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Josh Heupel Q&A
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Football Talk with OU's co-offensive coordinator
It’s hard to believe Josh Heupel turned 36 years old earlier this year. Seems like only yesterday when he was a steel-willed, baby-faced quarterback leading Oklahoma to a perfect 13-0 record and the 2000 national championship.
While 13 seasons have come and gone since that magical title run, Heupel is still playing a key role in the OU offense and working hard to help bring another crystal ball back to Norman.
The Sooners may very well have the talent and depth to make that happen this fall. And maybe even more importantly, a tidal wave of momentum to help their cause thanks to a memorable 2013 stretch run that saw them beat Kansas State and Oklahoma State on the road and then topple Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
In only his third season as OU’s co-offensive coordinator, Heupel may have saved his best coaching for those last three games — using three different quarterbacks and vastly different game plans each time to produce three critical victories.
“Coach Heupel develops a great culture in that room of those (quarterbacks) supporting one another. It’s evidenced by last season when we needed a couple of guys to go in there and win (games),” said OU head coach Bob Stoops.
“You have to give Coach Heupel and our offensive staff a lot of credit for the way they handled everything last season. With the injuries to some key guys and the difficult stretch we faced there at the end, they really did a great job of adjusting the game plans and getting our players to rise to the situation.”
Sooner Spectator recently caught up with Coach Heupel between recruiting trips and the non-stop mania of college football’s offseason.
Sooner Spectator: What type of things do you work on during the offseason when you don’t necessarily have access to the players?
Josh Heupel: Obviously, recruiting is something you are doing every day. Over the last few years, the recruiting cycle has dramatically changed, especially when you look at the number of kids you are working with based on the number of years you are recruiting at one time. So that part of the job is something you are constantly working on. During the offseason, depending on the time of the year, you’re working on installation and you’re looking at your personnel. After the season, you evaluate what you did and identify the things you can do better. You look at schemes you might want to rethink and others that you might want to add, a lot of which is based on what you did well and didn’t do well, as well as on the personnel you believe you have coming back for the next season.
SS: Going into your fourth season as co-offensive coordinator, what have you found to be the favorite
aspect of your job?
Heupel: I think the greatest thing about my job is the ability impact and communicate with the players in our program. You are trying to push those young men toward excellence every single day, get them to communicate with each other and work well together as a whole. Seeing the culmination of those efforts and how it projects to their performance on the field is pretty special. That’s one of the great things about college football — every Saturday, you walk off the field at the end of the game and you were either good enough or you weren’t. It’s pretty black and white in that regard. So there’s a new measuring stick basically every week and challenges to make your program better, especially where those players are concerned.
SS: When you talk about relating to players and finding ways to communicate, do you still find yourself tapping into the experiences you had as a player and applying that knowledge?
Heupel: I think it’s pretty natural to go back to some of the things you experienced as a player, things that happened on the football field and within the program when I was playing. It’s a unique perspective for me, having been here at Oklahoma as a player, knowing the history and sharing some of the same experiences that our current players are going through. I talk about some of the things I experienced here when I was in their shoes and I feel that can be helpful at times. But at the same time, today’s players are growing up and playing in a whole different era. They are in a 24-hour news cycle and everything they do is under a microscope, especially where social media is concerned. So there are things that young kids are facing today that we never really worried about when I was playing.
SS: You mentioned social media and how big it has become. Is managing that type of thing one of the most challenging aspects of your job?
Heupel: It really is. You have to make them understand the kind of impact it can have on their lives and the program as a whole, especially in negative terms. Teach them to make smart choices and to realize that a lot of people are watching everything they say and do. The same people who may be patting you on the back on Twitter or Facebook for something good you did this week, may be the same folks who respond in a totally different way to something you do the following game.
SS: How important is your collaboration with Jay Norvell and the way the two of you work and scheme and prepare a game plan every week — and then execute those plans during the game?
