Chris Ball: "We're really happy with what we finished. We did finish third in the country in pass defense. I think we're fourth in the country in interceptions. When I got here, I remember talking to them and discussing with them what our goals were and that was to be one of the best secondaries in the country. The kids bought in and did a great job learning the scheme and working hard to get us there. I tribute it all to the players and they bought in quickly and worked like you needed to work to be one of the best secondaries in the country. I was really really pleased."
Devils Digest: What element in the defensive scheme allowed the secondary, the safeties in specific, to be as productive as they were?
Chris Ball: "I think we do a good job of impacting the quarterback just by the way our defense looks, the different pressures and our different disguises. We made the quarterback work. I think one thing involved was interceptions. It was easy for them. They understood that ‘hey, we make the quarterback work.' Anytime we can make him work, figuring out what coverages we are, what checks he has to make, and take advantage of our pressure package.
"I think once they understood that, I think they took it and ran with it. I think our scheme-wise, as much it looks like we blitz the quarterback every down, that's not the case. We make it look like we do. The quarterback and seeing that and feeling that but we're not always bringing six-man pressure. It's a lot of four. A lot of four-man pressure. I think the way we impact the quarterback really helps the pass defense."
Devils Digest: As we talked about the defense as a whole, you mentioned great job pressuring the quarterbacks, tackles for loss, and obviously the secondary interceptions and pass deflections. I know Head Coach Todd Graham mentioned several times during the season and I'm sure you would agree that overall, that the run stopping was perhaps the Achilles' heel of the defense. When you examine your group in that regard, what do you think they could've done, should've done better in that specific aspect of stopping the run?
Chris Ball: "We tackled well. That's the first thing you look at, is the tackling part. I don't think tackling was necessarily an issue. I think one of the things that we got to understand in the run game is where we're supposed to sit. When you're playing a split-safety look we play, you got to do a better job to make that guy be aligned right. Or we need to have a better understanding of where that ball is going so we can be in a better position to get it down.
"Most of the times, by the time it gets to us, it's a three or four-yard gain unless we get that thing out on the edge and get it bounced. We just got to do a better job in prioritizing this spring that we got to get better at stopping the run. I think you get what you emphasize on so we're gonna spend a lot of time working on that."
Devils Digest: How does the hybrid linebacker/safety SPUR position fit into the overall safety position in your scheme?
Chris Ball: "It's important because we're gonna to ask that guy to do a lot. He's got to be able to blitz. He's has to be able to run. He's got to be able to cover and play man-to-man. And most importantly, he's got to be a big big time football player. We don't just look at safeties and say ‘oh, he's not fast enough at safety; let's recruit him as a SPUR'. We don't look at that. He's got to be a playmaking guy. He has to be one of your better football players because we ask him to do so much.
"That's a very important position for us. We recruit playmakers for that position, so we can get the best players on the field. We really play with three safeties and two corners. That SPUR position, we would like him to be a little bigger guy."
Devils Digest: I wanted to go ahead and talk about the safeties that were signed in the 2013 recruiting class earlier this month. Let's start with Marcus Ball. We know he's somebody that could also play on offense but I understand he'll probably start fall camp on defense. As you evaluated him throughout recruiting season, what do you see in terms of his skills and possible contributions to this team?
Chris Ball: "First of all, he is extremely smart. He's extremely smart, very outgoing, and he's a great communicator. He has a very high character. Very tough. Very hard worker. Those things are what we looked for in this recruiting class, and talent being the last one.
Obviously you have to be talented in this league, but those things that he brings to the table are things we looked at in all our safeties and all the players we recruited in this defense's class. He's very athletic. He's long, and we wanted to get taller guys back there. He brings a lot to the table. He's probably our best player we signed defensively. You have to put him up there at the top. He's great."
Devils Digest: James Johnson is a guy that had some good offers to his name but maybe not as heavily recruited as other defensive backs in his area. I know our recruiting analysts in my network are very high on James Johnson, and I have to feel that you probably feel the same in terms of his skills?
Chris Ball: "I don't get caught up in who recruits him. That part of it does not really affect me when I'm looking at defensive backs. At Washington State we had probably eight defensive backs that we had on our team when went to the Rose Bowl, and all of them had maybe one other offer. I don't get caught up in that. We get caught up in evaluating what we see on tape.
"We really really do a good job of evaluating here. Again, it's not just based on talent. It's based on character. Is he smart? What kind of work ethic does he have? When I watched James play, I saw a lot. He's got a huge upside. I think he's going to be a really really good football player here. He's got good size. He's got good speed. He's got good ball skills. He's very physical. You can watch a highlight tape and pretty much see everybody do that. When you turn on a game tape, you can watch him play. He is a darn good football player and we are lucky lucky to have him."
