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In 2007, Corey Raymond was a strength and conditioning intern at LSU where Bo Pelini was defensive coordinator. That team won the BCS national championship, beating Ohio State, Bo's alma mater. Now, Raymond is Bo's secondary coach, and Nebraska is favored to win the Big Ten championship. The N-Sider sat down with Raymond so he could talk about the past and the future.
Q: How do you like getting the conference favorite tag right out of the chute?
A: It's a good thing and can be a bad thing at the same time. It's good to get the respect, but I can also see how much tougher the road can be because everybody now sees us as the hunted. It's not like we're going to surprise anybody because we're going to have to bring our "A-game" every week. When you come into a new conference, it's probably better to be the hunter instead of the hunted because every opponent can tell their players that Nebraska thinks they're going to come into this conference and win it in their first year. That's great motivation for every school we play, and we're going to have to match their intensity every single week.
Q: Bo seems to be one who thrives on pressure. Turn the clock back to that 2007 national championship season and give us a psychological snapshot about why he rises to the challenge.
A: When we were in the SEC, we had some big-time games, week in and week out. We would play Florida, Tennessee and Alabama back-to-back. When you go through that, you learn what it's all about. It's about linemen, not about the skill guys. Whoever has the most athletic linemen gets the upper hand. Bo's known that forever. He coached in the NFL, so he's used to grueling challenges, week in and week out. When you're a competitor, that's what you want. That's why Bo is consumed by the daily process and the daily grind. Winning really is about getting better and better, day by day. That was his mantra at LSU, and it still is. It's hard. Some people are built that way and others are not and don't lead that way. Some players are competitive all of the time, and some you have to get up every week. With Bo, every guy on defense knows how important it is to compete week in and week out. It's the only way you can stay on the field.
Q: When your colleagues ask you to describe Bo, a man you met in the NFL and helped at LSU, what are some of the words you use to describe his personality?
A: Tough, intense, detail-oriented. Very caring, but at the same time, he'll kick you in the butt. Players grow to love him because he's always doing what's best for them. He always comes back and picks his players up. That's why they don't take his criticism personally. They know that everything he does is to help you. Once coaches and players understand that, it's easy. No one ever says "I don't know" around here. They know because when there are problems, they fix them. Whether you're a kid or a man, you appreciate it when someone helps you understand what you need to understand. It helps you strive to get better.
Q: Inclusive also might describe Bo. He seems to appreciate input from everyone. Didn't he base his decision to hire you on what you contributed when you were an intern at LSU?
A: That's one thing about Bo. He'll let you speak, but you better know what you're talking about. If you say something, you better have facts to back it up. (laugh here). You also better be confident about what you're saying. That's why John Papuchis and Mike Ekeler landed full-time jobs with Bo. He allowed them to speak their minds and when they backed it up and helped the team, they earned his respect. When I was at LSU and saw something downstairs in the weight room and thought it needed to be addressed, I talked to Bo, and I always made sure it was based on facts.
Q: You were at LSU three years and were involved with two other bowl wins there. All three of those teams finished the season ranked among the nation's top three defensive teams. Were you convinced then that Bo knows defense and where do you rank him in the profession now?
A: He's one of the top guys in the industry. Our defense in the NFL was similar to what he was used to running as an assistant in the NFL. It was like a breath of fresh air to be able to run a defense like San Francisco's and the Patriots. The greatest thing about it was Bo's ability to change it and evolve it in the college ranks. Some guys stay the same, but Bo changes, and he adapts. Somehow, he manages to put himself in a situation where his defense keeps getting better and better. He doesn't have a defense that's built around the system. He develops the system around the players he has, and then he develops his players to execute that system. Everybody can build a system, but you better develop your players to play in that system. Coach Pelini uses everyone's best strengths. In this profession, you see coaches that put guys in certain positions. The question is: Are they teaching them how to get better at that position every day?
Q: You started four years at LSU, and the SEC was considered the hotbed of college football. What will it take for the Big Ten to gain that kind of stature?
A: The SEC isn't any more passionate about football than Nebraska, but football is a 24/7 game throughout the South. The difference is, high school football in the South is like football in college. They have spring football, and they have athletic periods scheduled for workouts. They can do agility drills during school or after school. That's why they're constantly developing in high school just like they are in college. Unless other parts of the country devote two or three weeks to spring football practice like Texas and the South, their athletes will not come out of high school at a higher level. I had that advantage in high school in Louisiana and was able to start four years at LSU.
Q: That experience enabled your seven-year stint with the New York Giants and the Detroit Lions. I don't see the NFL in your personal bio. Did you leave it off your resume deliberately?
A: It was a real blessing for me to play in the NFL. I had a good career, but not a great career. I always felt I could have done better than I did. It's a big thing to my kids and to some of the players I coach. I'm not trying to hide anything, but basically, I'm a pretty shy person and just don't like to brag about being in the NFL. Just because I've been there doesn't mean I know any more than others who haven't. I just like to be like everybody else. That's just me. It's who I am.
Q: You were in private business for three years, interned with the Minnesota Vikings and were secondary coach for Utah State. You accepted a similar job at Indiana until Nebraska's secondary job opened up, and you changed your mind. That was a bit of a whirlwind, wasn't it?
