MADISON - With the departure of Chris Maragos in the Wisconsin secondary, Jay Valai has an opportunity to elevate his play while becoming a leader at the safety position. With spring ball half way through, Valai seems to be approaching practice in that very manner.
At the conclusion of a recent practice, BadgerBlitz.com caught up with the senior strong safety. The following is a question and answer with Valai.
First of all, like I've been asking all the guys, how did winter conditioning go for you?
Valai: It went great. I got my body back. We had a lot of momentum off the Miami game and we were all ready to work. It was great.
Does that help when you win a bowl game?
Valai: It's a lot better than 42-6 or 42-13 whatever it was. I don't count that last one when T.J. Theus caught the bubble. That doesn't count. I say 42-6. It's a lot better coming off of that, but we've got to realize that that season is done and we're just going forward. We need to keep our heads down and keep grinding.
I remember last year at this time I was talking to people and they were all saying that coach Ben Herbert was making it a competitive nature in the weight room. Did he do the same thing again?
Valai: Oh yeah. Herb always talks about how he grew up on High Street in PA (Pennsylvania) over there and they were always working, grinding and fighting. So he brings that to our weight room every day. That's how our mentality is here and now on the football field too.
Does he work it position by position or defense against offense? How does he do it?
Valai: Whoever by whoever. If he sees you talking noise to each other in the weight room, if he sees you with a personal conflict, he'll put you head up against each other in the bench, the squat and how many reps you can hold up. He wants to see how mentally tough you are because he knows that translates to the football field.
So you've got to watch who you talk smack to?
Valai: Oh yeah. Or if you're late he'll make you walk up 16 or 17 flights of stairs for anybody. That person walks around with Gatorade in his hand and drinking it while you're walking up with 10 of us with 50 or 75 pound bags of sand. It's tough.
What time were workouts?
Valai: They varied. Seven o'clock a.m. or 2:30 p.m. Whatever Herb wants. Sometime it's 5:30 a.m. and we had to be in there at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m.
In the morning?
Valai: Wednesday mornings. No going out on those nights obviously. We knew it was going to help us.
So you are speaking from experience with the bags and walking up flights of stairs?
Valai: Oh yeah. I had to do it for a couple of people. We're a team and everybody has got to sacrifice.
Just talk about being halfway through the spring season already. Are you doing some of the things you set out to do?
Valai: Oh yeah. I wanted to be more technically sound and more of a vocal leader. We're just coming together as a unit, I think that's the main thing. I think if our team plays as one unit on the football field and one unit as a team it's going to be shown on the football field.
A couple of years ago, to me, we had the most talented team I've ever played on in my life but we didn't really come together as a unit. Last year's team was nowhere close to as talented as that but we played way better as a team. That just says everything.
Are you seeing parallels to right now and this time and this time last year?
Valai: Yeah, we're working and we're grinding. That's the number one thing. With that, I don't think anybody can stop us. If we keep working and grinding, I think we'll be good.
Is it easy to let it affect you when you 10-3 and beat a Miami who was a top 15 team. Is it easy to let it give you a big ego?
Valai: Like I said, before that we lost 42-6 because that last touchdown from T.J. Theus didn't count for me. Losing 42-6 and barely beating Cal Poly at home? I still remember how I felt over there (on the sideline). I was sitting over there and they threw a bomb to the kid that went to the NFL (Ramses Barden). I was thinking, 'Is that legal?'
But with stuff like that, I'm an old cat now and I haven't forgot everything that we went through. It doesn't affect me at all. From one year to the next you can go from great to terrible. Minnesota went from 1-10 my redshirt freshman year to a bowl game team and going back and forth. You've got to look at all that stuff.
So it just kind of fuels you more than anything
Valai: Oh it will fuel you, but it will also make you realize that you've got to keep your head down and keep grinding because tomorrow is not promised.
Obviously you've got a new coach back there. What's it like playing for coach Chris Ash and how different is he from coach Kerry Cooks?
Valai: Well, coach Ash is more vanilla ice cream and coach Cooks is more chocolate ice cream. (Laughing). No. Coach Ash is a great dude and coach Cooks was a character, too. Both were characters.
Coach Ash, he's real technically sound and he'll get all over you, but he's doing it because he cares. I really respect that a lot. Coach Ash is a great coach and I really think he's helping me out and taking my game to the next level. Coach Cooks was my boy and coach Randall McCray was a great guy and they're both great human beings, but coach Ash is really helping me out technically and communication wise.
