour earlier. We were are driving to a recruit's home. Taz called and he thought he was going to be leaving, right? Aaron started to tell a few guys what was happening as well.
The reaction has been awesome. At practice, there's a game plan involved with Mississippi State. We'll do a lot of things that we've done, but we'll also change up some things.
I'm excited for the off-season. Whoever I bring in in the outside linebacker room, I know exactly what I'm looking for there. I got a pool of five or six guys. I'll kind of sort through that with Aaron and the rest of the staff. I'm kind of elevating Jamo as well to a title that I think those two guys.
You can do that when you have guys that know each other. Heck, those guys played together, right? I think it's exciting about what our defense has been and maybe possibly where it can go.
Q. Zach, with this game you guys are looking to win nine games in a season, first time since 2017. How important is that in terms of carrying the momentum from signing day with a win here?
ZACH ARNETT: Absolutely always better to go in the off-season with a win than a loss, right? As much fun as you have on these bowl trips, you always remember how it ends.
Yeah, that's important. Obviously we did a really nice job. Our assistant coaches, I failed to mention them, up to this point so far, they've probably been the biggest benefit to me throughout this whole process, how good those guys have done. They did a heck of a job. We held our signing class together. Pretty much everyone that committed signed with us. It will be a gigantic springboard in the off-season to leave with a win.
We know it's going to be a heck of a challenge because of the opponent we have to face.
Q. Bret, whenever you have a coaching change, your players have questions. What do you tell them about moving forward if they have questions?
BRET BIELEMA: What's kind of been new to these guys I think is they've been around a staff that they love, right? I cried when Ryan called, right? He and I got emotional. We had conversations. It's kind of cool to see that. You got to teach your kids how to build relationships and how to feel bad when someone leaves because they've impacted your life.
I remember when I was a young player, my outside linebacker coach left to take a job at Wisconsin when I was at Iowa. I remember going through a lot of emotions back then.
I think it's been awesome. I think I did kind of in my own way tell my guys, Listen, the guy that hired those other guys is still here, right? I'm probably going to do it again.
Any time I replace an assistant, I try to build on what we've already done. I try to bring in not an opposite but a different way of doing things.
In the outside linebacker room, I'd really like to bring something that brings a lot of pass-rush value. We have an outside (indiscernible) of building that room, outside linebacker room. Might be one of the most talented groups I've ever been around in pure numbers and quality of players.
Obviously running back, with Chase leaving, one of the best in the country. But I feel pretty good about some of these other guys we recruited.
It's been overwhelmingly amazing to me about how many people have reached out to me about these jobs. DB got out in the community quick about what I was going to do. That hasn't been a big one. Outside back and running back, it's going to be fun to see who I go with.
Q. Is there a play or a call during a game this year that you had to laugh at?
ZACH ARNETT: Yeah, I got pretty lucky. Coach Leach gave me complete freedom to play whatever I want, whenever I want. There's probably been a few too many zero pressures and some really bad times. It's gone the wrong way. But, yeah, whatever I have had, I definitely pulled it out there, yeah.
I just got to say, if these guys can build upon and improve on the defense, I feel bad for the rest of the Big Ten. As a fan of defense, aggressive defense, the way it's supposed to be played, the job that they did this year, I mean, it's fun to watch it. I know our guys have enjoyed watching it just on film because that's how defense is supposed to be played. They've done a phenomenal job.
BRET BIELEMA: My people know the story line. Coach Bart Miller played together back in the day. I've been trying to get Coach Miller to share some stories back in the day.
ZACH ARNETT: I was on the losing end of that (laughter).
BRET BIELEMA: I shouldn't comment on that (laughter). Might get fined.
ZACH ARNETT: I can comment on that one actually.
Q. Keep the Michigan game out of it.
BRET BIELEMA: I got a couple other choices, as well.
I think the one thing that's really fun is just being in year two, coach will get to know this now. When you take over a room, as a head coach, one of the most rewarding things you can have is player success. Wins are great. I got notified yesterday that four of our guys are invited to combine. I called all those guys last night just to hear that voice, hear their reaction.
We had 19 guys get all conference. We have 10 guys coming back that were all conference players. I think my first year we had three or four players total, now we have 10 returning.
It's fun to see these guys build the tremendous challenge. At first we heard a couple different SEC teams. When I heard Mississippi State, I think I got intrigued because I knew our guys would really enjoy the challenge of that game, right? They love playing football. They're very unique to anything we see in the Big Ten. It's really been easy to lock these guys in.
I don't know what kind of success we're going to have. You turn on Mississippi State's film, defensively the things they create, the movements and the pressures, design and return, it all makes sense. They got to sort through it.
Offensively, for what they do defensively, it's a hard task for us to see what they're doing or get a gauge on what they're doing before the snap. It's just a really cool preparation. I think our kids have really enjoyed the process of preparing for an opponent.
There's no rules now, right, in bowl prep. It's unlimited. You don't have to worry about 20 hours. For coaches and for players that love of the game of football, the more you can teach and coach and slow the game down, the better the play. That's what's fun about the bowl game.
Q. What are your impressions of Emmanuel Forbes?
BRET BIELEMA: I hope he didn't get any of those reps (smiling).
Very opportunistic. We have a phrase in our program, CTOTTU, catch the ones they throw you. He is very opportunistic. The quarterbacks are facing a great deal of pressure, right? It's not necessarily physical pressure, it's mental pressure.
