Q&A with Zak Hill
The 2020 Sun Devil offense may have been a bag of mixed goods, but the overall trajectory of this unit coming out of spring practice is one that its offensive coordinator is content with. Here’s our exclusive interview with Zak Hill.
DevilsDigest: What are your impressions of the offense at the conclusion of the 15 spring practices?
Zak Hill: “I thought there was a lot of development that showed that we were very much more comfortable with the offense. I thought the guys were able to play faster. And I think they're feeling good about what we're doing. I think we moved forward in the right direction from each position, got better, and built some depth. I think a lot of the young guys got a lot of reps. I was glad we didn't get (spring practices) cut short, like last year. It was nice getting through all 15, getting some scrimmages, and I thought, overall, that we saw really good development.”
DevilsDigest: You talked about cutting spring practice short in 2020, a crazy year where you were able to get just seven spring sessions, ahead of only a four-game season. But still, even with that limited experience level your unit had in your first year at ASU, did you feel that spring of 2021 wasn't really starting from square one and that there really was a lot to build on even following a challenging 2020 season?
Zak Hill: “For sure. I think anytime, whether it's four games, whether it's seven (spring) practices, the more that we're getting in, the better and the more experience we're getting on offense. I just felt like this spring, getting all these practices in the guys bought in well, and it went way smoother the second time around. So we were able to add more things in than we had previously, and we were getting more reps on our base offense.”
DevilsDigest: Fans always ask me, what percentage of the offense do you get to install in the spring? Is it something you can put a percentage figure on? And when it comes to Fall camp, is there a new percentage that you want to get accomplished or try to hone on the spring accomplishments?
Zak Hill: “Offenses are always developing, and then always, kind of revamping a little bit. But I would say, from a DNA base offense standpoint, you're putting in probably 60% of what you're doing, and then you just tweak in that stuff…reformations, shifting, motioning, and trying things out using different sets. I think with most of your offense; you're trying to get in and focus on the DNA things.”
DevilsDigest: So, in your experience, Fall camp isn't as heavy on the installation process compared to spring?
Zak Hill: “I think it's very similar. The way we handle it is our spring installation is, helps us gear up for our fall installation because the guys are able to go through it again. It gives them more reps at those plays. Throughout spring, you're always evaluating and seeing what you're good at and what you're not. And then, if you're putting tweaks on things, or if you want to experiment with a few things in spring, to do more of that experimentation in spring. Then hone in on what you're good at, and then carry that into the Fall camps where you’re getting more reps out at it. You're so limited because the NCAA is not like the NFL, where you got all the time in the world. You get all the meetings and walkthroughs you want. So you got to be selective (on the college level) with how much you're putting in and what your guys can handle.”
DevilsDigest: So were there any goals you set at the beginning of spring you felt were accomplished to your satisfaction?
Zak Hill: “I thought our overall goals were accomplished. The big thing was just the overall operation, feeling more comfortable, about how we want to be an explosive offense. And looking back through those practices, we had a good number of explosive plays in each practice. It's tough with the run game since you can't tell (their true impact) because we're not tackling. So yards per carry and all that type of stuff is kind of tough to judge. But, we want to be efficient. Ball security is always huge, something we were focusing on, whether it's fumbles or interceptions; I think we limited those fairly well. We had some snap issues and balls on the ground with the centers; having your center out (cade Cote not returning for his final year) is always tough. So we got to bring those guys further along.
“Another big thing too was our emphasis on situational awareness and just being in as many different situations as we can through spring and through those practices. Whether it's field position, whether you're backed up, you're in the red zone, down and distance stuff or, if it's in-game situations such as a clutch four-minute (drill), overtime…all those types of situations you want to put those guys in, so they know what, what we're running or what our thought processes are in those situations.”
DevilsDigest: So when it comes to Jayden Daniels, what did you see from his development in the spring? How different of a player is he, from the end of the 2020 season to the end of this year’s spring practice?
