Q&A with Coach Craig Bray

The Arizona State defense much like the rest of the team has had its fair share of peaks and valleys in the 2010 campaign, but was able to finish on a strong note. Devils Digest caught up with the always candid Sun Devil defensive coordinator and safeties coach Craig Bray to talk about his group's performance, as well as the defense as a whole, and the unit's goals going into spring practice.

DevilsDigest: Let's start with the two safeties that signed in the 2011 class, Ezekiel Bishop and Kevin Ayers. What can you tell us about both players?

Craig Bray: "Ezekiel is a very physical football player and one of the weaknesses in our secondary is having players who can come up and hit. We weren't as physical of a secondary as we should have been, other than Eddie Elder. He's (Bishop) just a good football player, but he's also just a freshman so we'll see what happens.

"Kevin is another good player we anticipate helping us next year. He can play a few different roles for us so we'll see."

DD: When you look back at the 2010 season how would you evaluate the safeties group?

CB: "They started out slow and a perfect example is Eddie. He played early for us but had to learn the system on the run. In the second half of the season he really came through and played pretty darn good for us. It wasn't really until Max Tabach emerged that those two gave us the football knowledge, physical at the point of attack that made us a better defense. The second half of the year we probably played better on defense.

"As far as other players, Clint Floyd was disappointing in a lot of ways. Keelan Johnson still has assignment issues, Shane McCullen and Matt Tucker didn't develop and prove themselves but they have the spring to prove that they are capable of working within the system…so if we have a position that is right now of concern it would be the safety position. This is why Ezekiel and Kevin have a good chance to come here and compete for a spot, but whether they can function in a system that they have never played in before is really up in the air."

DD: Alden Darby not only played as a true freshman but was really the jack of all trades playing a couple of different position in the defensive backfield. How would you assess his performance?

CB: "We are going to play him at a safety for the reasons I explained, and we will try and force feed him in the spring. He was a guy that physically could play last year, but mentally the game was a little too big for him in regards to his assignments. As much as we tried to get him into the mix, it was sometimes hard for experience reasons."

DD: Was the decision last year to move from the strong/free safety alignment to the boundary/field alignment strictly based on the personnel you had?

CB: "It was all based on strength and weaknesses and who you want in certain positions on the field and who you want in the boundary based on what the offense does. So it did put people in a position where their strengths are and minimized our weaknesses. If you have the perfect football player, it really doesn't matter and you can play right or left (alignment). But when you have guys with certain strengths and definite weaknesses you have to put them accordingly in the right position."

DD: When you look at the defense as a whole, how would you rate their performance last year?

CB: "Early in the season we obviously played some quality teams. Turnovers cost us the Oregon game, the kicking game cost us the Wisconsin game, but it still comes down to coaches and players and understanding who they are. We thought we were better than we were as a team and as coaches when we went into the season. So we all drank a little of the Kool-Aid then we realized that we had some issues and we tried to realize what our kids are really capable of mentally and physically and adjust from there.

"I think we became more consistent in the second half of the season. We had guys with experience but not starting game experience and it took them a while, especially in the linebackers group, to put it all together."

DD: One aspect that seem to coincide with the overall improvement of the defense, was the improved pass rush especially from players like Junior Onyeali and Jamaar Jarrett…

CB: "Junior was a true freshman so it took him a while to play well. He is undersized but he also has some skills that a lot of players don't have. As he played more, like any other young player, he got to understand what it takes to play in our system, got more experience and that's why he helped us more in the second part of the season. He was probably the player that showed the most improvement last year.

"Jarrett finally turned it loose a little bit, turning from a part time player into a full-time player and another player who just got better as the season went."

DD: In last year's spring practice and fall camp you were tinkering with a 3-4 alignment as well as introducing more blitz packages. But during the 2010 seaosn it didn't appear that the defense did much of either. How would you assess those two defensive aspects?

CB: "As I said before, you evaluate your kids thinking that they are capable of doing some things, you think everything is going well, but as you get into it you find out what your kids are comfortable with. As you establish what they are more comfortable with and what gives them more confidence you have to adjust your defense to that. So that's why we did what we did – we downsized the defense. The formations that offenses present to us now…we have to align our coverages to 40 different types of offensive formations and motions. We don't just get to call a play and you adjust to us.

"We line up against Oregon and they are a spread offense and then you line up against Wisconsin who is a power run offense and then you line up against UCLA and the ‘pistol' so they are a lot of variables that determine what you do on defense. The thing that we have done over the years is that we have been able to play fast and the only way you can play fast is when your players understand what they are doing, not thinking when the ball snaps and when the ball snaps you have to able to make a play. When you have too much defense and your kids are uncomfortable with certain parts of the defense you have in and they don't function fast, you become a below average defense."

DD:As you go into spring practice next week what are your goals for the defense?

CB: "To improve. We were a good defense last year but we have to get better. Every year is the same, you establish what you have, you have goals at each position and what you try to accomplish but the bottom line is improvement, which means playing as well or better than what we played a year ago and hopefully grow with our packages and become more diverse. But it's always about physical and mental improvement ."

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