He seems like he's not afraid to let you know that you screwed up. Is that how you get better though?
Valai: Coach Ash is definitely not scared. I mean, when he talks you know he cares. If he's not saying anything to you, you know, and coach Ash is a loud talker. I like the way coach Ash presents himself and carries himself. He's really helping us out a lot.
Is that how you get better though, that instant feedback?
Valai: Instant feedback with coach Ash with a capital I. Every time when he comes and talks, he doesn't waste his words. He says something to you, you better pay attention and don't talk back. Just listen. You see it with Antonio Fenelus more than anybody else.
Antonio, everything coach Ash says, Antonio is probably having the best, to me, spring ball more than anybody else on the team right now. And that is just because he's listening to coach Ash and filtering everything and keeps on moving forward.
With stuff like that, you just keep listening to coach Ash. He's helped me out a lot. Me having a pick and knocking down a ball instead of just trying to kill somebody 24/7. He's helping me out a lot.
Obviously you look at the safety position now and you've got Aaron Henry working back there. He started working back there last year, but is he starting to come along?
Valai: Yeah, tomato boy is coming good. That's what we call him because he's from Immokalee (FL). We call him Gucci Mane lips. That's the other nickname we have. Aaron is a good dude and he's a hard worker. He's a funny guy and he helps me out. Aaron and I have been good friends forever so it's nothing new. We're just helping out with the communication and being ball hawks.
Is it kind of a fresh start for him? After the injury and with a new position and a new coach?
Valai: Injury, going through trials and tribulations. Aaron is really working hard and coming together. With me and Hank back there, like I said, we're two scoops of chocolate instead of cookies and cream with me and Maragos. I think Maragos was a great player and he's going to get married pretty soon here and wanted me to be his wedding singer.
What's your specialty? What's your go to song there?
Valai: Freddy Jackson's 'Rock me tonight.' Or probably 'You are my lady' by Freddy Jackson. That's a great song. So Maragos, if you're listening, just call me.
I think having Hank back there, he's a smart guy, a great worker and he's going to be great for the football team back there.
I know you guys aren't in there a whole lot for this, but what's going on with Jared Abbrederis? He's getting behind the safeties all the time.
Valai: I'm not in there. Abbrederis is just making plays on the ball, but I think we just need to be more technically sound when Abbrederis is in there because he's running the deep ball when he's in there. I think we need to be smart and play a little better.
But he's going deep on us a lot and it's starting to make me mad. It's frustrating, but he's making plays and you've got to give the kid respect. He's a walk on that's working his butt off to get where he's at right now.
Is there anybody else that has maybe stood out to you so far on the offensive side of the ball, or defensive side?
Valai: Fenelus on defense a lot. Kevin Rouse is playing pretty well at linebacker, Kevin Claxton too. On offense Zach Brown is running the ball pretty hard. Zach will give you a little one, two step and he's been breaking people off left and right here with Montee Ball being hurt here.
People go to sleep on Zach. I'm pretty sure Zach went for 250 yards on Minnesota and he ran for 124 against that Michigan team that beat Tebow and the Florida boys. Zach Brown, he's a hard worker. If you go to sleep on Z, he'll wind up running for the G.
Zach is a great football player and he's working really hard. Obviously the magician Scott Tolzien back there, he's just pump faking and his eyes are going all over the place. Scott is a really smart football player more than anything else and he's got all those threats with Nick Toon and Lance Kendricks and David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson.
The list goes on and on. How about some of these other guys. You mentioned Claxton going to linebacker, but you also have Conor O'Neill going out to safety. How is he doing?
Valai: Conor is a smart dude too. He's working hard and he's grinding. Jordan Kohout, also. Jordan, he's a fresh face and he's working really hard, too. All the young bucks are coming along and they know one thing. Like coach Joe Rudolph said in there, you didn't come to Wisconsin to sit on the bench. You better want to start.
If you didn't want to start, you shouldn't be here in the first place. You better come with it everyday and that's the mentality that I've had here since I was a freshman. Madison is great, but I'm from Dallas, Texas. I didn't leave all my family and friends to come sit on the bench and just talk about, 'Hey, I'm on the Wisconsin football team.'
I wouldn't come this far to do that. So you better have that mentality and come with it.
The following is the audio file from the Valai interview.
Valai, spring camp 2010
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