New Orleans Saints
Running Backs Coach Joel Thomas
Video Call with New Orleans Media
Monday, June 15, 2020
I know the coaching staff has been working remotely this offseason, what have been some of the challenges that you've been finding considering the position group you work with?
"Well, you've got everybody on both sides of the country first of all. So you've got to make sure the time works and then for the guys on the West Coast, if we're going at 9:00 then, hey, we're going at 7:00. Honestly, they've been great about it whether it's East Coast, West Coast. Obviously, guys have their workout schedule, things like that and everybody has been pretty much working hand-in-hand with that stuff. I've got stuff going on at the house here (even), so (for example) one day the internet got cut out and you've got to figure out where to go to do that. But other than that, I would say given the fact that we really do not have a test, a baseline for what we are doing here, it has run pretty smoothly."
You talked about the guys being scattered all over the place, your group is still a pretty veteran group. Alvin (Kamara) has been here, Latavius (Murray) is coming off a year here, but he's been around the league a while, even Ty Montgomery is a guy that's been around the league for a while. Does that help knowing that you have guys that are out there doing the work on their own and you don't have to watch them as hard?
"Absolutely. Really up until when our OTA phase two is going to start, they're going to be on their own anyway so we're really away from each other for about a month, maybe a little bit more. They're pros, it's their job, especially with the two guys that have the most experience in the room with our organization. You stay in touch with them and they're doing the right things as far as working out, they know how to take care of their diets and follow the plan. Now you throw in like Dwayne, this is his second offseason going with us, Taquan Mizzell, this is his first offseason going with us, (Michael) Burton, this is his second, but he was not with us the whole year. So you have those vets at the top and you throw in Ty Montgomery who's been around a couple teams and teaching him our language. Those are the things that need to be caught up here as soon as we can all get together here in July hopefully, but they have all been on point. I got a text from a couple of them today (saying), 'can we go at this time just so we can review some things?' Like I said, I have got a really solid, high character group that I love working with."
Talking about some of those veteran guys like Kamara and Murray, what have your conversations been like with them and what are your expectations for them this year?
"With those two guys, it's not so much teaching the playbook like I am with some of the other guys. It's more so of, alright, here's where we've got to tweak, do whatever we have to do to keep polishing our game up that maybe we lose some of those reps during the OTAs. That really starts back at the beginning of the offseason when we review the film and look at the things that we did well and the things that we need to correct and get a little better so we can be a better offense."
Ty Montgomery has displayed a versatile skillset throughout his career, how do you see him fitting into the offense?
"I'm a fan of Ty Montgomery, yes he's on our team, but I was (familiar with him) before he got here just because he can do everything that is required within our playbook. Obviously, he has a route running skillset that he had in college at Stanford. I coached against him when I was at Washington and he was at Stanford so I was very familiar with him as he came into the league, but he's got the ability to run routes. When you look back at it, he has only been a running back for five seasons so that is where I see the piece of putty we can hopefully mold into what we want him to be within our offense. I love the versatility out of the backfield. We can line him up in empty. We can put him back there as a single back seven-yards deep. I don't think he's gonna be put in a single position and that's what he does. He's along the lines of maybe a (Travaris) Cadet, maybe a little better running body just because he's 220 pounds. Pierre Thomas, obviously Pierre didn't have all the route skills coming out of college, but (he was) a solid running back. The meetings I've had with him, he is smart, obviously Stanford educated, but he's smart, very coachable, I like what he's bringing to the table as far as what we've got with this signing."
If Erik McCoy is able transition to guard, what would getting his athleticism at that position do for the running game and the screen game?
"I love Erik McCoy. I think the guy missed a couple snaps during the whole course of the season so I know he's dependable, he's tough and if that's the case and he does end up playing guard I think you're going to get a physical mauler at that spot that's got a year under his belt. He's not going to be thrown into the fire as far as being a first time out there playing a new position. I think he's going to be okay. As far as the screen game, he's got athleticism where he can get out in space and make some adjustments which is exciting. Obviously, in the screen game though, it's an all-encompassing package. It's not just one person that's going to make this thing go. We've got to do a great job as far as our timing, understand the player in front of us as far getting out in space and understand his techniques as well."
