Editor’s note: Over the next two weeks, the Star will profile the four new Arizona football assistants who haven’t met with the local media. Today: defensive line coach Stan Eggen.
Stan Eggen has reached the point in his coaching career where working with “the right people” is the most important consideration.
It’s no secret that the Arizona Wildcats are rebuilding. They’re 9-15 in two seasons under Kevin Sumlin, who made reconstructing the UA defensive staff his No. 1 offseason project.
Sumlin’s first step came in December, when he hired defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads. Sumlin worked with Rhoads to assemble the rest of the staff.
A little over two weeks later, Arizona hired Eggen. It wasn’t by chance.
Eggen worked under Rhoads during his final two seasons as the head coach at Iowa State. The two also were part of the same staff at Utah State in 1989 and ’90. Rhoads was just starting his coaching career as a graduate assistant; Eggen was the recruiting coordinator and inside linebackers coach.
Eggen said their relationship played a “huge” role in his coming to Arizona after spending the previous four years at New Mexico. Eggen, Rhoads and first-year outside linebackers coach Andy Buh even lived together for a while in Tucson.
Arizona is Eggen’s 16th stop in a coaching career that spans more than 40 years. Eggen, 67, has tutored several players who went on to play in the NFL, including three-time All-Pro Von Miller of the Denver Broncos.
Rhoads, Miller and working during the coronavirus pandemic were among several topics Eggen discussed in a recent video chat with the Star. The conversation has been lightly edited for context and clarity.
How would you describe Paul Rhoads’ coaching and leadership style?
A: “I would say hands on, very detailed, organized. Has a plan. Understands what he’s looking for. I have tremendous respect for him. Disciplined. Expects players to play hard and be tough.”
You seem like a hands-on coach too. How hard has it been to coach your players without being able to interact with them in person?
A: “Obviously, it’s been very different. It’s a challenge. All of us have had to improvise, adjust and not overreact. I think we’ve done that. I’ve been very pleased with our guys’ attention.
“Even though we don’t have the ability to improve on the field together, through our Zoom meetings and being able to watch video and communicate … having time to talk to them individually and as a group. It’s been good. It’s not ideal, because I’d rather have them in a room with me. But it’s been very pleasing to see the development.
“We communicate. We keep our mics open so that I can ask them questions. I do my meetings, typically, in our meeting room, so I’ve got the video and I’ve got the whiteboard available. I don’t know if that helps them any, but it helps me.”
How well do you feel like you’ve gotten to know their personalities?
A: “As well as can be expected. I like to have some fun in there. I’ve always said I like to coach characters that have character, that have a little personality.
“It’s a little different because it’s not face to face. I want them to keep their video open so that I can see the feedback.
“To be a good or great listener, being coachable … you don’t just listen with your ears — you listen with your eyes and ears. I like to communicate that way.
“My expectations are for them to pay attention, to be locked in and to be as close to being in a meeting as we can be. This is the best that we can do. Let’s make the best out of it.”
What is the role of the interior defensive linemen in this scheme? What are their responsibilities?
A: “We’re gonna be aggressive, first of all. We’re gonna hopefully be great technicians and be accountable to our defense, and then have the ability to cut it loose and go make plays.
“Paul and I have been together (at) a couple different stops. I think he’s got confidence that the D-linemen are going to be where they’re supposed to be … yet also be able to play off a block and go make a play, not just be robots. I don’t like that, and that’s why I feel comfortable working with Paul; he doesn’t want robots.”
“We’re not just out there to fill a gap. We’ve got to be in our gap, our eyes need to be there and we need to control it. Now let’s go make a play.
“Players generally enjoy that structure. My personality kind of brings out playing aggressive and having some emotion.”
What do you think you were able to get done in those four practices before spring sports got shut down?
A: “Hopefully we showed them what our expectations are. … Obviously, we didn’t get enough time to really put it all together. But I think now through meetings, they’re seeing what we started installing as a defense.
“I think they understand that I’m demanding. I want them to understand there’s a sense of urgency to whatever it is, whether it’s a drill, whether they’re on the sideline, paying attention to what’s going on. All of that helps them in preparation to be the best they can be on Saturday evenings when we’re on.”
You had background with one player, grad transfer Aaron Blackwell, who played for you at New Mexico. What does he bring to the table if he’s healthy?
A: “He’s coming off an injury (torn ACL suffered in August 2019), so he was not able to do as much; he was still gaining confidence, and the training staff was finding out exactly where he was in the rehab process. But his understanding of knowing me will help as this thing continues. He’ll (bring) a toughness, a physical presence and a good knowledge and understanding of what we expect as a defense.
“I’m excited about his ability to help us not only on the field but off the field and help the other players (in) knowing what my expectations are. Sometimes they’ll look at me and think I’ve got 10 heads. He can get them to understand what the message is. Not necessarily the delivery, but the message.”
How many linemen would you like to have as part of the rotation in a game?
A: “At least six. But I’m hoping we get seven or eight. I don’t know if that’ll be the first game or not.
“It’s not just about the fourth quarter of the game, but I talk about depth helping you in the fourth quarter of the season. I learned this a long time ago, especially with D-line.
“You feel good when you’ve only got a 330-pound guy (going against you), because a lot of them are going to have 650 or more pounds on ’em at the snap, two guys punching ’em. You do that for 60-70 snaps, it’s gonna take its toll physically and mentally.”
You have coached several NFL players in the past. What is the key to finding those types of guys?
A: “The biggest thing, and I talk to this in recruiting, it’s not wanting it or having the ability — it’s the willingness to work hard enough to maximize what you’ve been blessed with. The two words I use are ‘hungry’ and ‘humble.’ If you stay hungry and you’re humble, then this thing can be good.
“Most of them, in the end, realized this is really what they wanted to do. And when they found that out, it wasn’t about game day. I always chuckle about these guys that come in sometimes from different places (and say), ‘I’m a gamer, Coach.’ Stop right there. There are no gamers.
“These guys in the NFL, they understood that practice reps were important. And once they realize they can get better every day, and if you have a good attitude about it, it’s easier. Nothing’s easy, but it’s easier.”
Did you recognize many of those traits you just described in Von Miller at Texas A&M?
A: “Von was unique. He was 212 pounds (as a recruit). But a great young man. When it was ready to go, he was ready, but he was learning as a freshman a little bit in terms of what it took to play at the next level.
“You never know how (a) guy’s gonna turn out, You don’t look at him in high school and say, ‘This guy’s gonna be a great.’ He had ability. He was a twitchy guy. You could see it was important to him.
“Von obviously had some physical traits … yet was still what a lot of people would call a ‘tweener.’ I felt like he could get big enough. I didn’t know how big, how good, but he had enough and he competed.”
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