A: (Laughing) There are only a couple of guys I would work with, and both of them happened to call me. Doug Mallory (Indiana's co-defensive coordinator) called first. Then Coach Pelini called when he had an opening. This business is about who you work for, not about how much money you can make. I like being in a foxhole with Bo. I know I'm working with good people, and he won't shoot you in the back because he's in the same foxhole with you every day.
Q: Tell me about the secondary. How's it going to be the same, and how's it going to be different?
A: Coach (Marvin) Sanders did a good job with these guys before I got here. I've tried to enhance what was already there. I'm just a little bit different in what I look for in DB's. I like longer guys, lengthy guys, guys my size. I like six-foot corners, but that doesn't mean you can't be 5-8, 5-9 or 5-10 and not be good. I always figure if you're 5-8 or 5-9 and can run, jump and be as physical as Alfonzo Dennard, you can play anywhere. Some say big guys are freaks of nature. I say little guys can be, too. Not many guys Alfonzo's size are freakish athletes. You just cannot find guys like him. He definitely has All-American potential.
A: It's a great thing. It allows you to build from outside to in. That's how you build a defense. You need great corners that can use their athleticism to do certain things and a safety that can get everyone lined up right. He can be a good athlete, but doesn't have to be a great athlete. He needs to be smart - he's the quarterback of the defense.
A: The guys battling now have to work hard like those two did and compete every day like they did. When you step on that practice field, you have to be ready for every mental aspect that the game requires. Only guys who have been in the NFL for a long time know every mental aspect of the game, so the learning process never stops. When you're younger, you don't do that, so I try to install that mindset into my kids right now. They have to work as hard as they can every day to get better, mentally and physically. You can't let a day go by without getting better at some aspect of your game because you're going to be inundated. If you don't progress, there's going to be a person who will. This isn't about who has the best athletes. It's about who has the best team. It's no different than what it's like in the NFL. When everything else is the same, it comes down to who works hardest and who makes you the best team. I don't want anybody just relying on their athleticism. I want them to learn how they can make themselves better and their teammates better. I believe if you're a good player and work hard to make yourself more fundamentally sound every day, you can become a great player.
A: Austin is the quarterback. He's the one that gets everybody lined up. From what I've been hearing, he's had a great off-season, and I'm expecting great things from him. You know it's funny. Austin knows this defense so well, he helps me out sometimes. I try to let my kids know that I'm not perfect. Sometimes, I make mistakes, too. People think coaches can't make mistakes. That's not true. When you do and admit it, kids know you're real about what you want to get done. That is, as long you correct your mistake. I also tell my kids I try never to make the same mistake twice ... with anything. Ciante has also done a real good job. He's a savvy guy and especially for a sophomore. I saw games last year where he played really well. He knows I expect a lot of big things from him this year. We've changed up a lot of stuff. We're using our athleticism and changing some technique. Because he wants to be good at everything, he adapts to that. Courtney was able to gain some valuable experience last season as a part-time starter, so we're counting on him coming in this fall and being a leader. Like Austin, he became a starter in the Missouri game and really showed his ability to be a playmaker. He had that big sack against Mizzou and an interception against Oklahoma. P.J. Smith also has some experience as a starter and will compete for playing time.
Q: Any other players on the secondary radar before fall camp?
A: Drew (Andrew Green) had a real good camp and has really come along very well. Josh (Mitchell) is young but talented and has done well. And Antonio Bell has all the tools to be as good as anyone else around here. My goal is make him better than he is right now. I've been told that all of those guys have done every little bitty thing that I expected them to do in the off-season. Technique is some of f the most important work they can do. If you don't work on your skills in the summertime and you come to camp, you're trying to catch up. I want guys who are ready to hit and go from the first day of practice. This is open competition, and we have several others - guys like Justin Blatchford and Lance Thorell - that are fully capable.
Q: This season is historic. Did you know that Nebraska has won more games than anyone else in college football since 1970? How exciting is joining a conference with that kind of reputation?
A: Oh wow. I'm so busy adjusting to my new job, that stuff hasn't even hit me yet. I am preparing myself to be prepared every week, just like I had to be in the SEC and the NFL. I know why passion is so important at Nebraska, and I love every game being important. This season is like training to go and box for a championship. We'll be working and sparring and fighting. We were working all spring and throughout the summer. When fall camp starts, we'll be sparring with each other to see who gets to step in the ring, and when the season starts, we'll be fighting. That's the way I work with kids. I try to let them know that you don't just hop in the ring and start fighting. You have to train, and you have to prepare.
Q: Bo wanted his staff to get some chill time this summer. Did you?
A: I'm a guy that has to hang around the office and keep working. I did take 14 days off in July, though, and got back to Louisiana and then spent a long weekend in Destin (Florida). That's pretty much it. It's the most vacation time I've ever taken in my life. It was good to separate from football and get together with family because the season's going to be a long grind, not just with football but with recruiting. That's a year-round job.
Q: You worked with Papuchis at LSU. What was that like?
A: I could tell he was a rising star from the first day I met him. He was teaching me the LSU defense before I even got to LSU. I would ask him questions just like I would ask Bo. I was familiar with that defense because I had played it in the NFL. But J.P. sat me down and gave me all the nuts and bolts so I could help coach it.
Q: Final question. In general terms, how would you describe this defense?
A: It's an attacking style of defense. That's just what it is. We're going to be aggressive, and we're going to attack. We're not going to sit back and wait for you to punch us in the mouth. We're going to punch you in the mouth first.