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January 3, 2014

Ellis Johnson

Robenson Therezie

Jermaine Whitehead


THE MODERATOR:  I'd like to welcome Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, star safety Robenson Therezie and free safety Jermaine Whitehead.
ELLIS JOHNSON:  Well, we're obviously honored to be here.  Playing one of the best teams in the country and we feel like we match up with them and deserve to be here, too.  It's been a crazy year, being a first‑year staff with a brand new system, I think our players have just been unbelievable through the ride that we've had and the competition we've had to play.  Some of the games we've had to find ways to win.  So we're just very proud, very honored to be here, and looking forward to playing.

Q.  Ellis, Randy was in here earlier and he was talking about the difference between last year and this year, going 2‑10 last year to playing in the National Championship Game this year.  You've experienced something very similar.  Can you talk about the differences for you in the last two seasons?
ELLIS JOHNSON:  Well, I've been asked that question so many times, and I don't have any connection between the two.  It was a very‑‑ I want to be very brief with the remarks, but it was a very chaotic situation we walked into, probably did not do a very good job.  At the end of the day you've got to find a way to win ballgames.  But it's been a wonderful move for my family, the Auburn community, the environment for a family, back in the Southeastern Conference, an opportunity to work with Coach Malzahn, someone I've always had great respect for in competing against him.
And the way this season has unfolded has just been almost unbelievable.  It's been a lot of fun.  It's been a lot of hard work.  I've been working at Auburn now for about a year and 17 days.  It's been an interesting year.  But been a lot of fun, and been very rewarding working with these players.

Q.  Ellis, I know there's a lot of things to worry about Jameis Winston when you face him, but if you had to narrow it down to one thing, what's the one thing that really concerns you about him, and you two young gentlemen up there are going to be pretty busy.  If you could comment after Ellis.
ELLIS JOHNSON:  I can't give you one thing.  When you think about their football team, it's skill, speed and balance, and when you think about Jameis Winston, there's not one thing.  He can make any throw on the field.  I think he's a great leader and a tremendous leader for a young player.  He's obviously been, I think, handled things extremely well.  The pressure of going undefeated if you've never done it before, it's different, and each game it mounts, and some people can't handle it.  The recent weeks have shown that.
But he's been their leader, even as a red‑shirt freshman.
And the other thing is, his mobility, when he doesn't make that throw, his mobility just puts you in a very tough situation when he gets out of the pocket.  He can run the ball and he's not great vision downfield.  I can't answer your question with that one thing.
ROBENSON THEREZIE:  Pretty much the same thing that coach said.  With our game plan I feel like when we execute and do our jobs, I feel like we can keep him outside his comfort zone.  With our front four, I don't think he's seen the front four he's about to face on January 6th.  It's a completely different front four than he's ever faced.  With our secondary, I don't think he's seen the secondary that he's seen all year with our secondary.  It's completely different from all the other leagues he's played in.  We're just ready to play, I mean, and execute Coach Ellis Johnson's game plan.
JERMAINE WHITEHEAD:  I think he's a well‑profound athlete.  He is the Heisman winner, and with that goes great attributes.  He brings a lot to the table for his team.  He offered them the leadership role, and the guys on his team believe in him.  You know, their goal is to make unbelievable plays for him.  I think the goal of my teammates is to get him out of his comfort zone and have him rattled early.  I think it's going to be a great day for us.

Q.  With the way your last couple games ended, some people are calling you guys a team of destiny.  Do you guys believe in destiny?
JERMAINE WHITEHEAD:  I mean, you can call it whatever you want.  I've heard a lot of things, also.  I think there's a reason that we're here in this position.  I think God maybe put us in position to make those plays right there for a reason.  It's been a great season along with a lot of stories that are going to live forever.  I'm proud to be a part of it.  I really wouldn't want to have it no other way.

Q.  Coach Johnson, you all have finished strong, played well in close games.  You shut out Missouri in the fourth quarter, held Alabama to just a touchdown.  Can you expand more on what it takes and how you were able to finish so strong at the end of games?
ELLIS JOHNSON:  Well, one of the contributing factors is we play a lot of players in the box.  If you look at our football team, we've not had a dominant single player in that area.  Our secondary deserves a lot of credit.  We've lost some really good players along the way, and we've played without a lot of depth.  But up front we've rotated a lot of players, and I think that's helped us be a better fourth‑quarter team.
We have not been, by all standards, a really good defense this year.  I think part of it is because we're in a new system.  These guys have gone through three different systems in three different years.  We've been inconsistent at times.  You need to put that on me.  But we always know how to play in the moment.  When there's a play on the line, we've been good on 3rd down, we've been good in the red zone, we've been good in the fourth quarter.  We've made critical stops at critical times, and I think that's a credit to our players.
But if I could reiterate that one issue we play a lot of players in the box with our front and our linebackers and I think that's helped us in the fourth quarter when we've had to make stops and had to make critical plays.
JERMAINE WHITEHEAD:  I think playing in the fourth is probably one of the biggest things our team likes to do, being a team that we're trying to put ourselves in this position, we knew we had to be a great four‑quarter team.  At the end of the game it's ended in a unique fashion for us, and we've been trying to make dominant plays in that quarter to put ourselves in position to win those games.
I think, like Coach Johnson said, our front seven who has been tremendous for us in the fourth, has been destroying linemen and destroying offensive plays, and Coach Johnson has been putting us in great plays to allow us to be disruptive in the fourth quarter.
I think that's paid a lot of dividends to our fourth‑quarter winnings.