What coach does schematically is a very tough challenge to know anything that's happening before the snap. I think a lot of times the quarterbacks are throwing it to what they think they're going to see, and it ends up changing in the middle of the play. That's a very hard thing to simulate game speed-wise for our quarterbacks in this preparation.
Q. Bret, as you work on feeling out this coaching staff, how if at all has the pitch changed?
BRET BIELEMA: To be on our staff?
BRET BIELEMA: I think what's amazing to me, I can't imagine what Zach is going through. When I had to make my first staff, I remember I kept two guys from Coach Alvarez's staff. We played our last game here in the Outback Bowl back then. I basically let nine coaches go, right, off a team that went to a bowl game. I was very emotional about it.
Ironically, as it plays out now, the person that helped me get through that was my mom. She knew I was very distraught. We played a home game against Michigan, won that game. I was just kind of sitting in the corner. I knew the next game was going to be a bowl game, right?
She said to me, I know you're upset about what you're going to do with the staff.
I said, I am.
She goes, Well, keep in mind this staff was Coach Alvarez's staff. You got to make your staff.
That was a huge turning point for me because that's kind of the way I began to view it. That's when I made some transition. Last year we won 12 ballgames.
I didn't know coaching at all, right? Now I'm 52, getting ready to turn 53 in about 15 days. I just know so many more people.
I've never hired a friend. I've hired former players. Actually when I gave Aaron a job, he said, I didn't think you'd name me because you don't want to hire a friend.
I said, You're not a friend.
I didn't mean it like that. You're a former player (laughter).
But he has become a friend. You don't want to jeopardize a relationship. I have to be the head coach. To be quite honest, I'm close to my staff but I also learned early on if I become too close with certain coaches, it becomes clique-ish, right? I surrounded myself, my inner circle are guys that are not in football. I've gained interest from guys that are on bowl teams, guys in the NFL. It's really been amazing.
Josh affords us the ability to pay them well. I give a lot of credit to Josh and the administration because it's financially a good move to coach at Illinois, as well.
Q. When you start the season, your goal is to be one of those four teams in the College Football Playoff. When it doesn't happen, Tampa on New Year's Day, that's not a bad alternative, is it?
BRET BIELEMA: No. Zach said it best. This has got to be a reward. Obviously by-products of giving the team, the younger players reps. As soon as I heard this bowl, I've known Jim and his family, the Outback Splash, the spring event, been down here to that several times. My wife is from Tampa.
Couldn't have drawn any better to come down here and spend a couple days. Especially the last two days the weather has been pretty good.
ZACH ARNETT: Obviously there's a particular game on Thanksgiving Day that we prioritize over all others. Our guys handled business, got the win in that one. Obviously as a reward, they get to be here an January 2nd in Tampa. This beautiful weather. Certainly enjoying ourselves.
I'm going to echo it again: bowl games are about the players. It's a reward for the season they've had, the work that they've put in, the success they've had. Both teams have had incredibly successful seasons. The players should be commended for that.
I know as coaches, we're honored to be able to work with them on a daily basis. We're excited to watch them strap up and go at it one more time on January 2nd.
THE MODERATOR: Great segue into the next thing we're going to do. A special award that we're going to be presenting to a player from each of the teams.
To do that I'm going to bring up the founder and CEO of ReliaQuest, Mr. Brian Murphy.
BRIAN MURPHY: Thank you, coaches. To all the student-athletes, the staffs, our community here, the ReliaQuest Bowl board, everyone has done a fantastic job. We're honored to be the sponsor here as a global cyber security company. We think it's important to raise awareness of the importance of and the opportunity within cyber security.
As we say, security is a team sport. Billions transactions every day, billions of networks talking all over the globe for some of the largest companies in the world. We have to be on our toes, working with our partners. In our business, the enemy gets a vote. We got to be ready for whatever they throw at us.
We thought we'd bring a little bit of our tradition, something we do, our whole why we exist is to make security possible, what we believe is the largest technical challenge of our generation.
We wanted to award and give the teams the ability to award a player on their team that is the Make It Possible Player of the Year for that team.
These players are typically displaying the attitude, energy and effort required to make it from not just the beginning of the season, through the middle of the grind, through the end, the drive, that clarity, consistency, the purpose of what the team is trying to do. They dig a little bit deeper, find a little bit extra. They understand there's no perfect, but there is a better. They're always chasing possible, making everybody around them better.
Without keeping everybody too much longer, first I'd like to announce our Make It Possible award recipient from Illinois, Quan Martin. According to his teammates, I want to read this because this comes straight from the team, Martin has been an exceptional unsung star for Illinois, top ranked defense. The versatile and consistent Martin can play both safety and cornerback, helping the Illini, leading the nation in interceptions, passing efficiency, defense and takeaways. Martin is tough, smart and dependable, the spirit of the Fighting Illini.
BRIAN MURPHY: Next I'd like to announce our Make It Possible award recipient from Mississippi State, Cameron Young. Young is a three-year starter at defensive tackle for the Bulldogs. He's been a mainstay on and off the field during his time in Starkville. Young embodies the Bulldog mentality, leading by actions over words. He is the ultimate competitor and teammate who is one of the most excited to play while striving to be the absolute best at doing his job day in and day out.
BRIAN MURPHY: Congratulations to both the award winners and both the teams. Have some fun and let's go get it. Thank you for being here.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, everybody.
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