Q&A with Chris Ball

Last season, the Arizona State secondary ranked as one of the premiere units in the nation, finishing fourth overall in interceptions, thanks in large part to the group's on field experience. However, the loss of Keelan Johnson creates a void for the Sun Devils at field safety that the team hopes to fill before the season kickoffs next week.

Devils Digest caught up with Safeties Coach Chris Ball to discuss the battle at field safety, the health of some of the newcomers, and the leadership of senior Alden Darby.

On how he feels the safeties have performed throughout the offseason and how they've overcome the loss of Keelan Johnson:

Chris Ball: "They've performed really well so far. I think we're deeper than we were last year. They only thing we lack is experience, but you know, Keelan wasn't a full-time starter until last year and he stepped up and did a great job for us. I think we've got some candidates for the job. Obviously we've got Alden Darby back and he's having a great camp. He's playing about as well as he's ever played. At the free safety spot, we've got Robert Nelson and Laiu Moeakiola. And then we've got Damarious Randall, who we can't wait to see out there. So, we've got some guys to pick from; it's just a matter of who's going to step up and take that position.

Athletically, this is probably one of the most athletic groups I've ever been around. And it also takes some brains to play back there for us. They're basically the Taylor Kelly of our defense. They need to make all the calls back there and it's not easy. Mentally, it's really tough. I think the inexperience will probably show there. The inexperience will show that mentally. Physically, I think we're better, but mentally we're not quite as good yet. But we're getting there."

On the leadership that senior strong safety Alden Darby brings to the Sun Devil secondary:

Chris Ball: "He's very vocal, obviously. We all know that. But he also leads by example. When you can have one of your best players come out here and practice like he does every day, that's leading by example. That makes a huge difference, especially in my group. It shows some of the younger players what it takes to play at this level. When they can come out and see a guy like him not coasting, busting his butt every day, that's leadership."

On Darby's development at safety:

Chris Ball: "He's a lot more mature now. One of the things that we worked on coming into camp, one of our goals, was to get better with our run defense. I think he's gotten better with his run fits. He's gotten better with his reads. We like to say that 'his eyes are a lot better' than they were last year. He's not as quick to pull the trigger and he's playing with a lot more discipline. And then he's really improved on his communication."

On Darby's improved pass coverage skills:

Chris Ball: "Well he's always been good cover guy because he came here as a corner and then played his first two years here at corner, so he's got a good understanding there. He's quick-footed enough to play man-to-man. But like I said, he's gotten more disciplined with his eyes, which helps with man-to-man, and he understands the defense better, which lets him know where his help is at. His overall game has improved. He's improved in a lot of areas and I'm very pleased with where he's at."

On Robert Nelson's transition from nickel corner to field safety:

Chris Ball: "He probably had his best day (Thursday), but the issue with Robert is consistency mentally. If he can get it down mentally, day in and day out, he can be a great player for us."

On the progress of sophomore Laiu Moeakiola:

Chris Ball: "He'd be in the mix (if the season started today). He'd be close. Laiu does everything right. He knows all the checks, he runs the show, he does a good job, and now he's working on his communication a bit. He's a guy you can count on. What we're trying to do is get the best four defensive backs on the field. It doesn't matter if it's four corners or some combination. It doesn't matter if it's Robert Nelson at safety and Lloyd Carrington at corner, or if it's Damarious Randall at safety and Robert Nelson at corner. We're trying to get the best four out there and the better the four we have out there, the more it allows us to do in the secondary."

On the health of Damarious Randall - who practiced for the first time on Friday - and how he hopes to utilize the junior college safety:

Chris Ball: "He looked good today. Still sore but he's doing better and showing some really good stuff. Mentally, he's a smart football player and like I said, that's what it takes to play back there.

He's not all the way back; he's just getting reps. We're just getting him back there and getting him comfortable with it; working on his eyes and making sure he knows all the checks. We haven't really seen much of him. The only thing that we've seen, or rather heard, has been from the strength coach over the summer that he's very athletic. And then of course what we've seen from him on his tape from Mesa (Community College).

He's been hurt, basically, since camp started, so we really haven't seen, athletically, what he can do. And obviously we're a little nervous since he hasn't tackled and that's a big thing; just going into a game and making sure he's getting plenty of tackles."

On the health of Marcus Ball, who suffered a shoulder injury two weeks ago in the team's final scrimmage at Camp Tontozona:

Chris Ball: "We're just going to have to wait and see. We'll see how quickly he can come back and what sort of things he can do then."

On the play of Ezekiel Bishop:

Chris Ball: "The first two days he went down to the scout team just so we could get a look at the two freshmen to see if they were capable of playing this year or not and then he moved back up. So he's been out there this week. He might get some playing time this week."

On the play of freshman James Johnson:

Chris Ball: "He's a good player. He's a good player. He's going to be a great player here. The biggest thing for him, as a freshman, is physically can he hold up? Can he make it through the Pac-12 schedule without getting hurt until the strength part of it kicks in? But mentally, he's really good. And athletically, he's really good."

On the play of freshman Jayme Otomewo:

Chris Ball: "He's done really well. He's another one who's going to be a great one. He just needs to get stronger."

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