Q.  Ellis, Randy Sanders has been around in the SEC a long time just as you have.  Can you talk a little bit about your history with him and facing a guy like that?
ELLIS JOHNSON:  I have known Randy a long time, obviously Tennessee, Kentucky, and now Florida State.  But we've coached against each other many, many times, and when you've been at it 39 years, you've coached against a lot of people many times.  I've got a lot of other really good friends on that staff, and I've actually worked with the defensive coordinator Jerry Pruitt, was our GA under me at Alabama, and unbelievable coach.  You could tell as a young guy he was going to be a great coach, and he's obviously proven to do so, and Jay Graham, running backs coach, one of the recruiters best in the nation.  A lot of folks will remember him as a player at Tennessee, but we worked together at South Carolina.
That's probably the eighth or ninth time I've had the opportunity to coach against Jimbo, Rick Trickett, one of the best offensive line coaches in America, just a great staff, and obviously the results show that they do have good coaches.
Been a lot of fun, and in all my time I've enjoyed a lot of things about all of my stops, but I have to say that playing and competing in the SEC is different.  When the situation occurred at Southern Miss and I had an opportunity to jump back in this conference, I was excited.  When I took a head coaching job at the Citadel and decided it was time to move on and had an opportunity to go back to the SEC, it's always been I guess that lure to go back and coach against the best coaches and play against undoubtedly week in and week out the best players in America.
I hope that slate is going to help us.  Iron sharpens iron.  It's an old saying Coach Harbison always says, and I think our schedule and our slate that we've played is going to make us a better football team in the end.

Q.  Coach Johnson, you talked about the fourth quarter, but in playing Florida State how important will the first quarter be because of the fact they've started so fast against teams and played from ahead generally the entire season?
ELLIS JOHNSON:  It's important against anybody, but your point is well taken.  The other thing, and of course you're talking to me, but I want to say, and I think our offense will give us an opportunity not to have to play uphill all day long like most teams have against them and maybe we can play downhill a little bit and see what that does.
But they do make so many big plays.  They can look average at times and have 21 points on the board.  They've got great athletes that make big plays at important times.  We do need to start well.  We cannot get in a big, deep hole with a team that's this good and expect to come back and win.  That being said, I think our players know how to do that.
No matter what happens early in the ballgame, it'll take 59 minutes and 59 seconds, and it may take one more second, and our players know how to win a game with one second left on the clock.  They know how to win a game with a minute‑and‑a‑half left on the clock.  They know how to win a game.
I think no matter what the situation is, they'll play their way through it.

Q.  Florida State has some very tall receivers, especially Benjamin.  What's your impression of those guys and how do you try to match up with them?
ROBENSON THEREZIE:  I mean, it's all about just having leverage and keeping tight coverage.  We face big receivers just as big as Benji, but it's not new to us.  We're going to do what we do that got us here, just compete.
JERMAINE WHITEHEAD:  I think it's definitely a great task for us, one on a national stage.  I think they're a great attribute to their team, but like my teammate said, we've faced a lot of great receivers all the time.  We have someone on the board each week from each team that we have to limit their plays and limit their contribution to the game.
You know, facing these receivers is going to be one that I feel we have been tested for, one I feel we're ready for, one I feel Coach is going to put us in the best position to make plays for.

Q.  Coach Johnson talked about how you've gone through three different systems in three seasons.  When did you guys start feeling good about the 4‑2‑5 he brought in?
ROBENSON THEREZIE:  I feel like since I've been here and since I've been watching college football, that the 4‑2‑5 has been the best system we've ever been in.  I've seen personally.  You have a safety in the box which can be a good perimeter player.  Also with the deep threats and stuff like that, you know, it's been a good system, and it's been really fun and very challenging.
JERMAINE WHITEHEAD:  This is definitely one of my favorite systems to play in.  I think it's very versatile.  I think if you look at the defense, you really don't know who's playing what.  I think there's a pride to a lot of people because we can roll in away, play down and away, hide a lot of things that we like to do.  I won't get into exactly what we like to do, but we can hide a lot of different things.  It's just a fun defense because I get to see my star safety make a lot of plays in the box, I get to see our linebackers feed a lot of runs inside.  It's just exciting to watch those guys play, especially during a winning season, it makes it even more fun to play in.

