Q&A with tight end and special teams coach Eric Link

Tight ends and coach for special teams Eric Link talks about what tight ends need to do better in 2023, what Ryan Hoerstkamp puts in position, what Luther Burden III needs to improve on as a punt returner, and more.

– How does it feel to be back for another year of spring football?

“It feels great. It actually seems like it’s going faster and faster every year.

– What tight ends have you noticed on a handful of exercises so far?

“Honestly, I think they all did a good job together. I think we’ve certainly made steps in the right direction. I’d say Max Whisner is a young kid who you can tell has really capitalized and taken advantage of his redshirt season. Physically he’s further than he should be. He’s been here a calendar year, so he sure is a guy. I think Tyler Stephens is doing some really good things. I think Ryan Hoerstkamp – they’ve all done a good job just by having consistency. Day after day I kept making progress and taking steps forward instead of taking steps back.

– Defensive line coach Al Davis said he wants his group to have two players who have one seat and work in tandem, rather than just having one player who plays all snaps at that one seat. Is that a model you want to follow for tight end #1 and tight end #2, or something like that?

“I mean ideally you want to have the diversity within one person to play multiple tight end positions. But everyone has strengths and weaknesses, so it’s really what you’re trying to build on those strengths and bolster those weaknesses. So, a guy’s skills – maybe he’s a more talented receiver than a blocker. Well, we need to make sure we keep developing those blocking skills. We have to make sure that we’re not asking him to do things he’s not good at. So, to answer your question, we want our guys to have diversity and the ability to do multiple things. But at the end of the day sure guys have certain skills and we’re going to really build on that.”

– What have you seen from Kicker Blake Craig?

“We were really positive. We were undoubtedly very excited to bring Blake here. He is an extremely talented kicker. He did a really good job in fourth practice and is brand new. He should still be a senior in high school, but he’s certainly making progress in the right direction. He’s done a really good job and we’re thankful and thankful he’s definitely here.

– What do you expect from Luther Burden as a sophomore punt returner?

“I think the #1 thing about Luther is that we know he’s talented. I think he’s one of the more gifted ball carriers on our team in every position. But I would say one of his biggest weaknesses was just decision making. That’s a tremendous quality to have in this position, and that comes with the experience of putting yourself in those situations, making those decisions, and understanding that you don’t necessarily have to force them to take chances, but that the number one goal of the punt return team and the kickoff team is to make sure we put the ball on offense. Obviously we want to be explosive. We want to be dynamic. We want to have the ability to create returns, but at the end of the day we have to make sure the offense gets the ball back.”

– When he had those rookie mistakes, how do you deal with that as a coach?

“You have to train and correct it. You have to train it and try to educate as much as you can about these situations before they happen. But there is no better teacher in probably any sport, certainly football, than experience. You go back and you look at Luther in high school, he had, I don’t know, 10-12 punt returns specifically for touchdowns. You go back and look at it and I think every 10 of those is at least nine out of ten was the ball that hit the ground.

“So it’s just different that at this level you’re going to catch a lot more balls in the air than you’re going to pick one off the ground. I say that and against Abilene Christian, at his first touch the ball hits the ground “And that’s when I knew we were cooking with fat because I knew that guy is used to it but you have to correct it. You have to train it and continue to educate these guys about these situations as they arise.”

– Hoesrtkamp flashed during the New Mexico state game. When he reaches his potential, what can he be for that offense?

“Ryan was a guy who probably left high school as a receiver. He played more on the fringes than at the core. The biggest adjustment for Ryan, I think, is just learning to play the full tight end position. He’s got really good ball ability and ability to make plays, but he’s just going to be an every-down player, able to play as a blocker but also play as a receiver, which is what we want him to do.

“Ryan is focused on getting better every day and I know that may sound cliche, but that has to be our sole focus. I think he has the ability to make games. I think he brings a lot to the table but Ryan is working towards becoming a complete tight end. Sometimes that takes time and maturing, both physically and mentally.

– Does that include Ryan building himself up based on the nature of the position?

“Yes, I mean, I don’t think Ryan will ever be a 260-pound guy. I think right now it’s harder than ever. I think he was 245 or 246 pounds the other day. There’s a fine line between getting too big and losing a little athleticism or some speed, but you’re absolutely right. You’re going to play core within the formation in the Southeastern Conference – there are some grown men, so you’d better be able to have the ability to play physically and withstand the physicality of the game.”

– To see the tight end room take a step forward next season, what’s the biggest thing you want to see with this group right now?

“Just consistency. I mentioned this to another person earlier, but there is no better teacher than experience. This group that came in last year was really inexperienced. Very few snaps were played at this position. So I think we gained a lot of experience, both good and bad. So, that was a great teacher for us. But only the consistency of our game. In all phases.

I mean, the tight end position is one of the hardest positions to play and evaluate in my opinion because we ask so much of them. You need to block not just on the edge, but in the core. They have to be good at passing, they have to be able to walk paths and they have to have good ball skills to be able to play with the ball. So you really need to master a lot of skills and that just takes time. These guys are working really hard and developing that, but I think that if we’re playing consistently day in and day out, that’s really what we’re looking for.

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