ReliaQuest Bowl Head Coaches Joint News Conference
ReliaQuest Bowl: Wisconsin vs LSU
Friday, December 29, 2023
Tampa, Florida, USA
Raymond James Stadium
THE MODERATOR: Thank you for being here today for the head coaches' news conference. Hope you enjoyed the week. The weather is projected to be very good game day. We're blessed to have that. We're blessed to have two outstanding programs here in our game this year, two terrific coaches here today. I'll ask each coach to make a brief opening statement, then we'll open up to questions from the media.
Start with Coach Kelly as the designated home team, LSU, then to Coach Fickell.
BRIAN KELLY: Thank you. For us at LSU, I think it's been a great week. We're excited to be here in Tampa. Want to thank Jim McVay, certainly ReliaQuest and Brian Murphy, and our host Bruce Poli who has been terrific this week.
Our players have enjoyed Tampa, all that has been afforded them. It's been for us an opportunity to bond as a team and certainly prepare, as well. We've got a great opponent in Wisconsin. Coach Fickell's team is one that will play physical. It's a football team that, again, from our perspective, when you play a Big Ten team, will be well-coached, well-prepared. We're excited about the challenge between an SEC team and a Big Ten team.
Again, from our standpoint, we're excited about the matchup, playing on New Year's Day, the first game of the day. It should kick off a great new year. Again, excited for our university, and congratulations to Wisconsin.
THE MODERATOR: Coach Fickell.
LUKE FICKELL: I would second that. I want to say thank you to Jim (McVay) and ReliaQuest for this opportunity for us, for our program, for all of our kids. This is unique.
Again, I think this is what college football has been about, bowl season, January 1, this opportunity. I don't take that for granted. I know there are times in the evolution to what we're doing. Us, our program, what it is that we see this as, it's a great opportunity.
I don't know if you know this, but it's probably freezing in Madison, Wisconsin. I think it snowed today. Our guys maybe have even a little bit more appreciation than coach's team. I'm sure in Baton Rouge it's still shorts weather. Our guys are enjoying it. A little rain for practice. 58 degrees. They thought it was the greatest thing in the world.
Great opportunity for us to prepare, for us to continue to push our program forward. I think this was practice 13 in some ways for us. A lot of those are the first five or six for young guys. It's an opportunity for our program to push and develop as well.
We're excited obviously about a great opponent in LSU. Coach Kelly and I obviously got a little bit of history, know a lot about him. This is going be an incredible challenge for us. I think that's exciting for us and our program.
THE MODERATOR: We'll start with questions.
Q. For both coaches, they made a movie about Kurt Warner a couple years ago and Dennis Quaid played Dick Vermeil. If they make a movie about one of you two guys, who's going to be the star? I'm thinking X-Files, David Duchovny for you Coach Fickell and Robert Patrick for you Coach Kelly. What are you thinking?
LUKE FICKELL: I'm not sure of that movie. That's one for me. I've maybe heard of a little Adam Sandler in there, so I don't know, it depends on the direction you want to go. Ted Lasso is definitely not going to play me or whoever that is. I'll let you go ahead and decide on that. Maybe my wife would have a better suggestion for that. I'm sure our players would have a better suggestion than I would.
BRIAN KELLY: I would defer to you on movies. We don't have much time for movies. We watch a lot of film, but it's generally not of actors and actresses.
Q. Luke, this is going to be Jake Renfro's first game in two years. You've been around him for a lot of that time. What have you seen him go through battling these injuries and continuing to push and getting himself to this position?
LUKE FICKELL: For whoever doesn't know, Jake is center. He obviously transferred from Cincinnati. Played for us there for a couple years. Obviously missed last year with injuries. Missed a little bit of this year, the beginning of the year, with some injuries, as well. Just kind of how it worked out. He didn't get an opportunity to play a whole lot this year. With our center moving on to the NFL, Jake will be playing for us at center.
Jake played lot of football. In a lot of this bowl season, I'm sure coach would agree, there's some tough situations you go through, right? There's guys that aren't playing whether they choose to go on to the NFL or different reasons. It also gives him incredible excitement and light.
