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Transcript: Conference call with Washington State defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys

Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys speaks during a news conference for the 2016 Holiday Bowl in San Diego. (Gregory Bull / AP)

New Washington State defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys held a 15-minute conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon – his first media availability since being announced by the Cougars last week. Claeys spoke about how he spent his year away from the game, what he plans on doing with WSU’s defense and his first impressions of Mike Leach.

Below is a full transcript of the teleconference.

What were you doing during your year off and do you miss being around the game

Oh yeah. Every day, when you do it this long, you miss being around the players and the staff and the interactions and that. But I will say that I hadn’t been home – I moved back to Clay Center, Kansas, and I hadn’t been home for more than 20 years for just a few days at a time. And so I had a great time catching up with my family. Me and mom went to yard sales about every weekend and auctions and found things to do. I had a chance to do bank lines again on the river, which is something that was illegal in Minnesota. Me and my brother got into a few cattle. Obviously a much slower-paced life, but it was a great time to catch up with my family.

When did the opportunity to coach at WSU present itself?

I’d have to say it was – whenever it first started to break about Alex possibly leaving. Shortly after that, I got a message to give coach Leach a call and we talked just to see interest both ways and what he was looking for. So I don’t know the exact day or that, but it was shortly after it first broke that there was a possibility Alex was leaving.

Did the 2016 Holiday Bowl help your case and strengthen your relationship with coach Leach?

Yeah, I do think it started a good relationship. And coach Phelps came up here and coached the defensive line and I think coach Leach was pretty pleased with the way he did things. So that’s another connection on it. But obviously breaking down our teams and seeing our teams play, so I don’t think there’s any doubt that relationship helped.

Will you run your typical 4-3 defense with multiple looks or are you going to have a 3-4 option?

Well, not all the specifics but the staff, we’re all doing recruiting now and haven’t had a chance to sit down. I will tell you that there’s a place for both. At different times during games or different opponents and we’ve done both where I’ve been in the past and so I think we can piece that together. The one thing I’m going to do and I told coach Leach, is I’m going to learn their terminology and fit the things I know into their terminology. And that way the kids and the staff that are here, they don’t have to re-learn everything. But I am a big believer in, I don’t like to try to take a square peg and put it into a round hole. We get to spring ball and we know what we have and find out what our kids do best and whatever that is, that’s how we’ll line up and play on Saturday.

Will you also coach a position here at WSU?

Yeah, I probably will. Again, that’s not finalized yet until we get everybody here, but actually my first year I did linebackers at Saginaw Valley State, then I went to the D-line for a few years. But being a coordinator the last 10-12 years, I still have been – I like to be involved in the secondary with the way everybody spreads the field and the things they’re doing with formations and motions and the hurry-up. So I feel comfortable filling in wherever needed, so we’ll play out the staff strings no different than the players and then I’ll fill in.

How nice it is to come to a team with young playmakers and what is it like to reconnect with Jeff Phelps?

To be back with coach Phelps means a lot to me. I trust him with my life. We hired him at Northern Illinois and we’re good friends and he’s a great coach. He had a lot of influence on my decision to come here as much as I’m sure he had on coach Leach to offer it. The players, there’s no question, I’ve got some young, athletic kids. I haven’t had a chance to be around them much and get to know them personally, but I will. But I would take young, athletic defensive kids coming back over older, slower guys any day.

You spoke about learning the terminology … are you going to run a system similar to what coach Grinch ran last year?

Well, they ran a lot of quarters and they ran some man, so there’s a lot of things in the secondary they did the same. Whether it’s 3-4 or 4-3, the secondary was all pretty similar. So all of that, and any of the blitzes we have that was in his system, whatever names that are already there, we’re going to use them. And I’m going to change and we’re going to add in terminology. Then obviously, there’ll be a piece of it of things that I like to do or are comfortable doing that I think will fit some kids. So there will be some new terminology, but there won’t be a lot. But you have to be who you are and you can’t be somebody else. So we’re going to do things that I’m comfortable with and I feel like fit our players and give them the best chance to win on Saturday. But as soon as everybody goes one back on offense, you line up, everybody lines up pretty similar for the most part. And so all of that will be common.

