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

Tight ends and special teams coach Erik Link talks about what the tight ends need to do better in 2023, what Ryan Hoerstkamp brings to the 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 happens quicker and quicker each year. Then, once you get going on the field and get rolling it’s always nice to get back out there in the grass with the guys for sure.”

– Through a handful of practices what tight ends have stood out to you so far?

“Honestly, I think all of them collectively have done a nice job. I think we’ve certainly taken strides in the right direction. I would say Max Whisner is a young kid that you can tell has really capitalized and taken advantage of his redshirt season. From a physical standpoint, he’s further along as he should be. He’s been here for a calendar year, so he’s one guy for sure. I think Tyler Stephens is doing some really good things. I think Ryan Hoerstkamp 一 they’ve all done a nice job of just having consistency. Day in and day out continuing to take strides and steps forwards as opposed to steps backward.”

– Defensive line coach Al Davis said he wants his group to have two players to have one spot and work as a tandem instead of just having one guy playing all of the snaps at that one spot. Is that a model you want to follow for tight end No. 1 and tight end No. 2 or something like that?

“I mean, ideally you’d like to have the diversity within an individual to play multiple tight end positions. But, everybody has strengths and weaknesses, so trying to build on those strengths and fortify those weaknesses is really what you’re trying to do. So, a guy’s skill set 一 maybe he comes in as a more talented receiver as opposed to a blocker. Well, we have to make sure we’re continuing to develop those blocking abilities. We’ve got to make sure that we’re not asking him to do things that he’s not good at yet. So, to answer your question we want to have the diversity and the ability with our guys to be able to do multiple things. But at the end of the day, certain guys have certain skill sets and that’s really what we’re going to build upon.”

– What have you seen from kicker Blake Craig?

“Been really positive. There’s no doubt we were really excited to get Blake in here. He’s an extremely talented kicker. He’s done a really nice job four practices in and he’s brand new. He should still be a senior in high school, but he’s certainly taking strides in the right direction. He’s done a really nice job and we’re thankful and grateful that he’s here for sure.”

– What are you looking for out of Luther Burden in year two as a punt returner?

“I think the No. 1 thing with Luther is we know he’s talented. I think he’s one of the more gifted ball carriers on our team at any position. But I would say one of his major weaknesses was just decision-making. That’s a huge quality that you got to have at that position and that comes with experience and putting yourself in those situations to make those decisions and understanding you don’t have to necessarily force it. You can let the game come to you and when you get an opportunity capitalize, but the No. 1 objective of the punt return team and of the kickoff team is to make sure we give the ball to the 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’ve got to make sure the offense gets the ball back.”

– When he did have those freshman mistakes how do you approach that as a coach?

“You’ve got to coach it and correct it. You’ve got to coach it and you try to educate on those situations really before they happen as much as you possibly can. But there is no greater teacher in probably any sport, but certainly in football, than experience. You go back and you watch Luther in high school, he had I don’t know 10-12 punt returns for touchdowns specifically. You go back and watch him and I think all 10 of those are at least nine out of 10 were the ball hitting the ground.

“So, it’s just different 一 you’re going to catch a lot more balls in the air at this level than you are taking one off of the ground. I say that and versus Abilene Christian, on his first touch the ball hits the ground 一 and that’s when I knew we were cooking with grease because I knew this is what this guy is used to but you’ve got to correct it. You’ve got to coach it and continue to educate those guys on those situations as they arise.”

– Hoesrtkamp flashed during the New Mexico State game.If he reaches his potential what can he be for this offense?

“Ryan was a guy that came out of high school as more of a receiver probably. Played more on the perimeter than in the core. So, the biggest adjustment for Ryan I think is just learning to play the complete position of tight end. He’s got really good ball skills and the ability to make plays. But just becoming an every-down player to be able to execute as a blocker, but also make plays as a receiver that we want him to make.

“Ryan’s focused on getting better every day and I know that might sound cliche, but that’s got to be all of our focus. I do think he has the ability to make plays. I think he brings a lot to the table, but Ryan’s working on becoming a complete tight end. Sometimes that takes some time and some maturation both physically and mentally.”

– Does that include Ryan bulking up because of the nature of the position?

“Yeah, I mean I don’t think Ryan’s ever going to be a 260-pound guy. I think right now he’s as heavy as he’s ever been. I think he weighed in the other day at 245 or 246 pounds. There’s a fine line between getting too big and losing some athleticism or some speed, but you’re exactly right. You’re going to play in the core within the formation in the Southeastern Conference 一 there are some grown men so you 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 right now with this group?

“Just consistency. I mentioned this earlier to another person, but there is no greater teacher than experience. This group coming into last year was really inexperienced. There were very little snaps played at this position. So, I think we gained a lot of experience, both good and bad. So, that’s been a great teacher for us. But just the consistency of our play. In all phases.

I mean the tight end position is one of the most difficult positions to play in my opinion and evaluate because we ask them to do so much. They have to block not only on the perimeter but in the core. They have to pass protect, they have to be able to run routes and they have to have good ball skills to make plays on the ball. So, they have to really master a lot of skill sets and that just takes time. Those guys are really working hard and continuing to develop that, but I think just consistency of play day in and day out is really what we’re looking for.”

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