We know the drill. Thursday night is just an exhibition game. The teams don't game plan for each other. The final outcome isn't the most important aspect of the game. It's all about evaluating players and getting in football shape. But for the Eagles' new defensive coordinator, Thursday night's preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens is all kinds of important. For the first time, he will be running an NFL defense against an opposing team in front of thousands of die-hard fans.
How has Castillo prepared for his play-calling duties? To help Castillo along, head coach Andy Reid, typically a steadfast creature of habit, has departed from his normal routine and let Castillo run practice like a game. Rather than scripting the defensive formations for each day's 11-on-11, seven-on-seven and special category drills, Castillo has been live-calling each play, reacting to the offensive personnel and situation.
"You can look at tape and all that, but I think the best thing that's helped me is on the field," Castillo said. "All of a sudden (the offense says) it's this personnel. I don't have much time to think and boom, I give the front and I give the coverage. I think that's the best thing that's helped me. Especially running around because your head hurts, you're tired."
Castillo certainly has been doing more than his fair share of running around. His rampant enthusiasm has been a constant in camp thus far, as he's quick to react with plaudits for his players after almost every day. Occasionally, Reid has had to tone Castillo down, telling him to keep to the side of the field during drills in order to mimic game situations. As part of his preparation for game-like situations, Castillo has also spent about three practices using a headset.
Castillo is also armed with some high-quality assistants. Jim Washburn is the league's most respected defensive line coach, Johnnie Lynn is a former defensive coordinator himself and Mike Caldwell and Mike Zordich are promising up-and-comers themselves.
"Coach Reid put together a great defensive staff for me," Castillo said. "They're teachers, guys that can teach and guys that understand how important fundamentals are. I think you see that every day, they're working the same things over and over and over so they become muscle memory so that we can execute on game day."
Still, Castillo points to his play-calling during practice as his best preparation for when the lights go on Thursday night.
"You should end up learning your own defense," he said. "I shouldn't have to look at a sheet to call it. But I haven't done it in the NFL, so just like all of us, I'll be my first time and I'll get better every game."
As for how prepared his players will be, Castillo points to the intensity of the training camp practices thus far.
"Most of our practices have really been with a lot of energy, very intense against our offense," he said. "And then really what the walk-throughs have allowed us to do in the afternoon is to understand our abilities and our rules and the concepts that we're trying to teach."
For a defense that has added a host of new faces, from veterans to rookies, Castillo figures to have some very tough decisions ahead of him as the team whittles down the roster before the season begins. But while there has been plenty of time for hands-on teaching, the real evaluation will depend on what happens over the next four weeks during the preseason.
"The games are the real thing," Castillo said. "We haven't been able to tackle. You get a feeling now, let's see if all the training carries over to the game."
For players and coach alike.