Jake is one of those guys that unfortunately was playing behind a guy who is a really, really good football player, fortunate enough to stay healthy all year. Didn't get some of those opportunities.
In the last three weeks, there's been a light at the end of the tunnel. Jake has really taken that to heart. I think that he's used this 14, 13 practices in a very good way.
Jake has played a lot of football. I know a lot more about him than the rest of our guys, surely our offensive staff.
Q. You've got a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Malik and Brian, I'm wondering about your perspective on what makes them stand out and why are they such a challenge for opposing defenses other than the fact that they are very talented?
BRIAN KELLY: Each one brings a different element to the game. Malik's ability to run after the catch is extraordinary. He's a physical player, makes people miss, but breaks tackles. A ferocious competitor.
Brian, his ball skills down the field, his size obviously makes him a difficult one-on-one matchup. Playing into the field gives him a lot of opportunities to obviously get down the field. He had a quarterback who got him the football. When you make that equation work, many of the times those guys came up big, made big plays and big catches. We got him the football.
Little bit different in a sense of what they can do, but both as good as I've had in my 30-plus years.
Q. Brian, with Joe and Cortez having that shared coordinator title, what are they both responsible for in terms of getting ready for this? Which one is actually calling the plays?
BRIAN KELLY: Yeah, I think what's really most important internally is the organization of the offense because a lot of that is already in place and has been in place for the last four or five months.
I think the way it's really filtered out is they've handed off different assignments within the staff itself. Joe has focused a lot on the run game protections, things that would center around the quarterback. Cortez much more on the passing game.
They'll keep their assignments. Joe is in the box and Cortez is on the sideline. Those plays will generally probably come from the box to the sideline. There will be collaboration on a game plan. They'll both be part of it.
Again, I think from a communication standpoint, it will come down from the press box and then into the game. I'll get a chance to listen and make sure it's the way I want it to go.
Q. Brian, Logan Diggs is someone who obviously dealt with injuries late in the season. How big of a role do you expect him to have this game? How important is it for him to be out here with the team?
BRIAN KELLY: Yeah, I think it's very important. Look, I think we all know that his physicality, his ability to play injury-free helped our football team immensely. When he's banged up, obviously we've turned to other players that we think very highly of, as well.
He looks good in practice. He's got a great attitude. We expect him to be the kind of player he's been when he's been healthy for us.
We're really fortunate that we've got I think 20 out of the 21 players playing in this game. That allows these guys to go out and finish on a high note. So it should be fun to watch him play.
Q. Coach Kelly, how does Garrett look now after a couple of days? We talked to him yesterday. He talked about that jump from the mentality of a backup to approaching it as a starter. How have you seen him digest that?
BRIAN KELLY: Yeah, I think it's different. From when you going from being the backup to the starter, everything is a little bit faster. I think there's a little bit more of a need to communicate and take the reins. When you're a backup, you can kind of muddle your way through it a little bit, fake your way through it. There's no faking now. You're running it.
Those guys want the ball, too. You better get them the ball. They're not out there just for show. He's got a lot of pressure on him. But that's why he's here. He loves the bright lights. He kind of rises to that kind of occasion.
He walks around the building a little bit differently, there's no doubt. But he hasn't played. So the game is different than practice. He's preparing. When it's live, and Wisconsin's got a great scheme, they do a lot of really good things defensively, and he'll be challenged. It will be fun to watch him play on Monday.
Q. Luke, you've got wide receivers as part of the rotation that decided to move on. For this game, what do you hope to see out of that group? How much can it be a bit of a springboard for guys coming back?
LUKE FICKELL: We talked about that with Jake Renfro. There's some guys that there's a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. I think there's a bounce in their step. To be honest, they're the guys with us that down the stretch, were in particular the guys that had a bigger role anyway.
It's just a thinner group. I think in some ways that's better for those guys, right? They don't have to roll as much. They have an opportunity to get in the flow of a game where you were playing maybe eight guys or seven guys in that spot, now you probably want to play five or six.
I think all in all, it gives those guys a greater opportunity to get in the flow of the game. End of the season, you've got to condition to you. I don't think it's going to be one of those things where we got to sub a guy based on his condition, how many times he's gone.