Zak Hill: “I think he got a whole lot better; I think he's more comfortable within the offense. You can tell we changed up his footwork a little bit in his drops and his stance. He's more comfortable; he looked more comfortable in the pocket, a little bit smoother. He can always get it out quick, and he's got pretty good fundamentals of throwing. But really, it was just his comfort in the offense and comfort in the pocket. I know he really tried to as much as he could stay in the pocket, not have that tendency to want to escape out of it, but that's something he's really good at and is a dynamic that makes it hard on defenses when he does escape and make plays. So there's a fine line.”
DevilsDigest: Was it truly a spring goal, making Daniels more of a pocket passer even though, as you said, he's very proficient making plays on the run?
Zak Hill: “Yeah, that's what we're trying to develop. And that’s where he's gonna need to develop in the NFL, being better with his eyes and a more proficient pocket passer being able to operate from the pocket well. So yes, we do want to get him on the move; you want to have him escape and create and all that stuff because he's good at that. But he was still working on some of the things that he wasn't used to, and that’s where we were trying to go with some of that.”
DevilsDigest: Needless to say that in every offense, it’s paramount for the wide receivers and the quarterback to be on the same page. Now in your system, where the wide receivers really aren't so much locked into a route because they have to read the defensive coverage as they're running downfield, that chemistry aspect is tenfold in an offense, such as yours. So now that you had a more normal spring and overall typical offseason practice routine, do you feel that that chemistry is something that by default has improved between Jayden Daniels and the wide receivers?
Zak Hill: “We definitely improved. Is it where we need it to be yet? Not quite, but we definitely improved, and those receivers are getting a whole lot better, and the quarterbacks are getting on the same page with what we want out of each concept and if there are any route adjustments or signal adjustments, things like that, we're getting better at that within the offense. We got good reps and good experience for us to get through those practices and evaluate and make adjustments and but the wide receiver crew and the quarterback crew, I think are going to be much more efficient much more dynamic in the pass game.”
DevilsDigest: I wanted to touch on the three other quarterbacks and what you've seen from them in the spring: let's start with Trent Bourget. Obviously, coming back as the most experienced guy out of the group, he took many of the no. 2 reps. How would you rate his development throughout the spring?
Zak Hill: “I think he's just such a coach-like player. He's very smart. He knows what to do, and he's very good with the operation, the timing of the motions, the kill plays, all that stuff. You can trust him, as a coach, to go out there, function, and get it done. And he's very accurate; he's got good timing and anticipation with his throws. He completed a high percentage of his passes, which he has done all the way through. We feel really good about him going into a game and getting the ball to the guys. I think our quarterback depth is a lot better than it was last year, and just the experience he has, I thought he did a really good job.”
DevilsDigest: Daylin McLemore, now being a second-year player in the program, what did you see from him in the spring?
Zak Hill: “Daylin got a whole lot better. He was more comfortable within the offense too. He had some shoulder problems, which limited him at the end of the spring practices, where we weren't able to utilize him. I think his understanding of what we're trying to do on each play, and whether it's footwork or drops, he did a much better job than the first time around. He's a bigger kid, that can run a little bit. He still needs to work his lateral quickness, and just some urgency with this his movements, but he threw the ball pretty well.”
DevilsDigest: When it comes to Finn Collins, I heard that he was really creating a buzz in those workouts leading up to spring, even prior to spring practice. And I thought that he truly was a pleasant surprise. I know that he’s a player you’ve known for quite a few years, but were you also pleasantly surprised with his spring performance?
Zak Hill: “He's a kid that can flat out throw, and we saw that out there. He's very accurate, he's got really good arm strength, and he's got a quick release. He can use different arm slots, he can make all the throws, and that was very noticeable on the field throughout spring. Now, with it being the first time running the offense, there's a lot of stuff going on upstairs in his mind, and so that'll slow you down a little bit as a quarterback. But once he gets an opportunity to get through the install again, and through the summer and into Fall camp doing the installs again…I think he's got a huge upside, and he can distribute the ball really well. Once he gets his mental game down, polished up a little bit, I think he's gonna be really, really good.”