Alvin (Kamara) sometimes will post a video of his workouts and it looks like they're kind of outside the box. I was curious on your thoughts on some of the things he does during the offseason to kind of prepare himself.
"I think what he does as far as some of the training, it's things that push him that maybe a normal player couldn't do or maybe do to that level. I always likin him to where he's kind of a cat, where he's always landing on his feet. He's always trying to find ways to tweak and find a way to be cutting edge, yet it's something that's going to make him and our offense better. I enjoy getting the videos and all that stuff every once and a while of all the things that he's doing to stay on that level. Now, obviously, the coaching is like, ah, let's be smart now about what you're doing, but he's a guy that knows the limits, where to push them and when to back it off as well."
(Alvin Kamara) has eluded a few times to how much pain he was in last year playing. Just just being able to watch that and seeing what he went through, does anybody have any idea of kind of what he went through to play every week?
"No. He's the one that knows exactly what he went through, but I know this, he wasn't 100 percent the entire season. There was a point to where, whether it was a back, a knee, an ankle, whatever it was, he battled through it the best that he could. I know at times people took it as something else, but the guy is an ultimate competitor, he wants to be out there to help the team and help us win, bottom line. His 75 percent might be someone else's 100 percent and that's why he's out there trying to play and put his best foot forward."
With somebody who's had as much success as Alvin has had in his first three years, going into year four, how do you challenge him to continue to be better? What's kind of the message for him?
"I think the message, there's obviously not a lot of challenges, obviously we're going to keep on pushing, but I think he wants to put forward a better season than he put forward last season, plain and simple. That's the true sign of a competitor, they're either happy with what the last season was or they want to keep on getting better. I know in his heart and in his mind, what he put out wasn't 100 percent him all the time as far as his best football. We always have videos as coaches that we can go back and teach off of and review. Veteran players are reflective and they look at how they play, they know when it's been great and when it hasn't been up to their level as far as the output. That's the first thing, we're going to continue to review the film, where can we get better and then obviously when we get back out there, whether it's a new scheme, whether it's polishing up just a traditional outside zone scheme on what we can do better as far as the runner, eyes, decision making, landmarks, all those little things. That will come about when we get back into camp."
Probably before the injuries started piling up for him, those first four games I think he was breaking a bunch of tackles and things like that, was that kind if emblematic of where he actually was last year?
"I think the Seattle game, obviously Teddy (Bridgewater) made his first start, we were in a very hostile environment and that was vintage Alvin Kamara football, that game. I can put on, whether it's in the pass protection, whether it's a run, whether it's a reception, whether it's a make you miss out in space, whether it's a make you miss in a tight box, running through defensive ends, he did it all, making linebackers miss. That was a complete game as far as his performance in that game and I'm willing to bet if you talked to him about that game, he would still find something that he might have been able to do a little bit better to have even more output. I think up to that point, he was healthy and rolling. That's what we expected, that's what he expected for the entire duration of the season and obviously things popped up and didn't allow that to happen."
When you're in that first year of the running back rotation that you had last year with Alvin and Latavius (Murray), does it take a while to understand their rhythms and how they work together and that sort of thing and can you actually use that to benefit this year?
"I think we will be able drop and go back to last season and the pace that it took to get those two going on the same level. Obviously with the injury where Alvin missed a couple games, our hand was pushed to play Latavius a lot and he played outstanding. He played outstanding all season long. What everybody was so accustomed to was the style that Mark (Ingram) had and then you bring in this runner that almost looks like a tight end at times as far as his height and his size. That took some getting used to, but I think the so called yin and yang with these two now is something that we've got a good grasp on and obviously Latavius earned every bit of his playing time that he got and he did a solid job of stepping in when his number was called and then obviously working hand-in-hand with Alvin when they were both healthy."
