TERRE HAUTE —
It’s hard to believe, but Mike Sanford has already been Indiana State’s football coach for six months.
Time flies, but Sanford’s task of preparing for his first season in charge of the Sycamores comes with few breaks.
He jumped into recruiting straight away after being hired in December and signed a solid class in February. Spring football soon beckoned, followed by spring recruiting.
Sanford will conduct his skills and youth camps in June and made time to sit down and talk with the Tribune-Star about his whirlwind six months in command so far. Here’s the highlights of a question-and-answer session conducted at Sanford’s office last Tuesday:
Golden: Looking back at the spring, when you had a chance to truly evaluate off of film and practices, what conclusions did you come to? Were any of the position battles you were looking at resolved? What did you cull from the spring?
Sanford: The first thing is that I’m very excited about our team. I loved our attitude. I love the way our guys went about things. When we had bad weather, we had some cold, snowy days, we had one day that was a monsoon rainstorm. We practiced right through it. We had one day where we had thunderstorms, had to go inside and we came out later and finished practice really well. I’m excited about our ability to deal with distractions and adversity.
I think our team loves football. I like that about the team. They love to play. I know that probably sounds like, ‘all college football players are supposed to love the game.’ On a football team, there’s a percentage who love the game and there’s some who don’t love it as much. I think the percentage of guys who love the game is really high.”
Editor’s note: Sanford then spoke in detail about each unit on ISU’s offense, defense and special teams.
• Quarterback — I think from a specific standpoint, and I think the thing that is most interesting to fans, is the quarterback position. We came out of spring, I think, with the two main guys, [Mike] Perish and [Robert] Tonyan, that we’re very excited about. They’re both going to play. We won’t determine a starter until training camp, but we found out a whole lot about what they can do and what their strengths and weaknesses are and how we want to utilize them.
Trent Lancaster, our local guy, I think he really got better and better as the spring went on. He put himself in a position to be a very legitimate third quarterback. A guy we’d have confidence putting in the game.
• Offensive line — It was great to have FN Lutz the whole spring, that he stayed healthy. I think we’re really solid inside [on the offensive line], but we need to develop our tackles on offense. I think we’re inexperienced and we’re a work-in-progress at tackle.
• Tight end — We found a very exciting player in Jamar Brown at tight end. He was a walk-on who was a partial qualifier that we didn’t know much about, but we put him on scholarship after spring. He did a great job and I think he has a bright future. [Garrick] Dikos will be a very good player. There were things to do here because [Michael] Mardis was a really good player.
• Running back — I feel really good about our running back position. It’s obvious about Shakir [Bell]. He did well this spring. Obviously, we didn’t hit him much and he didn’t do much in contact situations, but I really think we’re strong at that position. We moved Taje High back to running back, he had a good spring at running back, and George Cheeseborough is a really good player back there. Austen Wozniak as a fullback is a strength coming back as an All-Conference player.
• Wide receivers — We’re going to continue to look at and improve the wide receiver position. If I was to look at a concern on offense, it’s tackle and wide receiver. I think it’s great to have Kyani Harris, from San Francisco Community College, here this summer as he signed. He’ll add a lot. I can’t speak about them now, but we’ll have some other additions at receiver that we’re recruiting.
• Defensive line — I really like our defensive line. They play hard and they play fast. Russell Jones and Tyler Boyd, I feel really good about them. We have a lot of guys, but those are two seniors I feel good about. Connor Underwood is a really good outside linebacker/defensive end type of guy whose destined for big things. Conrad Nicholls did a lot of good things. We have a good group.
• Linebackers — We’ve got to continue to develop it. It’s a work in progress. We knew going in, you all knew going in, the fans knew going in that that was a position we were losing experienced players from. They improved this spring. I think the addition of T.J. Tuuu, the junior college transfer from Monterey Peninsula was a plus, and we’ll have a couple of additions.
• Secondary — We’re really strong at safety. We feel very good about them. Larry King, Donovan Layne, Mark Sewall — who didn’t get to practice in the spring, but he’s got the full go-ahead for summer. At corner, Calvin Burnett had an excellent spring, I feel really good about him. Alex Stowers was a walk-on who earned a scholarship during spring.
But that other corner position is wide open. There’s a chance we might have an addition there too to compete at the position.
• Special teams — We have a major concern at punter. We signed a guy in February [Rhys Felton] and its turned out he’s ineligible, so we’ll be adding a punter. At kicker, Tanner Fritschle had a good spring, but Eric Heidorn finished off well. We’ll have a little bit of competition at kicker. We’ll have someone completely new at punter. The return game? That’s to be determined.
Golden: I know you can’t speak about the guys you intend to bring in, but what’s your philosophy on that? Are you looking at Division I transfers? JUCOs?
Sanford: Yes. (Sanford laughed).
Golden: I kind of figured …
Sanford: Yes to both. The one thing I’ve seen that is a big difference — I’ve done everything I can to be learn and be on the cutting edge of FCS football — I think part of that is that recruiting is different. You have the group you sign in February, but you keep recruiting. We’re going to continue to keep recruiting. We’ll be aggressive in JC transfers. We’ll get the right kind of people. And we’re also looking at four-year transfers.
Now, philosophically? We start in Indiana, then we go to the surrounding states as our recruiting base. Then we go outside of that to JC transfers and four-year transfer. We’re not basing it on JC and four-year transfers. We have a philosophy, a basis and a starting point. We’ll fill holes with JC and four-year transfers.
Golden: Are there any experienced players that aren’t going to be back?
Sanford: As of right now, I don’t have anyone to bring you up-to-date on. This sounds like a cop-out, but I’ll know more about that when we start training camp.
Golden: When training camp starts, what’s an overriding theme you want the team to achieve and grasp?
Sanford: I think the first thing is that we need to know exactly what our goals are and go to those goals. I’ve set those up and been clear about what those are: Win the conference, go to the playoffs and win a national championship. That’s where this program is going. I don’t when, but that’s where it’s going.
The second thing is learning. Because of the fact we have a lot of young players, and they’re in the process of learning a new system, we have to learn this system cold so we don’t have to think too much. If we have to think too much, we won’t be successful.
The third thing is we need to come together as a team. I think there’s a whole process during training camp where the team needs to come together. I can’t be 11 different guys that don’t care about each other. They have to develop some team camaraderie. Teams that are able to become that have a chance to become really good.
Golden: Have you had a chance to evaluate the other teams in the conference yet?
Sanford: Up until now, we spent most of our time evaluating our own team and making additions. We’ve just gone in after spring recruiting and transition to looking at our opponents. We’re doing that now.
This week and next week — mixed in with our camps that are going on — we’re working on opponents. We’re actually watching tape and breaking them down and getting a feel for them. We’re a ways away from being where we want to be.
Golden: Indiana and Purdue right off the bat. Obviously, they are attention-getting games and difficult opponents. What does it mean to be playing high-profile games as your first two games?
Sanford: I think it’s exciting for our players. We look at those two games as an opportunity to play two good Big Ten teams. Those guys were highly-recruited and our guys weren’t recruited by. I think it’s an opportunity for us to gain some respect. It’s tough to start off with two Big Ten-level opponents, but it’s exciting.