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Japanese coaches get NFL crash course at Pro Bowl

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

In a game intended to showcase the all-stars of the NFL, nothing gets too serious at the Pro Bowl and things are laid-back. Playbooks are a lot thinner and players smile much more often than usual.

But for a pair of Japanese coaches, everything is an eye-opening experience and a chance for them to soak up every move the NFL’s top players and their coaches make.

For the third straight year, two Japanese collegiate coaches have been invited to participate in the Pro Bowl week through a program of the Koshien Bowl (Japanese national collegiate championship) Project Team (KBPT) in conjunction with the Hawaiian Tourism Authority.

This year, Kwansei Gakuin University’s Kazuki Omura and Hosei University’s Keita Iizuka were selected by the KBPT in December. Since Tuesday, the two have had total access to the team activities at the Pro Bowl.

Just as in the previous two years, the Japanese coaches admitted there hasn’t been much to study Xs and Os-wise. But, actually, many other things have caught their attention.

Omura, who has been with the NFC this week, said the Kwansei Gakuin Fighters have historically brought in American coaches and believes his team’s staff isn’t much inferior to the ones in the United States.

However, the players of the NFL, where the best of the best assemble, are on a different level.

“These NFL players have a high level of execution,” said Omura, who led Kwansei Gakuin to back-to-back national collegiate championships in 2011 and 2012 as their assistant head coach, after Friday’s practice session. “They are smart and can adjust so quickly. That’s the difference. That’s been a surprise to me.”

Omura was with the University of Hawaii football team to study coaching for a year and a half from 2003.

Iizuka, who was with the AFC, said that Jack Del Rio, the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, told him that he might not learn much from the relaxed Pro Bowl, but that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“As far as I was watching their practices, I was impressed by how well they get to prepare their players,” said Iizuka, a former kicker for the Amarillo Dusters and Austin Wranglers of the now defunct arenafootball2, whose playing career was cut short due to a severe neck injury that paralyzed part of his body.

“At the game, hopefully on Sunday, I’ll be able to get to see how they prepare, what they say to the players, and their attitudes, rather than how they play the game.”

The responsibility resting with the two coaches could actually be said to be even bigger compared to the previous two years, as overseas opportunities for those involved Japanese football have become scarcer in recent years.

NFL Europe, where many Japanese would be able play, disbanded in 2007. NFL Japan, which aided Japanese players who wanted to ultimately go to the NFL, was shut down last year.

Instead of simply observing the coaches and players from a distance, both Omura and Iizuka have shown no signs of shyness and actively tried to talk to them, possibly in order to build deeper connections that could last beyond the Pro Bowl.

Omura said that it’s tougher to make close relationships with NFL coaches than with NCAA coaches, but the tension-free Pro Bowl week is fortunately a good chance to get close with them.

Hiroyuki Yabe was one of the two who were on the program in 2011 when he was a coach for Waseda University. Now head coach for the Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers of Japan’s X League, Yabe kept in touch with the New England Patriots’ staff and was invited to their preseason camp last summer.

“The (Green Bay) Packers’ head coach (Mike McCarthy) was saying I’d be welcome to come to their facilities,” said Omura, who has relationships with some NCAA coaches, such as current University of Colorado defensive coordinator Kent Baer.

“And tomorrow, although he’s on the opposing team, I’m planning to talk to Jon Fox, because I’m going to visit Colorado to see Baer. So I thought I could stop by Denver, too, if I’m allowed by them.”

And on Saturday, Omura did talk to Fox, who led his Broncos to the No. 1 seed in the AFC this season, during the walk-through session at Aloha Stadium. He said that he received a favorable and kind response from the 57-year-old coach.

Iizuka, meanwhile, grabbed Jeff Rodgers, the Broncos’ special team coordinator, and asked some technical questions.

Some NFLers thought that the whole concept of the Pro Bowl was a good opportunity for those Japanese coaches and their game back home.

“It’s a great opportunity, obviously,” Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway said. “Coming over here and meet the staffs, coaches and players playing over here, you can see what the best players in the NFL are like. I think they can realize how far you need to go to get to that point.”

Omura said that it’s worth getting the Pro Bowl opportunity if you speak English fairly well, because unless you come, you don’t know where you are.

He added that in the bigger picture, it could help produce someone to play in the NFL in the future.

“Hopefully, we get to know the world through an experience like this, and somebody gets there,” he said.