DevilsDigest: When it comes to the running game, and what is achieved last year, the saying, ‘here are the keys to the Porsche, don't crash it’ come to mind. When you have such a confident group of returning players, are there still really much to improve or tweak, or are you just really wanting to look to see a continuation from a very formidable 2020 season?
Zak Hill: “I think all those guys, Chip (Trayanum), Rachaad (White) and Daniyel (Ngata) are looking to improve, develop, and they push themselves. Daniyel really had a huge spring as far as getting better in understanding the offense and being more consistent in the run game and pass protection game. So obviously, you know who the top two tier guys are that come out every day, and they do a great job putting in the work. I just can't say enough about all of those guys. And with that group of guys, our run game should be really, really good. Solidifying that O-line and getting them communicating well with a new O-line coach, getting everybody on the same page is important. But I feel really, really good about the running back room.”
DevilsDigest: Speaking of the offensive line and their new coach, Mike Cavanaugh, how do you feel about this unit coming out of spring? I know you have a lot of returning starters, a lot of experienced players. As you said earlier, breaking in a new center is always a challenge, so what are your thoughts about that and just the entire transition to a new position coach?
Zak Hill: “I think Coach Cav does a great, great job. And he's got a wealth of knowledge. He’s a really good technique and footwork type guy, and the guys really responded to him and Iove him. I think he's a great fit for this group and for the offense. I think they're communicating well and on the same page with Coach Cav now, and obviously, Coach Cav is learning a new offense and trying to get on the same page with us, as a coaching staff with new terminology, which is a challenge in itself. So he did a great job learning it. Again, I think the guys really respect him, and I'm excited to see the growth out of that room through the offseason too.”
DevilsDigest: I know that Adam Breneman isn't exactly a brand new position coach in some regards. But now you have a tight ends group being coached by a former All-American tight end, which brings high expectations out of this position. Did you see some early signs in spring practice that this position group can truly take that next step?
Zak Hill: “I think we're getting better and better. Curtis (Hodges) is more consistent. He can be and has the ability to be a big-time player for us, both (blocking) in the run game and being physical, and in the pass game, being a dynamic and a big target for Jayden. We still need some depth in that in that room, but Adam is doing a great job with those guys, the communication, and preparing those guys on a daily basis for the installs and handling of that unit. I think he's a perfect fit, and I really feel good with him being the tight ends coach. I know that group of guys is going to get a whole lot better, and we're going to recruit really well into that position.”
DevilsDigest: In terms of the wide receivers, I know you said earlier that you felt that they are now more on the same page with Jayden, although there is some room for improvement. Nonetheless, did you see this group make the jump that you anticipated to take between the 2020 season and spring of 2021?
Zak Hill: “Yes, I think the group of guys is hungry, and they're competitive. For the most part, they are young and seeing a guy Elijhah Badger finally getting out there and have an opportunity to get some reps and seeing his athleticism…really that whole room, there are eight guys there that we feel really good about on the field of play, so the depth there is really good. We've got some different body types, obviously, with Johnny Wilson out there and some guys with some good speed. So it'll be interesting. We talked about that a little bit as a coaching staff; we're gonna have some issues trying to distribute the ball to all these guys and where these touches are going to. You got the two running backs that are extremely talented and dynamic, and then you've got a wide receiver crew that's very talented, and then Curtis is a good tight end…it's a good problem to have. You're trying to get all these guys the ball and keep them engaged in the offense.”
DevilsDigest: Going into fall camp, is your to-do list both in volume and content, is ultimately what you expected it to be as far as everything that needed to be accomplished at this point of the preseason?
Zak Hill: “Yeah, I feel good about our development right now as an offense and what we got done in spring. And then you're adding a few other guys in the summer in June with (wide receiver) Bryan Thompson, some young offensive linemen like Ezra Dotson-Oyetade at center who hopefully he can pick it up quickly and help the O-line out. (offensive linemen )Austin Barry, and (wide receiver) Junior Alexander. We are going to see what they can do in the Fall, and obviously, Bryan Thompson will be a big impact player for us. We expect him to come in and do big things.”
(Mac Friday contributed to this article)
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