By Joshua Hoepelman | October 9, 2023
UAlbany Defensive Coordinator Bill Nesselt
Photo Credit : UAlbany Athletics / ualbanysports.com
[This interview was conducted by football team student manager Joshua Hoepelman]
Three weeks ago I sat down with the defensive coordinator for the University at Albany football team, Bill Nesselt. Nesselt and I were already familiar with each other as I am one of the student managers for the football team. The defensive side of the ball has been a rather intriguing story this year after rebounding from a less than ideal season. Nesselt has his unit playing well through the first few games, so picking his brain was something I was looking forward to. In this conversation, we touch on the trip to Hawaii, trust, some of Nesselt's past, men’s mental health, and everything in between.
The following is a transcript of that interview.
First thing first, you’ve had two back-to-back road games with flights only one day apart, and one of those flights was across the country to Hawaii. How are you feeling after a hectic two weeks of traveling?
I think our guys responded really well. It was a big challenge to do what we're doing, and that's not accounting for the 60 minutes of play on the field. Guys are away from friends, family, the comfort of the dorms, apartments, and whatnot. They had to deal with not only the travel but also the different environment. I was happy with the way they responded, we only had a couple of issues on both trips and nothing more than just a lack of focus. But I’m really, really happy with the players that us coaches have, I think we did a really good job setting the standard.
After all the traveling, you guys made it to Hawaii and back home. How would you say the team bonded and grew from the trip?
I think we definitely got closer. I think you're on some teams where the seniors don’t talk to freshmen, and starters don’t talk to the scouting guys, but there's none of that here. I think the experience of being at that Marshall game, sticking together, and having a chance to win in the fourth quarter really helped. It started obviously with all the traveling but once we got there, we ate meals together, we went to the beach together. It was very natural for us, guys [were] together even if they weren't told to be.
Coach Gattuso couldn’t make it to Hawaii due to an illness. Coach Ambrose did an excellent job stepping up while he was gone. Was preparing for this game any different without our head coach?
It was more or less the same. I think he does a really good job with his staff, allowing us a certain amount of independence, because he trusts that we understand his philosophy and the culture of the program. There [were] a couple of times on game day I wish he was there because he's able to provide insight as someone with the experience he has, but also he looks at things in a different viewpoint as the head coach and not only as a defensive coach or as an offensive coach.
Do I wish he was there? Yeah, there's definitely a time where I would have asked like “Hey, what do you think of that?” But when you fall on tough times like that, it's the old saying we always fall back on training, and he is the same way with our players. He has trained us as coaches to be prepared.
Traveling aside, we’ve played two FBS teams these last two weeks, and seem to have held our own despite not being able to come back home with a win. When I watch our team, it feels like they believe they can beat anyone put in front of them. What do you have to say about this team's resilience so far this season?
Started in the offseason, we trained our asses off in the spring and in the summer. The really good teams are [ones where] the players drive it, and it's just the coaches who are kind of keeping them in line and in order. And I think we're very player driven. The guys like Reese [Poffenbarger], [Faysal] Aden, Roy [Alexander], and Scott [Houseman]. On defense, AJ [Simon] and Joe Greaney, Elijah [Hills], DK [Dylan Kelly]. I mean, the list goes on and on. You don't have to tell those guys what to do, which then gives them more power to be who they are, and we trust it. I think that's part of it.
To add to that question, obviously we didn’t get the result we envisioned these last two weeks. But if you believe in silver linings, our defense has had four interceptions in the last two games, one for a touchdown. How do you try to carry the moment from solid defensive performances against FBS teams, even though you're not walking away with a win?
Starts in practice. The practice week leading to Marshall was not great defensively. We missed a bunch of tackles in practice, and then what ended up happening during the game- missed tackles. So I think we had a really good week of practice in Hawaii, it was just tough to do. But I think what the guys see is it's not about the results. It's about the process of using the week and not just going through the motions of it.
Tuesday practices for us are hard physical base practices, Wednesday practices [we] work on third down, and run-heavy on Thursday. We put it all together. So we'll be building through the week, so that on Saturday, they're able to perform the way they know they should perform. But then also I think they look after the games on Saturday, they look back at practice and realize everything we practice defensively for the most part is what you see during the game. There's obviously a couple of things that are going to be new every week offensively that they have to adjust to, and that's what they're trained to do.
While on the topic of interceptions, let’s talk about Larry [Walker Jr.] for a minute. How important is he to this defense and to our locker room, being that he is one of the leaders on this team?
I think he has a big voice. I think he’s learned to use it. There are certain guys who when they’re leading [it] doesn't necessarily mean they’re talking all the time. There's a certain work ethic that goes, there's also a certain amount of accountability. So when Larry messes up, he gets treated the same way anybody would. I'm probably harder on him. Coach Pete is harder on him as well, more than any other player on this defense.