I think it's a great opportunity for them. We have the core nucleus to get a little bit better and play better towards the end of the year.
Q. What are the pluses and minuses of NIL to this point? What are the positives in terms of moving the sport forward or hurting the sport?
BRIAN KELLY: How long do you want this press conference to go (smiling)?
LUKE FICKELL: Go ahead, coach (smiling).
BRIAN KELLY: In its purest form, you would ask any coach, NIL is great. The problem is when you add other things to it, it becomes a different animal. When you add transfer portal, inducements, agents, other things, NIL then becomes in some instances play-for-pay. That's not what it was intended to be.
When it becomes pay-for-play, it changes the equation. It changes recruiting. It changes your roster. It changes the way kids go from being committed and having responsibilities to what's mine, when can I get it. That's not what this was intended to be.
NIL in its purest form, I don't know if there's a coach that wouldn't stand on this table and say that's a great thing. It's all the other add-ons that have made this thing so difficult and slippery to handle.
LUKE FICKELL: Without any structure, I think anything is a problem. To me, where we are right now, a bit in college sports, college football in particular, I'm not sure what the structure is. Do we have governing? Do we have any rules that apply?
You can call it NIL, you can call it whatever. The real I think issue is where are the structures? What are the rules behind what it is that we're doing?
Like coach said, nobody would deny a guy an opportunity to use his name, image and likeness. It's just the structure we are looking in a lot of the things give a lot of flexibility. I think that's what makes it difficult for us as coaches. I think it makes it difficult on 18- to 22-year-olds, to be able to stay focused and figure out what you really want to do, how you want to do it. There's a lot of options out there I think make it much more difficult.
Q. Zalance Heard didn't travel down here. Do you expect to get him back at some point?
BRIAN KELLY: Yeah, I think we're going to have those conversations. I think he's looking at his role at LSU, evaluating it. There's been some conversations. We're taking some time. We'll reengage and have some more conversations after the game.
But I think it's a good time right now for us just to focus on those guys that are with us right now, then we'll pick up the conversations with him and his family after the bowl game.
Q. Talk about your time at Cincinnati and how it affects you're coaching at LSU and Wisconsin.
BRIAN KELLY: I think in many instances, my entire journey from Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati, Luke would probably say the same thing, you have to deal with less in some instances and it makes you a better coach. You have to know all of the jobs. It makes you better prepared when you have more resources that you're more able to make sure that everybody is running in the same lane.
When you work at a place like Cincinnati that may not have some of the things that you have, you have to make up for that. You have to be more creative. You can't say, We don't have it. That's not good enough because you got to make do with not having things like that.
I think it makes you a better coach. Then you take that with you at the next stop. You become more creative. You become more inquisitive in looking at how you can do it even better. That's how it's helped me. I don't want to speak for Luke, but I'm sure that helped him at Cincinnati, as well.
LUKE FICKELL: There's no doubt. I think that you learn to not make excuses first and foremost. I would take this opportunity, I've said this when I was at Cincinnati, once you get to a point where we were obviously moving to a different conference, I would say I don't understand why we still use the term 'Power Five'. We're all playing the same game, right? We all understand there's some differences in what it is that we're doing.
Sometimes when we use that term, we look down upon those guys aren't at the same level as us when in reality they are. Maybe they don't have as many things. Like coach and I were, you learn to not make excuses for things, just try to do more with less. I don't mean that with players. I mean that sometimes with resources and things.
Twofold for me, I didn't get to have some of the kind of experiences that coach had of coming up Grand Valley and Central. In some ways I was fortunate but unfortunate to be at obviously a Big Ten school, then go on.
You recognize what it is that you need to do and what it is that you have, then try to be really grateful for the things that you do have.
I think more than anything for me, it helped me kind of be organized and understand that you don't always need more to have success. You have to find ways to use the things that you do have.
Q. Luke, you spoke about the experience of meeting families. Can you compare and contrast what this trip is like compared to last year's?
LUKE FICKELL: This year I have family here. Last year was over Christmas and my family didn't come.
I think as we're getting closer towards the game, more family and things start to roll in here, there will be most of activity with that.
