Chris Karpman: You're a new hire in a sense but have a lot more familiarity than other new coaches to ASU, having worked under Todd Graham here (in 2012 and 2013 as a graduate assistant/defensive quality control assistant) What excites you about this opportunity?
T.J. Rushing: "It's exciting to be back with a program that has one goal and that's being champions on and off the field. You'll hear me say that over and over again, coach Graham says it over and over again and I love that. It's more important than winning games, it's growing young men into men. Excited about that, about the talent we have here, which makes our job easier and more fun."
Karpman: Working here as a graduate assistant before and having been elsewhere with college and pro teams, what's unique about the culture here as you see it?
Rushing: "I think just the respect that he commands and demands from everyone is different and it's good. I believe in the value system that he believes in and he's not afraid to share that with the kids and coaches. I enjoy that part of it. The fact our kids still say, 'yes, sir,' 'no, sir,' to their elders is something I enjoy, I like, The fact that our guys aren't always just walking around cool. We try to have them be respectful to everyone, is also something that drives it."
Karpman: What was the dialogue like with coach Graham when Chris Ball left and the opportunity became available?
Rushing: "So coach Ball got a tremendous opportunity, coach Graham called and told me, asked if I would be interested in this job. I said of course, would love to get back to ASU and he said, 'okay, we'll interview you.' He flew me in the next few days, interviewed with him. I guess I passed that part and he wanted me to come back a week later and interview with coach Patterson. I did that and he told me I got hired later on that day and we went out recruiting."
Karpman: What was your dialogue with with Patterson prior to this?
Rushing: "No much. When I was at Northern Arizona, they let us come down and study film with 'em and that was the first time I really got to sit down and talk with coach Patterson. We knew a lot of the same people, my high school coach and him are good friends. That was the first time though that I had gotten to speak with him."
Karpman: What do you make of the fact that a lot of the coaches he's had work for him are from that Oklahoma-Texas area and I know you've been familiar with him going back a long time?
Rushing: "I think that familiarity is a big deal. Coach Graham and coach Patterson have known each other the longest, 25 years or whatever it is. I'm kind of the lucky dude that my high school coach new him so I got to build a relationship. They recruited me out of high school so I've known coach Graham a while."
Karpman: So knowing him from high school when you were getting recruited, what did you think about him at the time?
Rushing: "At the time I thought he was a great recruiter. I didn't know him as a coach or anything but at the time he made it tough on me to say no to West Virginia. It was like, 'this dude is recruiting the mess out of me.' Everyone was like, 'why is west Virginia in your top list?' They were doing a great job of recruiting me."
Karpman: And so what was the connection with your coach and Graham?
Rushing: "My high school head coach played football with those guys at East Central University. That led to I think coach Graham initially recruiting me and then me staying in contact. It goes way back. His daughter and son, Hank and Haylee, they're from my hometown, the same small hometown, so you just know them. You stay in contact.
Karpman: What do you think about Graham's philosophy on defense? Because it's obviously a hybrid defense, an attacking, aggressive approach, a lot of man conflict situations on the back end. What are your thoughts about it?
Rushing: "I love it. I love the fact that he attacks, holds nothing back. We're not going to leave a game with bullets in the chamber. The guys we have, the defensive backs, they know the spotlight is going to be on them. It's good, I like the pressure aspect of it. As a coach, throw my on the hot seat with them. If we don't get it done, throw it all on me, it's my fault we didn't get them ready. The big plays and stuff you give up every now and then because you're always out there on the island, I tell the guys, 'nobody cares about the 97 snaps that you got it right, all they'll see is the three big plays you gave up a touchdown.' So to eliminate those is always the main goal."
Karpman: It's a double edged sword because as you said you're going to give up some big plays. We've seen this defense have three members of the secondary who were all-conference in one season, and then we've seen the same defense be last in the nation in passing yards allowed and big plays allowed this last season. Part of that is how much pressure you're able to generate up front and all of that, but what do you make about the challenge you're facing here now moving in light of what happened last season, you're losing a couple guys and don't have much returning?
Rushing: "I look at it as an excellent opportunity for the guys who are here. You hit it right on the head, we graduated a lot of DBs, so now the guys who have been in the program and haven't had a chance to play, now it's their turn to step up. And will the expectations still be high? Yes. Do I think the whole defense works together? Yes. Rushing, coverage, it goes hand in hand. Pass defense was really good here was really good when Will Sutton, Carl Bradford were here. It all goes hand in hand. We're going to be a great defense, I believe. Those guys that have to play, will go out there and play well."
Karpman: How much time have you spent with the guys returning and the new guys here in your group and what's that dialogue been like so far?