What he's done in his career here, obviously came as a freshman and worked his way up with a lot of really good players to look up to. But I think what he's done leadership-wise has been awesome. He's been missing some of the plays right now. He's outstanding out there with that great interception, but if you asked him how he played against Hawaii he could come up with one, two, or three plays that he really messed up on. [Those] could have made a really big difference, and he's got to fix those.
One of the main ways to force interceptions is with pressure. As of today, not one but two of our defensive linemen are leading the FCS in sacks at number one and two. What can you say about Anton [Juncaj] and AJ, what they mean to this defense and team as well?
Again, I keep going back to [how] it starts in practice. AJ is the hardest practice player I've ever been around in my entire career, from high school to all my coaching jobs across Maryland and here. No one practices harder and better than he does. So what you're seeing on Saturday, I expect that from him, because everything he does on Saturdays, all the pass rush moves, all the run fits, you literally see it every single day in practice.
AJ's motor is unlike anything you'll see. Usually you see a motor like that guy on a guy who weighs 225 [pounds] but he’s 265 [pounds], 255 [pounds], whatever he is, still relentless. And he's absolutely going to evolve. It takes a lot of determination and discipline to do that too. I think that what we do in practice is everything, but what they're doing up front right now, that's how I want to play. And that's how Coach Gattuso wants us to play. If those two dudes and then the other guys are doing what they're supposed to, that's how we win football games.
We talked about the secondary and the defensive line, we can't forget about the linebackers. Dylan Kelly leads the team in tackles right now, what do you think he provides to this team outside of being the leading tackler?
Stability for sure. I think he does a really good job keeping calm in high-pressure moments. I take a lot of pride in myself, and so when I see him doing that also, I don't know if he's doing it because I am or that's just [his] normal personality. But his position has a lot of work to do.
He has to know what coverages we’re playing on both sides of the field, getting the pressure set, so there's a lot of responsibility on [his] shoulders. But Dylan's work ethic from coming in as a walk-on, earning a scholarship, earning the starting position, to earning all-conference, I'm not saying you could’ve seen it happening but he was taking the steps. He didn't go from being a walk-on to being all-conference. He went through the process of earning his way. But both Larry and Dylan have left a lot of plays on the field. There are a couple of run fits that he knows he missed, he knows he just needs to clean some things up.
Overall, this defense has been playing well, only allowing on average a little over 21 points a game which is fourth in the CAA. How have you been able to get this unit to play so well after a rough 2022 campaign?
I think they needed to know that we as coaches trusted them. Usually, when you talk about trust, players need to trust the coaches in the spring, summer workouts, training camp, and even as we go through the season. Our goal as a defensive staff was to get them to understand we trusted them. I've always been players over plays, and it's not the X's and O's it's the Jimmies and the Joes. I love schemes and pressures, but if you don't have the right guys in the right positions, it doesn't matter.
So every day it's a constant battle for us to get them to understand that. We're not putting Aamir [Hall] on an island just because we trust him. We're setting up one-on-one rushes for Anton and AJ because we trust them. So I think that's been the biggest thing. And then for most of the coaching staff, we're super close and we have really hard conversations with each other. So I think when the players see us coaches holding each other accountable, it enables them to hold each other accountable because they see it coming from us.
This is your seventh year coaching here at UAlbany, from helping with the d-line and outside linebackers to [being] the special teams coordinator. How has this year been different than the last few?
The only real difference is on gameday. Other than that, no different. For me personally, this is what I always wanted to do since I was a kid. I've always wanted to be a defensive coordinator. Don't ask me why, but I did. So for me, I've always prepared that this is what I do.
Whether you're an intern or whether you're not in the position you want, doesn't matter. You just keep working. And so for me, it's really just on Saturday, I get to practice exactly the same as if I was coaching the D line or whatever. So you know, this is the enjoyable part. The Ray Lewis quote, “You pay me to practice Monday through Saturday. On Sundays on game day, I do that for free,” that’s how I feel, they’re paying me to be in the office right now. Saturday I do it for free.
To add to that, you’ve been a coach for multiple teams at the collegiate level over the last few years but have decided to stay here the longest. What makes UAlbany special in your eyes?
I think it's the ability to grow both as a human outside of the game, but also as a coach. I've been fortunate enough that I've worked for a lot of really good coaches here; Tiger, Clark, Sanchez, Lynskey, and Eric. The list goes on and on, really great assistant coaches. So there's a lot of knowledge that goes around this building on a daily basis. Also, personal growth is huge.
That approach allows for you to be a human outside the office. You're supposed to go on vacation, you're supposed to take your wife on a date. I mean, being close to Saratoga really works for me. I have family in Connecticut. I have family in Boston too, so geographically it works for me. There's not one singular reason I've stayed too long or one thing that has made me stay. My wife finally likes it up here too so that helps, but there are definitely more positives than negatives.
