CSJ’s David Mays caught up with Tennessee State defensive coordinator Justin Roberts to talk Tigers football, strength and conditioning, and coaching in Nashville.
CSJ’s David Mays: You played center at Missouri Southern St. That’s a very tough and demanding position. What made you want to play center and was that your position through all of your youth?
Tennessee State defensive coordinator Justin Roberts: When I showed up at Missouri Southern, I was initially going in to play linebacker. They had a strong group coming back at that position, and were in need of a center. I had played center in high school and could put myself in position to help the team and play on the field sooner, so that’s what I did.
Mays: You went from playing center to becoming a strength and conditioning coach. There’s really no other better position in football that requires more strength and conditioning than the lines. Was that an easy transition?
Roberts: Growing up, I lived in the weight room. Once I transitioned to playing on the offensive line, it was a free pass to get as big as I wanted. I was not the most talented on the field, however I excelled in the weight room, eventually becoming a NSCA All American. Strength and conditioning was always a passion early in my career, and I felt like if you can start to build that mental and physical toughness in the weight room it would eventually transition to the field.
Mays: You began your college coaching career at NE Oklahoma A&M. How was that adjustment, going from high school to college?
Roberts: I had been coaching high school for three years and I knew I wanted to eventually coach college ball. The opportunity came to me when Dale Patterson hired me to coach the Defensive Line at NE Oklahoma A&M. I had never coached defensive line, but I soon began to study all the articles I could find and meet with anyone who would talk to me. The players were very similar to high school players in that they were all there to get better and to win. Junior colleges are such a transitional experience for all parties. Both players and coaches are trying to go on to a four year institution and better themselves. So you really get a feeling of team when everyone is trying to help the other out so everyone can accomplish what they want.
Mays: You have worked at FBS and now FCS schools at different positions on the staff. What is it about Tennessee State that keeps you coming back?
Roberts: In this business, you never know where you’ll end up and what walls you’ll be looking at from year to year. The only thing I’ve always tried to do, is do the best job I can at the time and work hard for that organization. I’ve been fortunate to have been asked back to a lot of schools I had previously worked at, Tennessee State being one of them.
Nashville is such a special place to myself and my family. My wife and I met in Nashville, my two girls were born here in Nashville, and it’s always felt like home. TSU provides a great environment as far as family. Our Head Coach, Coach Reed, has been a good friend for a number of years and we share very similar views on not only football but life. So when I was asked to come back it was an easy decision.
Mays: I once asked Jordan Simmons (S&C Coach at Nevada). What did he look for when a kid is on campus for recruiting? His response was, “I look for how they treat their mother/guardian and that tells a lot about that kids character.” What is it that you look for in a potential recruit, beyond skill and physique?
Roberts: As a Coach who also goes on the road as a recruiter, you are able to build a relationship with those recruits you are bringing in to be a part of your family. So you get to see how they interact with not only family members but also their community. So in saying that you are constantly looking at their character. The things you can’t see on film are often times the most important. Does he have passion for what he commits to, is he dependable, does he take care of his responsibilities? Those are the things that I find are the most important qualities of a player, other than skill set.
Mays: If football is played this season, what do you expect from your defense ? How do you also go about setting goals for the defense ?
Roberts: When we do eventually play, my expectation for our defense will not change from any other defense I’ve coached. We will be 100% in our Alignments, Assignments and Effort. Those are three things that take absolutely no talent to do. If we can do those three things with the talent that is on this team, we will be successful. As for our Goals that we set as a Team, it’s just all about going 1-0. Weather that’s in the classroom, weight room, a single rep in practice or the game. Be a winner at whatever you are doing at that time.
Mays: How do you improve the total defense which was last in the OVC last season? When you were with TSU in the past, your total defense was ranked nationally. How do you get back there ?
Roberts: The first thing you have to attack coming into a room that hasn’t had much success, is to change the mindset of your players. For whatever reason they weren’t successful, they need to understand that’s over. We have enough talent we just need to create new habits. Now get Aligned, Execute your Assignment, and then give Great Effort getting to the ball. The expectation is going to be set and we will hold them to that expectation.
Mays: You ended the 2019 season on a high note beating instate foe, Tennessee Tech. How can your defense build on that for this season’s campaign?
Roberts: I think with wins over Tennessee Tech and Austin Peay ,who won the OVC, we feel that we have a shot at having a great season. We just have to preach it’s never easy to win, and in order to change the outcome you have to change the mindset.
Mays: Can you give me two or three names of guys on defense that are ready to breakout?
Roberts: Having had Spring Football cancelled after only 2 days it’s really hard to say who our breakout players are going to be. I think going into fall camp, everyone has a clean slate and it is up to them to determine their success and ultimately ours as a team.
Mays: Two games have already been cancelled, one vs. Southern in the Detroit Football Classic and the other vs. Jackson State in the Southern Heritage Classic. How did that affect the team?
Roberts: Obviously those games are very important to us and HBCU community. They are highly competitive games in front of large crowds that our players enjoy competing in. I think we are all in the mind set of, let’s play when it’s appropriate and safe for both the participants and the fans.
Mays: For people who don’t understand about the HBCU, can you shed some light on it?
Roberts: HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) are in very unique class of schools. They are very rich in tradition and pride. While most compete in conferences that only have other HBCU’s, Tennessee State competes in the FCS Ohio Valley Conference. We do traditionally play two to three Classics a year outside our conference schedule. These classics tend to draw a large crowd fan base from each team, rekindling past rivalries. HBCU’s, like other schools are there to help young people try to develop their skills and talents in order to be as successful as possible in the real world.
David is a former writer on SB Nation (BuildingTheDam), covering all sports at Oregon State. David also conducted field interviews with students athletes across all sports at Oregon State. Before that, he wrote for Know It All Football. He is a huge sports fan and loves college football and is the brains behind the Twitter handle HardcoreFCS.