Right now it's focusing more so on the game. Last year was a much different perspective, what it is I was trying to do and learn in the process, now it's so much different in how you progress your program, looking at this is not just an opportunity to play obviously an incredible game, incredible opponent, but also where you're heading and the things you're doing in this time.
As coach will tell you, the evolution of what we're doing, this isn't just about playing a bowl game, there's so many other things going on within your program, within your own guys, this is a really critical time, families, guys in our program and what's going on right now in the recruiting.
Q. Coach Kelly, having NIL come along, is it an agitation, something that is bothersome, or as you coach, a new challenge comes up, it's just another new challenge that you've seen that is similar to others over the years?
BRIAN KELLY: I think it's improvise, adapt. We're putting the plane together at 35,000 feet. There's no rules. You're trying to figure this thing out as you go.
I think there's just a lot of things that we're trying to do that make sense that still keep the student-athlete at the center of this.
Look, we're parents as well, right? We try to keep an eye on how would we want our sons to handle these situations and how would we want them to learn from them. All money's not good money. Sometimes lessons have to be learned. Sometimes you might lose somebody in NIL because of this.
We're going through these experiences right now, and some of them are hard. But we're hopeful that down the line that we can get some guidelines, we can get maybe a calendar that makes sense.
Right now, I'll just give you an example, we're preparing our bowl team, but we were recruiting freshmen, we were dealing with the transfer portal, we were getting our players evaluated for the NFL Draft, and we were trying to retain our players. All five of those things at once within, what, a 30-day window. That doesn't make sense.
There are so many things that are going to have to change along the way if we are going to do all these things and not have some issues come up like they have.
Q. You talked about Jaxon Howard as one of the guys that upped his stock a little bit. With these bowl practices, who else has upped their stock going into this game but more so into the off-season?
BRIAN KELLY: Well, one of the things that we can talk about is getting this bowl game as the additional game, really obviously is probably the most sensible thing that's ever occurred in my time where these kids can play in this game after they've used their four games. You get a chance for these kids to stay motivated, practice and play in this game. Jaxon is one of those guys that gets this opportunity.
A guy like Kylin Jackson gets an opportunity to play in a game like this, which is really big for him. A couple of the defensive guys that needed more reps, I think the freshmen corners, all of those guys get an opportunity.
As Luke mentioned, this is our 13th practice, so it's spring ball for all of these young guys. They get more opportunities to go out and develop more. Then they get to finish it up with a game against a Big Ten opponent.
I think a lot of our young players, especially on the defensive side of the ball, get a great opportunity with this opportunity.
Q. This particular bowl has matched up the SEC and Big Ten for decades. The two conferences are building up to places we haven't seen before. How do you think each conference views the other one? Is there a real rivalry, a measuring stick, when you get in this part of the year about winning a game against the SEC and Big Ten?
LUKE FICKELL: I've been fortunate enough to be in the Big Ten for a long time. Back in the Big Ten obviously this year. It's always been kind of these two groups saying they had the upper hand in college football in general.
I think in the last year, we've truly recognized and seen that the two conferences that are basically pushing and growing, what it is that's going to happen in college football is the SEC and Big Ten. I kind of always believed that, being in the Big Ten for a long time, now seeing what's happened in the last year or so. I think it's kind of showing itself all over the place.
I think there is a rivalry. I think to say the conferences play different and things like that, that used to be one of the bigger deals. I think there's a lot more that's coming closer and closer together as far as how they play the game. It's not just the that the Big Ten runs the ball, the SEC plays with (indiscernible).
I think as we continue to grow what's happening in college football, you're seeing the two premier conferences basically playing more similar maybe than they have in the past.
BRIAN KELLY: Yeah, I don't see a huge schematic. I wouldn't say the schematically the Big Ten does this, the SEC does that. I think it's more in terms of these are the two elite conferences in college football.
If there's legislation coming out of the SEC or the Big Ten, it's generally going to change the landscape of what is out there. If we're aligned together, the SEC and the Big Ten, you're generally going to see movement. So I think that the two conferences in many ways are aligned much more than just football. I think philosophy is probably the biggest thing. I think that's a good thing.