Heupel: Really, not a lot has changed in how we do things here over the last few years, going back to Mike Leach and Mark Mangino and Chuck (Long) and Kevin (Wilson). It’s never just one guy who does it or calls all the shots. Ultimately, it’s a staff effort, Coach Norvell and myself and all of us working together to try to put our kids in the best position to be successful. We’re going to disagree on some things at times, that’s only natural. But at the end of the day, we work hard to make sure we are on the same page in every single thing we do. That’s the only way you are going to give your players the best opportunity to play at the highest level possible.
SS: With college football always evolving, how important is it for you to continue to learn and grow as a coach?
Heupel: I think if you ever stop learning and growing in whatever profession you do, your chances of failing are going to go way up. As a coach, I feel like it’s important to continue to find new and better ways to communicate to your players, find a better game plan, find ways to put certain players in a better position to succeed. The game is always moving forward and if you don’t work to stay ahead of it, it will pass you by. Everyone in this program here at the University of Oklahoma is striving for excellence every single day, and to do that, you are constantly finding ways to grow and improve yourself.
SS: Is having so many options at quarterback a good thing?
Heupel: Honestly, the strength of that position is never about one guy. It’s about the entire room and the healthy competition within that room, as well as the leadership they provide. At this point, we have four talented guys in that room, with Trevor (Knight) being the veteran, having worked in the system for two years and earned the playing time he did last season. But every quarterback we have is learning and growing every day. It’s an ongoing process and I love going to work with all four of them because each of them is passionate about the game, they work extremely hard and they are invested in the program. They each have the character we look for to be leaders within our football program. The key for each of them is to work and prepare to be ready if and when the opportunity to play presents itself.
SS: The world is still talking about Trevor’s performance in the Sugar Bowl. Did playing so well against Alabama create unrealistic expectations for him as he starts this season?
Heupel: When Trevor got the opportunity to come back after his early injury last season and play, he did so at a really high level — against Iowa State, Kansas State, at Oklahoma State to the bowl game. We believed he had a chance to play that way at the beginning of last season. That’s why he was the starter. Did he play that way early? No. There were things he could have done better. But a lot of that was just him needing to grow and mature as a young quarterback stepping into that role. Now that he has experience under his belt and played at a high level the way he did, especially in the bowl game, we believe he will only continue to get better. One of the keys, of course, will be getting the other 10 guys around him to continue to play as well as they did in the Sugar Bowl, too. We’re extremely excited about Trevor and what he brings to our offense.
SS: After sharing quarterback duties with Trevor last season, Blake Bell has decided to move to tight end and help strengthen that position. What does that say about him that he’s willing to make a move like that?
Heupel: It should tell you everything about his character and what type of player and individual he is. Blake is very unselfish and just the ultimate team player. It was fun watching Blake and Trevor compete against each other and push each other last season, and I think it helped make both of them better players. I think Trevor would be the first to tell you that. When you look at how Blake has stepped into different situations when we’ve asked him to and how he has performed — it shows what he is made of, whether it was as the backup to Landry in the Belldozer package, as the starter last season or even coming off the bench like he did a few times. I know he wants to finish his career at OU with a championship and it’s obvious Blake is willing to do whatever it takes to help make that happen.
SS: Do you think he’ll do well at tight end?
Heupel: No doubt about it. He had a great spring before his knee got banged up a little. People didn’t get a chance to see him in the Red-White Game because of that, but he’s back and healthy and anxious to prove what he can do at that position. We have full confidence in his ability to make an impact for us there this fall.
SS: You lost a few key pieces but have a talented nucleus returning in 2014, which has to have you excited about the possibilities involving this offense?
Heupel: One of the great things about college football is you never get all of your key players back. It ‘s one of the tough things, too. There is constant turnover and as coaches, you are always working to find the right guys to fill those holes. We do have some really good players coming back, starting with Trevor, Blake, Sterling Shepard and several guys up front. And we’ve got some great competition for several other key spots, which is always a lot of fun to watch. This is the best time of the year once you get into the summer time because there is a lot of great energy inside the locker room. Guys are pushing each other and building toward fall camp. Our goal, as always, is to play for a championship and we are excited about the possibilities and challenges that lie in front of us.
(Editor's Note: This interview appears in the 2014 Football Preview Issue from Sooner Spectator - to subscribe, call 405-850-9063)