I know you were a defensive lineman at UMass, who on this team reminds you most of yourself when you played in college?
Probably [Joseph] Greaney. I watch the way he plays and I think it's similar to how I was not known for flashy techniques, not always gonna be perfect. But there's a certain will and determination that Joe shows every single day. He never complains. Knock on wood, he doesn't get hurt.
But he enjoys the life of being a student athlete. He's great in the classroom. He has a great group of friends. Some people say I get on the field, I'm a different person, he’s still goofy and has a great time. And that's a compliment. I was not a great football player. Joe's not a great football player. But what Joe does is he maximizes his abilities. He understands sometimes it's okay to be second fiddle.
As a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High School, what could you tell me about playing with and against players who would go on to the NFL?
I was literally the worst player in my graduating class. My graduating class was a down year and there were 11 of us that went Division I, so you know, the day in and day out work of practice really made game day so simple when you're going up against these guys. I was fortunate enough to go against guys like John Carter, James White, Geno Atkins, Sam Young, and the list goes on and on, and I think more than anything it made me realize I’m not hot crap. I thought I was hot crap.
Then on the first day, I’m going up against Geno Atkins, Major Wright. That's all very fun, it definitely humbles you. But then they also build you back up, in the sense that even if you don't think you're that good, you're still good enough to play. If you're good here, you have a good shot of playing everywhere. I think what they do is instill a certain level of confidence in the student athlete that’s not done anywhere else.
The message they say every year is “tradition never graduates.” And it's true. There've been a lot of great football players who have come through that program, who made the NFL, but then there's also a whole group of guys who didn't play in college or didn't play in the NFL, and we were still super successful because of the values that were taught to us on a daily basis.
You got to play football at UMass, but did you play any other sports in high school?
I played baseball in high school but I already had my scholarship for football. So baseball was just kind of like I was doing it to be with the guys. I pitched like 20 innings my senior year. I was perfectly okay with that, I was already going to college. I enjoyed baseball, I wish I would have stopped a bit earlier so I could have been more physically prepared for college football. But those are those long bus rides for baseball games a couple nights a week. I look back and I don't regret doing it whatsoever.
After graduating from high school, you went on to play at UMass before suffering a career ending injury. What was your journey like going from player to coach?
It could have been really difficult, because I was going into my junior year when I stopped playing, and I got directly into the student system. So I was coaching the players that I played with and who I lived with my junior year. I didn't have much of a say, it was menial tasks; breakdown data, setting up drills, you know, just kind of getting my feet wet. Then my senior year, I was fully locked in and doing all the work a normal position coach would be doing.
It was a great experience and I knew I wanted to coach anyway. So the timing was right, and I would never turn anyone away from becoming a coach. As long as you have the support system that understands that the hours are tough, even if you lose a game or you have a bad practice, the people at home are still waiting for you to come home and be with you. So the transition allowed me that extra time I think to work out the kinks and understand that.
You know, I'm at the point in my career now where I think I have a pretty good handle on it. I didn't have that extra time on the front end. Maybe I wouldn't have been as prepared.
When you were learning how to become a coach, what would you say came easy to you and what took a little more time to learn?
Defense in football is really simple. It's a numbers game. If they have four you need five, if they have five you need six, right? So to me, the math of it isn't necessarily the complicated part. That's the part of it I actually enjoy. The complicated part at times is when I might be saying one thing to one guy in the room, he understands completely, but to somebody else sitting in the room, it may sound like complete gibberish to them. So I learned that guys have different ways they acquire knowledge.
It's difficult because every single person learns differently. That's coaches, players, it's everyone. So, really getting to know the player and the person so you can understand their learning style is a little bit of a tall task. The other thing is just understanding that as a defensive coach, you're always trying to stop them from scoring. Our main goal on defense is to prevent points.
So for me, it took me a while to really clearly fully understand that offenses are not trying to score on every single play. Sometimes five yards is good, that's a success. So for me, it was a transition of on first down giving up three yards to make it 2nd and 7. That's a win. The offense isn’t trying to score every down.
Being a part of a football team is like having a second family, but obviously, you have a family at home too. How excited are you and your family knowing you are expecting to bring another member to your family in October?
It’s very exciting. I’ve been getting a lot of crap for the timing of it because it’s in the middle of the season, but they understand. There’s never a wrong time to have a kid. I think the players could see how excited I am, coaches, and really the whole program can see how excited I am.
Me and my wife have tried before and it hasn’t been successful, and I'm very open about that. You know one thing that men don't do is talk, and it’s important to talk about these types of things. We’re expecting a baby girl, which is also exciting because I’m surrounded by men 24/7. But yeah, we're very excited to finally be able to bring a child into our family.