I think we can assume you miss the personal interaction with players and coaches and being at the office, but when is the last time you've been able to spend this much quality time at home, and have you developed a daily routine?
"First of all, I've never been at home this long (laughter). We all look at the situation that's going on and you try and find the bright lights that you can draw on. I've got an eight-year old and a seven-year old. And it's been great. I've been able to cook dinner every night. I've been able to tuck them into bed every night. I'm involved with – (little league) baseball's been going again now, so I'm way more involved with that. Just the little things that you might miss. And our offseason is good to where I'm around a lot, but it's been time like no other being around these guys. And to go back on what you said, I got into coaching because of the social interaction, and the hands-on work, and the ability to coach and develop, and to have the daily talks. It may not be about football at times. But that's a part that we all as coaches, that's built into us and we are chomping at the bit that the time comes that we can all be together and focus on the 2020 Saints."
To piggyback off of that, we've talked to some assistant coaches and they've said one of the positive things to come from these virtual meetings has been able to be more detailed and meticulous. Is that something you've experienced with some of the running backs this offseason?
"Well, we don't have the ability to physically demonstrate certain things, so you have to be on point with your words. You might say something, and in all these calls, I might be talking with a video running where they cannot see my face. They see the actual play. So I am sitting there describing something with my hands or with my feet or whatever, so I have to come back and retrace and show them again. And really, that comes into play with the newer players that are involved with Tony Jones and Ty Montgomery. Maybe what they hear is a certain zone step or footwork, they may notice something else from a previous place. Whether it's with the Jets, the Ravens or with Tony (Jones Jr.) with Notre Dame. So you have to be more detailed and more on point, not that we weren't at the office, but you want to make sure that when we come back in there, we're all on the same page."
What are some of your early impressions on Tony Jones Jr.?
"I reflect back to the last conversation we had when we were going over protections – he's pretty smart. Smart football players find a way to get on the field early. Now that being said, you have got to compete and show it with the pads on. But I like his size right now. I think last time we talked he's in that 223 range. He's got a little bit of a thump to him. I think there's going to be things that, you know, when we get going here in camp (that we have to work with him on). I think we've got to develop his hands a little bit. Nothing that's detrimental. And then obviously the pass protection (we will work with him on). What was asked of them previously (in college) and what probably (will be) asked (of) them here in camp would be a little bit more, but I like the attitude. I like what he brings to the table, as far as the intelligence. And you know he has played at a high level as far as football goes (at Notre Dame). So I don't think he's going to have this, 'All of a sudden I'm in the bright lights of the NFL.' Who knows (where he) stands for his first game. But I'm looking forward to getting him out there in the field and seeing what he brings to the table as far as helping our group out."
In your own words, what's kind of the importance of that fullback position in the offense, and was it important for you all to bring back guys who have experienced in the offense after Zach (Line) retired?
"First of all, we use it (more extensively than a lot of other teams). Obviously we find different ways to use that position come gameday. Because we can carry an extra tight end (to serve some of the blocking duties). We can carry a fullback. There have been times we haven't addressed that before or whatnot or (John) Kuhn in the past. But when they're on the field, we're always looking for a guy that if we're lead blocking, and we look for a guy that's going to clear a hole or widen the hole and that's where Zach excelled. He did a great job. He gave it to a strike point, he'd strike the other stinger, he'd roll his hips and you would cover guys up and remove them. With Mike (Burton), when Zach retired, we knew Mike was out there and he was the target. He was having a good OTA, good training camp until you got hurt. And then boom, the competition was gone because we were really optimistic about what he could do to push Zach. And then obviously he had the injury and it forced him to sit out most of the preseason and obviously we had to only carry one (fullback) at that time. So yeah, I felt it was important to get a guy in here that's familiar with our offense and coach (Sean Payton) and (Director of Pro Scouting) Terry Fontenot did a good job of getting him in. And at the same time, he played well for Washington when he did play. He did a solid job and felt that the player that was on film from Washington was the one that we saw during training camp. And then at the same time, you know, Ricky (Ortiz), he stepped in there for a couple of games and the guy came in and he played a significant amount of playing time having really no practice. He was on scout team the week that he came up when Zach's injury sidelined him for the season. So Ricky is still a young player that is developing at the same time, so it will be a fun battle when training camp gets rolling."
