As the defensive coordinator at UConn, Todd Orlando (right) led several nationally-ranked top 10 defenses. After 12 years with the Huskies, TO is now the defensive chief for the Sun Belt Champion Panthers. Much like his predecessor, 2010 FIU DC Geoff Collins, TO's defenses will be fast and they'll bring pressure. What you won't get from TO is chili and despite being from northeast, you won't get clam chowder either. What you will get is the goal of FIU continuing to be the top-ranked defense in the Sun Belt Conference.
PP: Tell us a little bit about yourself and why you took the job here?
TO: I was at Connecticut for 12 years and then I came down here. One of the biggest reasons I took the job was because of the people at FIU and the coaches. I had met coach Cristobal when he was at Rutgers and he was in our league [the Big East] a while. I found that the people here at FIU are something special. To me that’s the biggest part of this deal because I can kind of relate to this, because in 2004 when we were at Connecticut trying to turn the corner we got to our first bowl game which was actually, ironically, versus Toledo in the Motor City Bowl, which is now the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. To see the excitement around that is similar to here. The sky is the limit at FIU.
PP: What’s your defensive philosophy?
TO: We’ll do what we think is best for these kids. Without getting into too many specifics of it for the teams we are going to be playing this season. I got a chance to watch all the FIU games of 2009 and 2010. I got a pretty decent feel of what this defense has to do in terms of the stuff that has been good to them and the stuff that I think we can modify a little bit. If we can create pressure and do some things that are advantageous for these guys then we are going to do it. Obviously, there are times where we will do something different with it. We are putting that all together right now. I am learning all the kids. I know them by numbers. Most of the guys I know by name right now. We’ll get a chance to start working with the guys. I’m really looking forward to spring ball. I know there are quite a few marquee guys that I think we have to do a really good job with them to make sure they are in the best positions. Then there are other guys that are coming along that we have to be smart about in terms of what we are going to ask them to do.
PP: What were your impressions watching the 2009 and 2010 FIU defenses?
TO: The mentality. The way that they played. There were similarities in terms of the stuff that they were playing. They played a little bit better than they did before. They were also playing some monster teams in 2009. When we were at Connecticut the biggest thing you have is there is so much more that goes on than what you see on the field. Whether it’s doing things the right way, making sure guys are going to class, the mentality to go along with the leadership all the things that you probably don’t see when you watch a game on Saturday. I think that was probably the biggest improvement. That’s usually what happens when a new coach comes in there and tries to develop the program. I’m just extremely happy that the kids got a little bit of the end results because some times when you are being pushed and you are being asked to do all the right things and be accountable, some times that doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to win games. So if you’re a kid and you look at it like I’m doing all this stuff and I’m doing things the right way and I’m being accountable and we’re only winning three or four games it’s hard to justify. But when you win seven games, you go to a bowl game and you win the bowl game there is a sense around here when you go into the locker room, when you come up here to the fieldhouse and the kids are around you that they are ready for more and that’s the real cool part about it. I’m so happy to be here because I have experienced that before and now it comes to keeping the guys focused. Now we’re the guys with the bullseye on our backs. We’re not the guys that other teams say, ‘Oh, you don’t have to worry about those guys because you’ll be fine when you play them.’ Everybody is now looking at us a different way so we have to work harder.
PP: Was being more physically mature one reason the 2010 defense did better than the 2009 defense or was it a mentality?
TO: Without trying to beat the kids up about the 2009 season, I think it was a combination. I think it was youth. I don’t think people understood how young the 2009 defense was and I think it was a combination of some of the teams that they played and basic fundamental stuff when you have younger guys: taking proper angles to the ball, being in the gap you are supposed to be in or not getting beat deep, things like that. Things that sound so simple, but when you are dealing with an 18-year-old kid who is out there for his first start or whatever it may be it’s not that easy. They grew up quite a bit last year with it. We have quite a few guys coming back, but there are some spots that we need to solidify. I just like the overall energy. Any time you have success, you have to make sure that we continue to tell the kids that it is going to take more because it can go two ways. It can be one of those deals where you come in a little too fat and you think things are just going to happen for us. That's where we’re really going to stress the leadership standpoint. We need guys to step up and be guys that are looking out. I have never been on a good defense or good team where we didn’t have the upperclassmen kind of manage everybody because we’re not going to be with them 24/7. So it’s going to be their jobs to make sure everybody is focused. If we are trying to get this to the next level then we can’t stay at the same level that we were last year.