With so many moving pieces in college football today, I think the one thing that you can count on is that the SEC and Big Ten are pretty much going to be aligned in one thing, and that is pushing college football to be the number one game in the country.
Q. Coach Kelly, a player like Da'Shawn Womack, what about him in a game like this?
BRIAN KELLY: Yes, again, another true freshman that will get an opportunity to play quite a bit. 'Development' is an interesting word, right? You develop at different times throughout the year. It's time to come out of the oven, right? You keep them in there for so long, then it's time to play.
We feel like it's time for him to play. We're going to put him in a position where we think he can help us. He's done a really good job this year of maturing. I think a lot of it was his maturation. That was the first time he was put in front of the media, and that was not by accident. We do things here pretty intentional. We think he's ready. It will be fun to watch him play.
Q. How much of a challenge is it to prepare without Jayden Daniels? What has he meant to your team? What would you tell a general manager that separates him from any other quarterback in this upcoming draft?
BRIAN KELLY: Well, I'd love to play with Jayden Daniels on my team. Who wouldn't? He's fun to watch.
Obviously we feel really good about Garrett as our number two. Obviously he's got the keys to the car going forward in '24.
The offense, he knows it well. He'll be able to do the things that we need to do offensively, run it, throw it, do the things that are necessary to be a championship football team.
Having said that, Daniels is clearly in my opinion the best quarterback in the country. He has developed the ability to push the ball down the field like no one that I've coached. His quarterback savvy, his ability to manage all protections. He calls everything at the line of scrimmage, gets us in the right plays.
He's going to walk into the building and he's going to command the respect of the building. Look, these are professionals. You can't walk in there and not command the respect of a building. That's what he'll do.
I think certainly his play showed itself on film. But what they don't know about him is that he's a leader and he'll command the respect of the entire room.
Q. Brian, a real quick one, will (Will) Campbell be expected to play after missing practice today?
BRIAN KELLY: Yeah, he's just had the flu. We just kept him back at the hotel, just felt like it was best to give him a day off and get him healthy.
Q. You mentioned Garrett maybe having the keys in '24. Also playing in AJ Swann. How do you plan on balancing that approaching that quarterback room?
BRIAN KELLY: Yeah, I mean, look, it's very similar to what last year where Jayden came back, but we gave Nuss a fair shot at competing for that starting position. Nuss pushed it, but Jayden was better.
We'll have the same situation where AJ will have a chance to take that job from him. It is not a closed position. We were transparent with him. Nuss knows that, too. We're going to be honest and open about the competition. You don't bring in a guy who started at Vanderbilt and say, Listen, you're coming in but you have no chance. That doesn't make any sense. Nuss knew that, too.
We'll move forward going into the spring.
Q. Coach Kelly, Malik (Nabers) and Mekhi (Wingo) will be playing in this game, two potential first-rounders not opting out. Did that take any convincing or that's just what they're built like?
BRIAN KELLY: It's 90% what they're built like and 10% they love to play football. They love their teammates. They love playing football.
Look, everybody that plays this game, I think the core of it is you got to love to play. You can't be playing for other reasons. If you love to play this game and you love it for the old-fashioned reasons of I love my teammates, I love playing for LSU, then you're going to have guys playing these games.
These two in particular, also in Malik's case, he's got some things that he wanted to individually accomplish, too. That's okay. That's okay because he starts with the premise of I want to play with my teammates and finish this out, and I love to play football.
Q. Have you ever vacationed in Tampa with your families? If so, what is your favorite memory? If not, what's been your favorite part about the city?
LUKE FICKELL: I have not. I think maybe Clearwater Beach one time. I got a lot of kids so to try to go back to a whole lot of place, we wear our welcome out pretty quick (smiling). We don't get away that often.
I think they have enjoyed it. They're at Busch Gardens today. I think they're looking forward to going to the beach tomorrow. As for me, I don't get to join them on a whole lot of those things. That's a bad thing sometimes. We'll reconvene up with them a little bit later.
For us, to be honest with you, this is the first time we've had our whole family under the same roof. As we moved away, my son was in college, stayed where he was, my daughter went to college. This was a unique time. It's bowl season, this is about the bowl game, but it's also about families being able to come together and enjoy some of this time, as well.