Q.  This question is for Ellis.  You have so many moving parts to your 4‑2‑5 defense.  Can you talk about how important the linebackers are in the middle of that scheme?
ELLIS JOHNSON:  Linebackers are always important.  That's a good question to ask with these two guys in the room because I think they've been the most prolific playmakers on our football team.  Robenson was a corner when we finished spring, and we had to move him to get some depth at star, and Justin Garrett, probably the best playmaker we had coming out of spring ball, he got injured.  By the time he got back, Robenson had taken that job.  We actually moved Justin to Will linebacker.
To get back to the point of your question, the versatility of the system is really having the flexibility and ability to do different things by your star backer, which Robenson plays.  The players have really adapted to it pretty well, but it has been a week‑by‑week process, especially when you see so many different systems and some of the great quarterbacks we've played down through this slate.  We've played four quarterbacks who have been mentioned in the Heisman race at some point in time during the season, and probably five NFL quarterbacks.  It's been a test, and we haven't always played extremely well, but we've always found a way to step up, and I think our system is just a part of it.  It's what the players have done within the system to make plays.

Q.  Coach talked about facing those quarterbacks.  You've had to deal with Manziel, you've dealt with McCarron.  How does that get you ready for Jameis Winston?
JERMAINE WHITEHEAD:  I think seeing those type of players week in and week out definitely gets you ready for‑‑ I mean, seeing previous Heisman winners gets you ready for a guy that just won the Heisman.  Playing against those guys a couple years now, watching them grow and watching how they transpired over the years, the depth of exactly what Winston has the capacity of.  I think he's a great playmaker.  I think being in those situations, also, has shown us how to be resilient, not give up when they make a big play.  We understand that their college football team is one of the best in the country and they're going to have big times in the game, and how we respond is going to be the test of the game.

Q.  Coach Johnson, is there anything you've seen on film that maybe you can attack and do against Jameis Winston to maybe get him out of his comfort zone?
ELLIS JOHNSON:  Yeah, I don't see anything on film where you say, well, that was a weakness.  There is none.  What the key is going to be is can we get pressure, and we need to get pressure before, we need to get pressure with pressure.  It's going to be a big factor.  The play in the box, they have tremendous skill out on the edges, but the pressure in the box is going to be one of the biggest keys to any defensive success that we have.  There will be some other things in the game we can't control, kicking game, offense, all are going to contribute.  But as far as us performing defensively and giving our football team a chance to win, there's got to be pressure on the quarterback.

Q.  Ellis, having been in the game as long as you've been in it, a lot of guys lose interest and become complacent.  How have you been able to kind of stay sharp and change your philosophies as the game changes?
ELLIS JOHNSON:  Throughout my career, I've probably been around some of the greatest coaches that have coached during my 39 years, and I've always had sort of a comical saying, I try to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open.  But having coached around Bill Oliver, Gene Stallings, Bobby Ross, I hate to start naming names because I'll leave out someone who's very important and has been very influential.  But I've learned a lot of football, and I remember an old saying, when you stop learning, when you think you know everything is when you're done.
Even in the last four or five years, I've changed things and tried to adapt because I'm not into systems and play books, I'm into players.  I think if you ever get in a system where you're trying to get players to run your playbook, you're going the wrong direction.  You need to get a system that will fit your players.  So that's what we've tried to do is remain flexible over the years.  I've been working with two guys that Melvin Smith and Charlie Harbison, it has been about six years ago, and they bring up things we did back then that they liked, and we've kind of moved on.  Not that they were bad ideas, but they are things that every year you change a little bit.  So I think that kind of keeps my interest kind of piqued and always trying to change, and to keep up with the offenses and different things that are going on today, you almost have to.