PP: You played linebacker at Wisconsin. How do you see the linebackers in this defense?
TO: We’ve got some talent. There are some things we have to clean up fundamentally and technique-wise. Not having worked with them, I think we have to develop a little bit more hardness. I think that is physical. I don’t know as much about the mental part of them because I haven’t had a chance to work with them and find out how tough they are mentally. The biggest thing we are really going to hone into is physical and mental hardness. I think that’s overall. I think if you ask coach Cristobal he will probably say that as a team, but that’s the one thing I think we can become better at.
PP: Is the Orlando last name a Latin background? Geoff Collins, the defensive coordinator last season, had a saying “Get your chili hot!” do you have anything like that? Maybe with clam chowder being from Connecticut?
TO: No, Orlando is Italian. No [laughs] I don’t have any sayings. No clam chowder. I don’t even like clam chowder. I used to always have people come up to me in Connecticut and say “hit the chow-da” [here, TO does his best impersonation of a New England accent]. I never was a “chow-da” person.
PP: Did you face a lot of spread offenses in the Big East?
TO: Yeah, that’s what college football has turned into right now. The Big East is very similar to the Sun Belt without all the exotic stuff of the spread offense. You look at a team like Cincinnati, West Virginia, South Florida was spread, but then changed when Skip Holtz took over. Then you have the teams like Rutgers and Pitt that are more conventional two-back offense kind of like an FAU or Western Kentucky. If you had to play eight teams in a league in college football probably five or six would be spread offenses. I think if you go to any conference that’s what you would see.
PP: Is the key to stopping the spread offense, playing assignment football, knowing what you personally as a player has to do?
TO: To me it’s part of that. I look at it this way: get as much speed on the field as you can. People use that loosely, but when the offenses start to spread people out and try to get you in space you need speed to cover up people. It’s what you said: the spread is option football out of the shotgun. That’s probably the best way to describe it. Whether it’s dive option or a triple or read zone option out of the shotgun or throw a bubble or sling a pitch it’s kind of all the same with it. I like the athleticism of our defense. There are not a lot of guys on this roster that can’t run. You are going to see when this whole recruiting class pans out we’ve gone after some super high-end speed guys, explosive guys and that’s what you need because there are going to be some mistakes on defense, but if a guy can run by another guy then make a play with it, then we can take 1-on-1s, which usually happen in the spread, and turn them into 2 or 3-on-1s because we got enough speed to run to the ballcarrier. Then you can eliminate big plays. We can’t have enough speed on the field for those types of offenses.
PP: Why do you think you were able to have some of the top 10 defenses in the nation while you were at UConn?
TO: Experience. We had seniors, but we had some talented guys. As they get a little older, they learn the package. They were a physical group. It’s the same thing that we see here at FIU. If you stay consistent coaching-wise and you have a package and you believe in the package and you know the ins and outs of it, you can put your players in pretty good positions. The players I see here have a lot of ability. Now we have to coach them up. I am eager to get going, even though we won’t get going for a while. I wish spring practice started tomorrow. I am fired up to be able to work with guys because you come in here and you see how excited these players are for the season to start and have the opportunity to do what they did last season again. I think this team is really fired up because when you have success you want more. I’m sure last season winning the conference and winning their first bowl game felt pretty good for these guys. We have to continually work this season and understand that nothing is going to be given to us. We have to push even harder to keep this thing pointing forward.
Thanks TO for taking the time out to talk to us here on The Prowl.
The Prowl will head up the Florida Turnpike to Del Boca Vista, Phase 2 for the FIU vs. Florida Atlantic basketball game on Saturday night at 8 p.m. We will be on-line at 7:47 p.m. from Hooterville Arena. You can also catch the game on TV as the Sun Belt Network/CSS will televise the game.