Devils Digest: As far as Ball and Johnson for that matter, are you projecting them initially to play the boundary or field role?
Chris Ball: "You know what, I'll have to look at that. I think James will probably be a free safety. Marcus will be a free safety. You always got to look at that and see where they fit and how our depth is coming out of spring. Those are two guys that I think have a chance to play early. We just got to re-evaluate after spring ball and see where we need help at."
Devils Digest: Third safety to sign was Jayme Otomewo. What could you tell us about his skills?
Chris Ball: "He is the same thing. They're like clones back there. All the guys have the qualities we look for. When I first turned on the tapes, the first thing I see physically is ‘are they physical?' ‘are they going to hit you?' The next things are footwork and speed. The third thing is ball skills. Can they turn and catch the ball? They have to have good ball skills. The fourth thing is size. We stressed size in this recruiting class and we accomplished that. They're all very similar character-wise. They all got good GPAs. They all have great work ethics and all those things we've been talking about.
"People kept calling in saying ‘hey, you really need to look at this kid', so we kept him on the board and built a relationship with him. He was offered coming out of junior year. We watched him really hard as a senior. He showed some things junior that I thought were some really good things. We kept an eye on him and he kept getting better and better. By the end of the year, he was doing really really well so we took him. Jayme will start out as a bandit (boundary) safety. I'm very excited to have him."
Devils Digest: Looking back to the 2012 season one of the standouts on your group was Alden Darby. I know he's one of those players that not only has an impact on the field, but also off the field as far as being a leader and maybe in a lot ways, emphasizing the All In mentality of this team. Can you talk about your experience of coaching Darby for the first time and what he brought to the table on and off the field?
Chris Ball: "We talked about energy and I always talk to the guys about energy. Energy is a choice. You choose to be energetic. He shows up here every day energized and ready to work. We talked about being high-character. He has high-character. He's smart. Again the things we've been talking about; he has a tremendous work ethic. He's very very talented. He's a guy that can play corner or play safety. Those are the type of guys that we sort of look for.
"He'll ask you to do more things. He is doing a great job right now leading this football team. He's a pleasure to coach. I'm expecting big big things from him. We've have to figure out and we have to continue to talk to him to about what he's going to do to get his game to another level. It's about trying to get your focus and getting stronger. He's getting a little bit more size. He's been doing a little bit more with his mental game right now, coming in and watching a little bit more tape.
"So he's a pleasure to coach. He's a pleasure to be around. He's a fine young man. He's extremely smart. Knows the game of football but does a lot of really great things for us on and off the field."
Devils Digest: Wanted to touch on two other current players and their possible impact in 2013. One is Laiu Moeakiola, I know wasn't able to play much because of his injury and is applying for a medical redshirt. What do you see from him that really excites you about is potential this season?
Chris Ball: "He's demonstrated the qualities and characteristics we've talked about. He's big and he's physical. He is a guy that understands the game, that has the size you want, has the speed, good speed. He's working on getting faster. He brings a lot to the table. Played in a great program at Euless Trinity High School. Just expecting to see big things out of him."
Devils Digest: Another player that hasn't played as much last year and is actually coming off of a serious injury in 2011, is Ezekiel Bishop. How would you rate his progress throughout the year?
Chris Ball: "I think he was probably about 85-90 percent by the time the season ended. Right now, I would say he's 100 percent. I think he's going to make a difference and really help us. I'm really excited about the way he's been working. He's a guy that's really been working on his mental game. He wants to be a starter. He's got tough competition. We've got the guys coming in and the two guys we've got here. There's going to be some good competition. With that, it helps everyone raise their game. We're really really excited about getting this group together."
Devils Digest: I know you talked about the run stopping as one aspect that the defense, including the safeties, need to shore up. What are some other issues on your "to-do list" going in to spring practice next month?
Chris Ball: "We have to establish finding our best players. We need to do a good job of evaluating who our best players are. We got to continue to get better as a group, everybody on our football team. This is a new year. We have new standards. The bar has been set now. We want to reset it and higher. We've got to continue to get better and find the players that are gonna help us win a national championship and get our core guys.
"We've got to get better offensively and defensively and on special teams. Another thing that's exciting about this group coming in is that it's going to provide more depth on special teams. This spring, we've got to stop the run but we've still got to work on the things that we did good last year and not fall off either. It's very very important that we have a great spring and we come out of spring ready to go because once we start our season, everybody knows we've got one of the toughest schedules in the country. We've got to come out of there ready to go."