Exclusive Interview: D.J. Hernandez - The Player [Part 1]

Photo: Bob Child/AP
D.J. Hernandez is a well-known name among everyone who follows college football and some may have heard of him as Aaron Hernandez's brother. However, how many of you know D.J. as the coach/import in Europe?

For the ones who are about to "meet" D.J. - Matic Pirnat, his former teammate, and now coach in Slovenia with Domžаle Tigers said: "I had a privilege to be on the same team as Jonathan for two years. He was by far the best athlete on the field in any game we played. He was making play running and passing the ball. When we needed some help on defense or special teams he jumped right in and made plays. Off the field he was a great teammate. He really cared about everyone on the team and wanted to help them to become the best possible players. He was one of the main reasons I came back the second year, when he took the head coaching position. We were provided detailed scouting reports and great game plans before every game. I would recommend him to any team that is looking for a coach (or player)!"

Now, we had a great talk with D.J., who shared his football journey with us - from playing at UCONN, coaching at University of Miami, Brown, Iowa... To playing and coaching in Austria. The passion and genuine love he has for football swept us off our feet instantly. And, guess what! He may be returning to Europe!


THE YOUNG BARRY SANDERS, OR NOT

My dad and uncle played football, and spending time with them is what made me realize “Hey, football is fun!”. At that point it was running around playing flag football. As you progress to tackle football – you have to learn how to hit and tackle. At an early age playing flag – you switch positions a lot, and I'm thankful for it, because when you progress to tackle – you can have a better understanding of offense and defense, and what the game has to offer. Of course, those are the things you don't realize at a young age.

I started playing tackle football when I was in 3rd grade, and it was something I developed a great passion for. I remember if I wasn't practicing football, I was playing at recess, I was trying to find the new Barry Sanders jersey – because he was someone I idolized when I was growing up, even though I moved nothing like him and my college coach made that clear during an interview when he said “You need to stop being Barry Sanders and just run north and south.”.


TRANSITIONING TO QB


When I was younger I played RB, LB, a little bit of DL; and then I ended up transitioning to the QB position.

My dad was my coach when I was very young. That was a good thing and a bad thing. It was a good thing because you have the ability to go home and talk football to your father about a program, about an offense you both understand. But then again, also having the ability for him to explain to me when.. At a young age kids always want to be the QB, RB.. They just don't understand how much each position can help you grasp the knowledge and understanding of the game. It's like life – different perspective/different angle of the game, and that ultimately makes you a better football player. That's one of the things I was thankful for.

LB made me tougher, playing DL made me get my little butt kicked and made me tougher as well, and taught me how to use my hands. Those are all the things you don't think about, but they also transition when you're at the QB. You're using your hands if you go for a scramble, you have to use your hands to shed a block.

That's also important when you're coaching, having an understanding of what's going on to some degree, because players want to know that you understand what they're going through. There's a lot of coaches out there who might talk, but don't understand what's actually a reality – it sounds great, it looks great on the board, but when you're on the game-field it's completely different.

UCONN

I went to UCONN from 2004-2008. Coach Vinny Marino came to my high school to recruit me. Both my father and uncle went to University of Connecticut and it was very close to home. I went for a visit and committed right then and there. It was a really easy decision for me.

I was the Connecticut Gatorade player of the year. I just remember going to college and being mentored by Dan Orlovsky, who still plays in the NFL with Detroit Lions. I was forced to learn an offense that I wasn't necessarily comfortable in.

I played QB my first 3 years, then I ended up transitioning to WR. I was one of the Qbs who was either really really good, or really poor. I lacked consistency throughout my college career as a QB, but having the ability to run around a little bit, so I talked to the coach that I could help the team more as a receiver. I played WR my final 2 years, and was also 2-year captain. Now when I look back, I'm glad I switched positions, because I wanted to play and not sit on the bench. At that time I also knew I wanted to coach – so being able to see the different perspective on the receiver position would help me get a better understanding of the game.

I was realistic with myself, and I knew NFL wasn't something that was for me. So ended up starting my masters degree in educational psychology. I knew I wanted to be a college coach or advisor and coach at a high school.


AUSTRIA

While we were preparing for our final game of the year at UCONN, I remember we were in the lockerroom, and one of my teammates who committed to go to Austria to play for the Carinthian Black Lions was talking to me about the team and that they needed a QB. I was a bit nervous about it, because I never even thought about living and playing football in Europe. When I look back, it was THE best experience I had in my life, and that's one of the reasons why I'm interested in going back to Europe, not only to coach or possibly play football, but to help as well.

A few weeks later I was on a plane to Austria. I honestly had no expectations, I was just open for all the surprises I was going there for. Everyone was very friendly, and I realized how much people there are passionate about football.

The funniest experience I ever had was at practice – it was a cold day and we were going for our water break, and I almost spit out what was in my mouth. I asked what was that – and they said it's hot tea! We actually had hot tea at practice! Later on I did like it!

Preparation wise, you realize you don't have much time because people have jobs and families. Simple equals success, the more you can do well is the best thing possible, and the more simple you keep it – the more you will do well. So my thing was to make it so simple that a 5th grader could learn it. Just because it's simple, it doesn't mean it can't look complex.

I was probably the sorest I have ever been in the game of football. They do hit hard in Austria!
My first year in Austria I was OC/QB, and my second year I was HC/QB. The only big difference between guys in Europe and The States is the time they have to prepare. The talent is already there. I think some of the EU guys don't even realize their potential.

There's a lot of people who know football, and there's a lot of guys who struggle, but they need to understand that's normal in The States as well.
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