You spent all of your career in the Midwest. What are some of the challenges that come with going to the west coast?

Well, so far the weather’s a lot better so that’s an easier adjustment. And recruiting is about relationships and the one thing it will do is it’ll be something new and open up a few more doors. These first couple years, I’m going to have to work at it and whatever areas that I’m in, it will take some time to establish some relationships. But where we’ve been, we’ve had a good name and I don’t worry about it. As long as you’re willing to work hard, there’s plenty of kids out there and it’s just about getting those relationships established. The other thing is this time zone. I’m ready to go at 5 in the morning now and everyone else is still in bed. At the same time, by 8:30 at night I’m kind of worn out right now, so it’d be interesting to see how long it takes my body to adjust.

Did you have any say in hiring the defensive staff?

All the staff hasn’t been established just yet, so we need to get that finished. But Darcel McBath, that was decided before I got here.

The situation before the 2016 Holiday Bowl (player boycott) was probably messier than you would’ve liked. In hindsight, how do you look back at that situation?

I put out a response thing awhile ago to the media and that. A little piece on leadership and that. That’s all been printed, I don’t have anything to add to what’s in there. So I think the best way is to go back and check that out and I’ll stick with that response.

Your predecessor put a lot of emphasis on turnovers. How do you view turnovers?

Well, I think that’s important. There’s no question we’re going to go after the turnovers, but at the same time I don’t want to be a bad defense that’s going to rely on just the other team turning the ball over all the time. I look at them more as takeaways, we’re going to go to and take the thing away from them. And you’ve got to have those. Overall, there’s three or four stats that if you looked at, the top defenses in the country do every year. The most important one, bottom line, is scoring defense. You defend every inch, they don’t get any points or get into the end zone. You win ballgames with low-scoring defense, but the takeaway part helps. The tackles-for-loss is a big part along with sacks. But third-down defense, you’ve got to play well on third downs. So you combine all those together, then you’re going to have a good defense that gives you a chance to win the ballgame.

When you look at the WSU program, what did you see?

Well about every time I’ve been with coach Kill and we’ve moved, it’s been a rebuilding process. And so I was excited about the chance to get into something where the groundwork’s already been done and it’s moving forward. So, with the players that are coming back, that was really exciting to me. And the Pac-12, I think it’s a wide-open conference and I’m excited to be a part of that.

What were your initial impressions of Mike Leach and what have you learned about him since taking the job?

I’ll tell you what, he’s an awfully good, genuine person. I enjoyed meeting with him. He’s very similar as far as being genuine and all that to the guy I worked for, coach Kill. And then football-wise, you talk football and he’s extremely intelligent. What he does, I can tell you from preparing in the bowl game, it’s extremely difficult to prepare for. Where I’ve been before, where we’ve been, we’ve run the ball a lot more and if you get too far behind, you’re going to have trouble winning. So I’m excited to be a part of somebody that I think is on the cutting edge of what football has become today and he’s one of the first ones to start doing it. So I look forward to being a part of that. Besides that, I really hadn’t met coach Leach before last year’s Holiday Bowl, but he treated me very well. And like I said, we started a relationship there and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.

How do you think your short time of being a head coach helps you in this new role?

He hired me to run the defense and I know he likes to coach the offense and that. I think having that control of the defense and already being a head coach will no question will help out down the line with just the different experiences I went through and dealing with kids.

Did you receive any other interest from other schools?

I had some other opportunities, I’m not going to get specific about them, but yeah I had some other opportunities. But after being contacted by coach Leach there was no doubt that this was my first priority,

Have you had any opportunity to watch film on the 2018 recruiting class?

Yeah, I did. I’ve been through it and watched their videos and that. There’s some athletic kids there, they can run and they play hard and they like football, so I think they’ve done a good job of really finding kids that will continue to make us better on the defensive side of the ball.

Where can WSU’s defense improve heading into next season?

Well, from a stats number, probably the red zone defense. That’s the one. And it’s simple, a lot of things are simple ideas – if you make teams at least kick field goals when they’re in the red zone, it gives you an opportunity to win in the fourth quarter. Of all the stats, that’s probably the one that stuck out to me, that can use the most improvement. We need to play better in the red zone. That’s where we’ll practice a lot.