Q&A with Bo Graham

Headed by the biggest playmaker on offense, D.J. Foster, the running back group is a mixture of veterans and newcomers that collectively can be one of the strongest units on the team. Devils Digest talked to its position coach, Bo Graham, to get his assessment of this group heading into the 2014 season.

DevilsDigest: Prior to preseason camp the running backs group has been hailed as one the biggest strengths on the team. How would you assess your group with less than a week left for the season opener?

Bo Graham: “Coming in, we were excited about our veterans, and then these new guys just seeing how they played out and just how good they were when they got here. We have been pleased with them. I think we have got five guys right now that we trust and I think you will see a combination of those five guys as the season goes along.

“We are just trying to get everybody ready. In this offense we really play two positions, so it’s just trying to get everybody to understand those positions. Everybody obviously progresses at their own pace. But we feel good with where we are at.

DevilsDigest: D.J. Foster’s accomplishments the last two seasons speak for themselves, but how he has improved even more this year so he can be as effective of a primary back as Marion Grice was last year and a leader of this unit?

Bo Graham: “I think the biggest thing is that he’s mentally and physically more mature. His understanding of both positions within the offense is so much further along than it was in years past. He knows it, which is going to allow him to play faster. He’s put on lean muscle mass but still he’s quicker, faster and stronger. So the dirty work we are asking him to do inside the tackles, I think he’s going to be very capable of doing that. He’s got to establish himself as one of the most dangerous guys in the country and that’s what we are trying to do with him.”

DevilsDigest: Demario Richard has arrived here with pretty high expectations, so suffice to say that you’re probably not surprised with his the true freshman has performed in camp?

Bo Graham: “I think he’s done a lot of positive things. There are a lot of things where as a coach you get frustrated; some of that dirty work, like blocking on the perimeter. But he’s extremely athletic, quick and has a low center of gravity. His lower body is so strong that he’s not a guy that’s going to get pushed around. Even at 17 years old, he is more physical than some of those vets. I’d say he and D.J. are neck and neck when it comes to pass protecting. And you saw at Camp T how good he is at running the football. The balance after contact, he’s a guy that you’re going to have to tackle. Just very pleased with him and he’s going to be a guy that’ll have a breakout year.”

DevilsDigest: Another talented true freshman, Kalen Ballage, showed some flashes vey early in camp before being held out of contact due to a back injury. What have you seen form him in limited time?

Bo Graham: “He is a curveball. He’s a different kind of runner. Everyone else in our group kind of has a smaller type of body, and then you’ve got big Kalen who’s just going to be a different back. He’s going to provide power and explosiveness that we haven’t had. Again, he’s a harder guy to tackle and is very quick with his footwork and speed for his size. He’s 225-230 pounds and that dude can really move. In the last few days with his health, he’s shown great progress. He’s in great form right now and will definitely open some eyes too.”

DevilsDigest: Kyle Middlebrooks was one of spring’s practice biggest standouts, but do you feel that he has been able to sustain that level of play in camp?

Bo Graham: “I think Kyle has got to have a specific role. With pass protections and putting the ball on the ground with some of his opportunities, those things are definitely question marks. But he’s a great outside runner. We can hand the speed sweep off and expect explosive plays on the outside. He’s definitely a threat when running the football, but I just have to keep working him on the pass protection and the physicality of playing inside the box. Should be on all special teams and have some kind of role in our offense.”

DevilsDigest: Deantre Lewis’ ups and down are well documented. He has been held out of contact for most of camp. Where do you see him fitting in and what will his role be?

Bo Graham: “D-Lew can do it all. From a mental standpoint, he’s probably my smartest guy. He knows every position and is correcting those young guys on the sideline – he’s a lot smarter than he pretends to be. He can do anything that we ask him to do. What we are concentrating on with Deantre is polishing up his route running and taking great pride in that.”

DevilsDigest: Do you see the two-back set being employed less frequently than you probably would want it too?

Bo Graham: “I think we will have more versatility, meaning we will have more guys in the two-back set rotation. Coach Norvell and I are in the conversation that, “hey, in these certain packages who’s going where?

” And we are trying to divvy that thing out to where everybody is getting action so we don’t put ourselves in a position later on where health wise we are struggling. If we are going to play two backs 80 percent of the time on offense, we have to go four, five even six guys deep on this position.

“When you’re in camp, you just throw the book at them. We try to build a library of offense. And now we are going to pull from that library and we will be able to specifically get these guys going at a higher rate of speed.”

DevilsDigest: With the emergence of the wide receivers group, do you feel the running backs will have less pressure on in the passing game compared to the last two seasons?

Bo Graham: “I think we are so versatile with this group, that when we are out at wide out we definitely provide another element. Those guys (wide receivers) can handle those jobs, but I think it’s going to be a split thing. We are still going to be out there running routes and catching the football. We are doing it all.”

DevilsDigest: Much has been said about the improved physicality of the offensive line. Are you seeing that improvement higher quality running lanes than last year?

Bo Graham: “There’s no doubt. Coach Thomsen, you can’t say enough about him. It’s his second year, and last year was both his and my first year back in the system. So we ran into a lot of question marks during the season, where now we are so much further along. Not only are we better at coaching it, but I think we are more athletic up front. No offense to Cody Koebensky, but we are more athletic at the center position. And you can’t replace a guy like Evan Finkenberg but having Jamil Douglas over there isn’t bad. With Christian coming on, I mean that guy is a physical, explosive lineman. All those guys are athletic. Across the board, we are better.”

DevilsDigest: What are your expectations for your group headed into the 2014 season?

Bo Graham: “We want to own the football. We gave up in our room last year one fumble, and that was one too many. It starts off with ball security, and we think that’s the number one indicator in wins and losses. Playing smart and not killing ourselves. And the last thing is being disciplined. Being disciplined in our run reads and not leaving yards on the field.”

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