BRIAN KELLY: We did as a family when I took the job at Notre Dame, I was at Cincinnati, and Cincinnati was going to be playing in a bowl game. I wasn't coaching in the bowl game. It was the first time as a family that we weren't going to a bowl game in many years.
We just kind of said, What about Tampa? We went to Tampa and we went to Busch Gardens. We stayed right on the waterfront. We were at the J.W. I think we stayed across at the Marriott. We had a great time. They're all coming up today. We'll get a chance to spend some more time with the family. We enjoyed it.
Q. If you can't be playing in the final four, is there a better place to play on New Year's Day than Tampa, Florida?
LUKE FICKELL: No. There's not a better place.
BRIAN KELLY: No, absolutely not. Thank you. Absolutely not. Go Tampa (laughter).
THE MODERATOR: We have a special presentation. I'd like to introduce the founder and CEO of ReliaQuest Brian Murphy to present a couple very special awards to a couple very special players.
BRIAN MURPHY: We appreciate everybody being here. Coaches, thanks for bringing staff, teams, family. Sounds like they're coming in. Weather is supposed to get a little bit cold, we'll try to hold that out for you.
We are proud to be sponsors of the ReliaQuest Bowl, going into our second year. Our goal in sponsoring this originally was in cyber security we see hundreds of thousands of attacks a week in what we do across our software. It impacts everybody in this room, your families, everything we do.
We wanted to take a great tradition in college football and take the ultimate symbol of performance and competitiveness and preparation and clarity and execution and put our brand on it to raise awareness of cyber security. Also raise awareness around the opportunity in cyber security. There's tons of jobs, tons of ways to go out and build a good career, fight the good fight.
This has been amazing, to have two world-class brands to be here in the bowl game. If I told you in 2007 when I was writing my first payroll check that we'd be sitting up here doing this, I'd be lying to you. It's a great honor. Thank you very much. Appreciate all of the staff, the bowl committee, the board, all the work that gets done by all the volunteers year-round. It's been a lot of fun.
We believe that cyber security is the greatest technical challenge of our generation. Around ReliaQuest, our mantra, our why for existing, is to make security possible for the largest enterprises in the world, Fortune 500, Fortune 1000. If you're wearing it, drinking out of it, banking with it, flying on it, we defend it. That's part of what our software does.
As we talk about how do we weave a little bit of how we think about performance, performance-based mindset handling all those attacks, we wanted to give the teams an opportunity to come together and pick a player that personified what we call AEE: attitude, energy and effort. Their teammates came together to pick a player each that would be the make-it-possible player of the season. It's important to us that it's chosen by teammates. It's a fun thing that we get to do. It's something that directly aligns with how we think about the fight that we fight out there 24/7, 365.
To start off, from Wisconsin, I'd like to congratulate the make-security-possible player from the Wisconsin team, voted by his teammates, Hayden Rucci. His fifth season as a Badger, Hayden has set the example for leadership in Wisconsin football with unexpected adversity hitting the Badger tight end group to begin the 2023 season, Rucci set the tone for the unit from fall camp on. He led with 10 catches for 112 yards, helped Wisconsin transition to a new offensive scheme as one to key on as off field leaders for the program. Academic All Big Ten team four times during his career, he graduated in December with a real estate and urban land economics business degree from the Wisconsin school of business. Congratulations, Hayden.
For LSU's make-it-possible player recipient, I'd like to congratulate Greg Penn as this year's winner. His teammates describe hit as a dedicated student, a difference maker in the community and a model teammate. Greg has an infectious attitude that permeates throughout the program. He has the traits that you see in champions, hard worker, relentless pursuit of being elite.
The goal of the LSU football program under head coach Brian Kelly is to graduate champions. Greg has a desire and dedication to pursue these goals each and every day. Join me in congratulating Greg.
Thank you, guys, very much for being here today, coaches for taking the time. A huge honor for us. I did have to put on my readers to read some of these things. I got one year going into 47 before worrying about that. Thank y'all for being here.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, everybody. We look forward to the rest of the great bowl week and great game on Monday, January 1st, great weather, game, opponents.
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