Do you think there are any elements to this virtual off and that you think might carry forth in future years that might make your job a little easier?
"Well, you have to refer to Sean in that one. I mean, obviously, yeah, for us with the virtual offseason, it gives us a little bit more time to kind of prepare as far as the install tapes, and also opponents. I mean, you know, we know our schedule now, we got Tampa, we got their stuff on film. We got the Vegas Raiders there as well. So it allows you a little more time to where, you know, those two hours that you'd be practicing during OTAs, you really have to look at next season's opponents or do research on other teams that you're looking at schemes that they may be doing offensively as well."
Just one more on Alvin. I don't know if we actually touched on this, but is he motivated by the way last season went for him, just with the injuries to kind of show that he's a better player than he was in the field last year?
"Absolutely. That's all the players. You either get better or get worse. That is always been something I've known as a player and a coach and something I preach and you don't always stay the same. And I know deep down that he's going to eat. He's going to put his best football out in front of him. And, you know, that was the goal of season ago, two seasons before that, and when he walked in here as a rookie, that he was going to show he's better than what we saw when he played his last year of Tennessee. So, it's, when you start kind of sitting back on your past stuff that, any player, any coach, any anybody in the business world then you're getting comfortable and that's when stuff goes a different direction."
What have you thought of Alvin's new interest in NASCAR?
"I think it's awesome. In conversations in the past, I've done Indy cars when I coached at Purdue and it's a whole different world as far as what we do football-wise. I haven't talked to Alvin yet since he's gone to the race, but I imagine obviously he had a little more VIP treatment as far as the track, the ability to get behind the scenes and see the tactics and everything that goes into a race, instead of just watching on TV and you see cars going around in circle. Because that is the furthest thing from what you really see on TV. So I'm excited to talk to them and see what his take is on it, but I'm sure he had a blast."
Just one quick follow up on Ty Montgomery in case I missed this earlier, but when you look at how he's been used in these last couple of stops, do you see a running back? I know he came in as a receiver. Or do you see somebody who kind of can be sort of positionless and move around on the offense?
"That's exactly - I see a Swiss army knife, so to speak. I mean, it's, how are teams going to view him when we start putting personnel out there? How are they going to view him when we put Alvin out there? Are they going to treat it as a nickel package and they didn't go dime with it, treating them as wide receivers? Well, that's something we've got to see is how he's going to be viewed as well. But, I see a complete (back) in all aspects, as far as the run, pass, catch, the ability to block. The worst thing we could do right here today is, is sit there and pigeonhole and say, 'Hey, you're going to be put in this position and that's it.' Something that Sean (Payton) talks about all the time is our job as coaches is to find out what they can do well, and that's what maybe we haven't seen something on film because he hadn't been put in a situation with these other teams that hopefully we can maybe dig out a little bit more and find out just hopefully that he has not touched the ceiling, that he has got more room to grow, which we feel he does."
Having used Taysom (Hill) in the way you guys have the last couple of years, does that kind of force you to look at every player that way? Or is this something that always happens?
"I mean, Taysom my thinking is like the 'Aha' moment. Like here we go, as far as, um, the ability to do a lot, almost everything. Everybody jokes, I'm just not going down that road, but, you know, with, with Ty, and I think any player, I think we're always trying to find a way to really get the best out of that person, whether it's Ty lining up in the slot, Ty lining up in the gun, Ty lining up in the backfield, seven yards deep. Things we do with Alvin, I can see Ty coming in and hopefully challenging Alvin in some of those spots as well, making competition there as far as some of the route running stuff."