MOSCOW, Idaho – The transition from NFL veteran to college assistant coach wasn’t hard. Neither are the 18-hour days during fall camp. Ashley Ambrose loves football too much to consider any part of his job as Idaho cornerbacks coach a grind.
There is one thing about coaching that eats at him, though. Just one thing he keeps coming back to.
“I wish I could get out there and play with them,” Ambrose said. “That’s the only struggle. I come out to practice and I’m like, ‘Man.’ There are days I sit in there and talk in meetings and stuff and I say, ‘Y’all just don’t understand. If I had the opportunity to do it again, I’d do it.’”
It’s been a decade since Ambrose, 43, last played in the NFL. The former All-Pro cornerback still looks fit enough to get back in the game when he glides from one side of the Vandals’ defense to the other during practice.
But he has other goals in mind now, like helping boost the confidence and performance of Idaho’s cornerbacks – long a position that’s been picked on by opponents – and lifting a program that’s endured double-digit losing seasons the last three years.
“A lot of these guys still have the bitter taste of winning just one game last year, and they want to prove that we won’t be the laughingstock of the Sun Belt Conference,” Ambrose said.
Ambrose played for the Bengals, Colts, Falcons and Saints over 13 seasons. He ended his career after failing to make the Chiefs’ roster in 2005, and he began coaching as an intern for the Falcons in ’06.
That was one year before Idaho coach Paul Petrino joined his brother, Bobby, as a coach in Atlanta. Ambrose didn’t know the Petrinos back then, but he knew of them – and he later discovered that Paul lived in the same Atlanta neighborhood where he still owns a home.
He spent last season as a minority intern with the Saints and was a position coach at Cal and Colorado the five years before that.
After building his coaching resume at big-conference schools and in the NFL, how did he land in Moscow? It all boils down to Petrino.
“I’ve always thought he was a winner,” Ambrose said.
“(I) knew he was a great coach. When I (saw) this opportunity to come up here, I got on the horn right away and said, ‘I’d love to be with that guy.’ ”
Ambrose called Petrino to express an interest in working for him after UI lost assistant Mike Mickens to Bowling Green. He joined the team as spring camp started, and his impact was quickly felt.
“I think we got a lot better in the spring,” Petrino said of the secondary. “I think Coach Ambrose did a real good job with the corners. Jayshawn (Jordan) played better than he has in the past. Delency (Parham) improved.”
The Vandals’ pass defense has ranked near the bottom in the FBS for years, even when they had a brief run of success under Robb Akey in ’09 and ’10.
Part of the problem has been an anemic pass rush that allows opposing quarterbacks to take their time finding an open receiver, but part of it has also been a struggle to develop skilled cover corners and safeties.
Solomon Dixon, the team’s best cover corner, left after last year. And Dennis Rufus, a JC cornerback expected to contribute, is unlikely to join UI after signing in February. Still, Petrino hopes to play more nickel and dime coverage – something the team didn’t do much of last year – because he has a deeper stock of capable defensive backs.
The key, Ambrose said, is to instill confidence in his players.
“The thing about this position,” Ambrose said, “you have to be a confident player, regardless if you get beat or not. You have to always have that confidence that you think, ‘You know what? I might have got beat for six touchdowns, but with the game on the line, I’m going to win it.’
“If you can maintain that throughout a full game, throughout a full season,” he said, “you can be a great football player, a great corner.”
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