Rushing: "As much as I can. As soon as I got off the road, I tried to get all the guys to come in and see me at least once a day. I group text them daily. Communication has been good. All those guys, they're excited. They all want to do well. That's what you love as the coach, whenever you have guys who want to be successful, are eager to learn, and are going to put their best foot forward."
Karpman: Is the plan right now to play both Kareem Orr and Armand Perry at safety or does it depend on how things look when you get out there, especially with some of the new guys, J'Marcus Rhodes, Maurice Chandler?
Rushing: "I'll always say this: The plan is to put the best four defensive backs on the field. My job is to figure that out, which spots they'll help us best at. And then their job is to go out there and compete like crazy every day. It will be a competitive room. I'm not sure where they'll end up lining up, but the best four will be out there together."
Karpman: Okay, so do you know where you plan to start guys in the spring?
Rushing: "I kind of went over a list [last week] with some of the guys who have been here and we're going to be doing that more [this week] trying to figure that out, just see where guys start out. Right now when I talk to guys, I'm just talking about the basics, I'm not talking position specific. I want them all to be defensive backs, check every box."
Karpman: That's an important distinction with this defensive approach, right? Because safeties still have to have the same type of coverage skills due to how much man situations they're put in?
Rushing: "Exactly. I think it's the most important thing to play defensive back here, having that versatility. Not just here but anywhere, to think, 'oh, I have a 'cover corner.' What is that? What does that mean? He can't tackle? Or to have an 'in-the-box safety.' What's that mean? He can't cover? I'm selling our guys and I think every DB coach is selling that you want complete DBs."
Karpman: So is the most likely scenario keeping the guys where they were working in December or is it just a totally fresh look at it, like, 'I may not have Tyler Whiley work at the boundary corner spot?'
Rushing: "I'm telling you, it's a completely blank canvas right now. Whatever position I think they are best suited to play, that's where they'll be but I haven't even seen them run yet."
Karpman: What about watching them on film, games or more likely practices? Obviously there's not much game film on any of them.
Rushing: "I watched everything from last year and like you're saying there's not much game film on those guys that are here. Practice there is, and last year we did a good job moving guys around to determine fit, and I'll be doing that and making those decisions after seeing them live."
Karpman: What are your initial thoughts on J'Marcus and Maurice, I know you didn't recruit them but do you have an idea of what you're getting there?
Rushing: "I think they're going to help the room. They'll at least breed competition. We need to get this room as competitive as it can be. Just by being here they do that. I'm not sure where they'll end up lining up, but I'm excited to watch them."
Karpman: "So when you look at the spring, what things do you want to get accomplished, what keeps going through your mind on that?
Rushing: "We have to eliminate big plays. That's our job. There's a couple times on film where we're there, we should make the play and a 10 yard gain turns into 60. That's the stuff we have to eliminate."
Karpman: Were there any things you saw on film that were themes that led to those issues. Obviously you weren't with the team but just anything jump out from a scheme or communication standpoint?
Rushing: "I'm not sure because on film you can't hear, I wasn't there as you said, so I don't know exactly. But that's our focus. We will be fundamentally sound. We'll be communicators. We'll know our opponents."
Karpman: You played at the NFL level and have coached at Stanford. Those are different approaches defensively to ASU in terms of the coverage shells and approach. What to you think about that given that you have experience in the full gamut of defensive styles? You have more conservative approaches, a Cover 2, whatever, Cover 3, which ASU doesn't play much of those, all the way to playing man free across.
Rushing: "There's many ways to skin a cat. There's great defenses that have pressured all the time. I've been a part of great defenses that run Cover 2 just about every snap at Indy and been a Super Bowl team. I've been a part of fire zones, I've been around just about all of it. The main thing I think is to get complete buy in from the staff and if you have that, the kids feel that and they believe it's the best thing we're doing for the team's success, and just show them why it is. I think our scheme is great four our guys."
Karpman: Is it a recruiting advantage, do you think, to say to guys, 'hey, we're going to be in press man all the time and you're going to be in all these one-on-one situation?
Rushing: "I think there's no doubt because every kid wants to see himself as an elite defensive back. So Patrick Peterson, who is playing man to man coverage every down in the NFL and doing great at it, each kid wants to do that. They want to see if they can do. So there's not a better place to test yourself than Arizona State."
Karpman: So what are your key points to your pitch to recruits as to why ASU?
Rushing: "Because we play defense as a priority. You have a head coach who believes in it, we're going to get after it. You're going to be able to create turnovers, and you're going to be able to do everything. As a defensive back, the NFL scouts want to know if you can cover, if you can tackle and if you can blitz, if you're smart. And not necessarily in that order, but you get a chance to do all of that here."