Q.  Ellis, can you lend some big‑picture perspective as to why it is we've now had red‑shirt freshmen in back‑to‑back seasons win the Heisman and how these young kids come in and flourish so quickly?
ELLIS JOHNSON:  Actually that's a good question that's been asked, and I think you can almost write a book on it.  I was one year into college when they started letting freshmen play.  I spent two years because I transferred, two years on two freshman football teams.  I can remember when the rule was passed and everybody thought it was crazy.  They thought it would be really hard adjustments to academics, college environment.  Didn't think players would be physically able to make that transition because of it being such a contact sport.  Yeah, it'll work in baseball, yeah, it's okay in basketball, it'll never work in football.  It took a three or four years, freshmen were contributing.  It took a few more years ‑‑ freshmen were making a outstanding plays.  And then you get to the point where freshmen and red‑shirt freshmen were winning the Heisman.  A lot of it is systems, a lot of it is great coaching.  That being the case in Winston, certainly been the case in Johnny Manziel.  But I think what you're seeing in high school, the coaching is getting much better, they're running systems where the players know how to throw the ball so much better, routes and things, and the game has really changed‑‑ in my 39 years it's changed a lot, but if you go back over the history of football, the rules have always sort of been tweaked a little bit to produce more entertainment, and high schools now are running the spread‑type philosophies, and now the colleges are inheriting and recruiting players that are already just about game ready.
So if they've got the presence and the poise like Jameis Winston does or Johnny Manziel does, they're ready to go.  They're not intimidated by 21 year olds, and they've got the physical talent.
I recruited gentleman Jadeveon Clowney and signed him at South Carolina, and I remembered watching him on the high school field.  You could have taken him his senior year, could have taken him up to Charlotte and put a Panthers uniform on him, slipped him in the ballgame on a 3rd‑and‑10 about three times and nobody would have known he didn't belong out there.  Could he have played a full game?  I doubt it.  It's just unbelievable.  I need to stop because I could go on for an hour about it.  It's amazes me, too, it really does, because I was there when they changed the rule and everybody thought it would be stupid, and look at what's happening now.

Q.  What does it mean to you to be playing in this game for a National Championship?
JERMAINE WHITEHEAD:  Oh, man, to me it's a dream come true, one of the reasons I signed to play football at Auburn University.  I mean, my senior year, I played with Cam Newton and we were winning the whole thing.  It was one of the greatest recruiting tools that they had for me at the moment.  I felt that I was coming in with a class that had the opportunity to come back.  We went through some trials and God has blessed us and put us in a situation to be able to go back and win the whole thing again in less than four years.  It's been an amazing journey, one that's been long, one that's been hard, one that's also been fun.  I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, and I mean, it's the biggest accomplishment I've probably ever seen in my life.
ROBENSON THEREZIE:  Yeah, it's been a blessing.  It's been fun.  Just like Whitehead said, we came in with a class we knew was eventually going to make it here one year, and this is the year.  I might be wrong, but I'm very confident.  I feel like with the system we have, with the coaching staff we have, I feel like we can be back.  I mean, I know it's a new system.  We've been through it like for a year now, and I know we're losing a few players, but I think personally that we could be back.  We're going to do everything we can just to see this moment again, but we're just focusing on January 6th first.

Q.  Ellis, having coached in the state of Alabama for both Alabama and Auburn, this is the fifth straight year a team from that state has played for the National Championship.  Can you pinpoint one or two reasons why that might be the case?
ELLIS JOHNSON:  Well, I think you've got two universities, programs, who are committed to excellence.  If you look at their history, they've always been competing in that arena, and then to have made it right to the top that many years in a row I think is astounding, a phenomenal, sort of compared to what we talked about these freshman players.  It's a state that loves football, loves high school football, loves college football, but I think the commitment of both these universities, to the facilities, the support, the fan base, the conference we play in obviously plays a huge part of it.  I watched it affect South Carolina over about a 12‑year stretch to now they're nationally competitive where they used to hardly have .500 seasons year in and year out.  The SEC certainly has a lot to do with it.  It is an unbelievable thing.  Hopefully we can represent the state well and the SEC well and get another National Championship.  Certainly it won't be easy, but that would be unbelievable.

Q.  For the players, with everything that happens in Toomer's Corner over the year, is there a little bit of extra motivation to win this game for the University?
JERMAINE WHITEHEAD:  That's one of the biggest traditions in Auburn University, and to watch what happens at that corner and to those trees means a lot to our program, to our family and to our school.  It means a lot to everybody at Auburn University.  I think it's been a great chip on our shoulder as a community for them to get behind us and just motivate us to be very well and very active this season.  I think we've probably made a lot of those people proud, and we have to finish the task right now.  It's a great task at hand, one I feel we're battle tested for, and we can't wait to relish in the moment.
ROBENSON THEREZIE:  Yeah, pretty much the same thing he said.  We came here as freshmen and we didn't really understand the tradition, what it meant to play in the Iron Bowl, but now when we caught on, everything clicked.  Just from the way we see it and all the players and the staff, Auburn is a very special place as far as the tradition goes and everything.  Our role has just been so important to play in, and it's just been a blessing to be here on a big stage playing for Auburn and everything else.
THE MODERATOR:  Thanks, guys, so much.

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