Zach Azzanni's been all about wide receivers his entire football career. After playing the position at Central Michigan from 1994-98, he started his coaching career with the wideouts at Valparaiso University. As a college coach, the St. Louis native worked with wide receivers at Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Florida, Western Kentucky, Wisconsin and Tennessee. Last season, Azzanni made the transition to the NFL and worked with the Chicago Bears. This year, he brings his wealth of experience to Denver, hoping to help rejuvenate the team's passing game. We talked with Azzanni about his transition to the pro level, how he's built the relationship between his veteran pass catchers and his rookies, and what he's learned over his nearly two decades as a coach.
Zach Pereles: This is your second year coaching in the pros. What's the biggest difference you've noticed going from the college game to the pro game?
Zach Azzanni: "There are a couple of differences. Number one is time. Time is different. We get more time with these guys than we do in college. It's all football. There's no talk of academics or study hall or anything like that. It's just Football 101 every day, which is a big change from college because you're not making recruiting calls at night. You're working on third downs and how to scheme red zone and those things. On the field, it's smaller numbers. How you practice is a little bit different. You can't wear these guys out. It's a long season. You don't have 12 scholarship wideouts. You've got five if you're lucky. [We're] really, really specific on what we do during practice and how we do it."
ZP: You came here this offseason with a couple veterans in place in Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. How do you think they helped your transition out here?
ZA: "Football's football. How they've helped is just being great leaders and great examples to the young guys and just buying into a guy they don't know: me. I couldn't appreciate them more for their attitudes and their effort and how they're being leaders in that room and having my back. Even for some things that they might not have ever done before, they're giving it a try and jumping in. I've got a great amount of respect for those guys. They've caught a ton of balls in this league. The give and take on 'Hey, what do you think works?' on both sides is outstanding."
ZP: Emmanuel Sanders has talked about how your relationship has developed. From your standpoint, how do you think it's come together over the offseason and into the regular season?
ZA: "You know what, it's come a long way, and relationships are built through good and bad, whether it's family — brothers and sisters, mom and dads with their kids, cousins, whatever it is, friends. It's not just all lollipops and puppy dogs. This is football. We're all competitive. I have a certain way I like to do things, and he has a certain way he likes to do things. So together we've come full circle and said, 'Hey, we're in this together, and he can help me and I can help him.' We've gotten to know each other — not just football, just about each other. And that's how relationships are built and trust is built. It's built over time. It's not built overnight. Again, I couldn't say more great things about those two guys and our room. It's been great."
ZP: You have those veterans, but you also have a lot of youth in that room, too. Have you noticed guys liked Courtland [Sutton] and DaeSean [Hamilton] taking the advice of those older guys, and how do you think that relationship has grown?
ZA: "It's a really unique group. I'm not sure there's another room like it in the NFL. When I say that I mean two … vets that have been to Super Bowls and Pro Bowls and two complete rookies who don't know anything about the NFL, so there's really no in-between. And then you throw Tim Patrick in there, who kind of bounced around on the practice squad. So it's a very unique gap right there, and it's been really neat because I have to focus on the specifics for the young guys, and it's made the old guys go back to the fundamentals and back to the basics and really hone in on those little things you take for granted when you get a little bit older because you've done it so much. And they've been great helping those young guys and teaching them those specifics and details."
ZP: You've been around a lot of pretty accomplished coaches, especially during your college coaching years. Is there any specific coach that's had the biggest impact on your coaching style or your coaching path in general?
ZA: "I've been very, very blessed and fortunate. They've all had a thumbprint on how I coach for sure. Starting out with Coach [Urban] Meyer through Coach [Butch] Jones and Coach [Bret] Bielema and Willie Taggart and the list goes on — Coach [John] Fox last year. I've taken good from all those guys, taken things that I like. They've all helped my style of coaching. To say one guy's had one thing more than the other, probably not. I've taken a little bit from everyone because they're all so great in their own regard. I've been a sponge with each one of them."
ZP: This team's had a couple of down years, but you have the veterans who have been in the playoffs and the Super Bowls before. Do you notice a hunger and a focus and a drive around this group and especially those veterans this offseason?
ZA: "Absolutely. I can't comment on last season; I wasn't here. [But] since I've been here, there's been a big-time hunger. You can tell there's a chip on their shoulder. We've got some new young blood in here, too, with all the rookies, and I think they bring a level of energy and excitement, and that kind of heightens it as well and gets those older guys going, too. They get going and they all feed off each other. I think there's a definite hunger. I don't think anyone likes what they've had the last couple of years, and they're competitors, man. They want to go win a Super Bowl."