Eve Craig/SunDevilSource

Spring Q&A: Catching up with ASU running backs' coach John Simon

Arizona State's second-year running backs' coach John Simon heads up a unit led by two of the Sun Devils' most experienced players, seniors Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard. SunDevilSource caught up with Simon ahead of spring practices to hear what he hopes to see out of ASU's backs this spring.

SunDevilSource: I talked to Kalen (Ballage) the other day when we had the media day, he said he thought about checking out (for the NFL Draft), but he feels comfortable here obviously, he wanted to play out his senior season, did you have a lot of conversation with him about that, what was that process like?

John Simon: “Kalen and I talked about it, obviously throughout the process and some of the factors that you want to consider, we went through. We talked about all of the facts, all of the data, all of the projections, all of the number of backs that are coming out. And then the opportunity if he came back, weighing the pros and cons of both situations and it’s a unique situation. After looking at it, he made a decision on his own with him and his family and he felt like this was the best decision for him and for his family and of course for the program.”

SunDevilSource: You had the two 1,000-yard rushers at Southern Miss which has not been done in a really long time, and of course, with Demario (Richard) and Kalen, you played the position at a high level, everyone wants to heat up, and get the 30-plus carries, but the game has kind of changed, it’s not really much of that anymore. But how do you, in keeping those guys both where you want them to be emotionally as far as the opportunities and the touches, how does that work?

Simon: “I think that comes with success, as we’re having success as an offensive unit, those guys will obviously have more opportunities to run the football. So as we are playing ahead, if we’re leading the game, then we want to control the clock, we want to run the football more. If you find yourself behind in situations, you tend to want to throw the ball a little bit more so I think that to have those two 1,000-yard rushers or to have 2,000 yards rushing period, you have to be in a situation where your team is playing pretty good on offense and defense and you’re allowing your team to run the ball. I think if we run the ball, those guys will have the opportunity to both have success. Obviously, they’re very talented, both of them, and it’s just going to be based on what we do as an offensive unit and what we do as a team is going to determine how successful they are."

SunDevilSource: You started out well last season, second half didn’t go as well as you’d hoped, the yards per carry was down from historically with what’s been the case at ASU, so how frustrating was that for your guys as a group? You only control what you control, obviously, as a part of that.

Simon: “It’s definitely frustrating, but it’s only frustrating for a day after the game. Then after a day, whether the game is good or bad, you have to find a way to put it behind you and that’s what the great ones do. You put the game behind you, you focus on next week and you focus on the next challenge, you go into the next game hopeful that it’s going to be different. The next week, whether it’s good or bad, you wake up and you prepare for the following week and hope that you’re going to have an opportunity to either play better as a unit or have a better than what you had last week. Whether it’s a really good performance or a better performance, you’re always just trying to be at your best every week and I think with our guys, that’s the standard that we set in our room, that’s our mindset.”

SunDevilSource: Contrasting with the success that you guys had in 2015 at Southern Miss running the ball, same offensive coordinator, you’re the running backs coach, obviously it all comes down to the totality of the blocking, what you have at quarterback and receiver and all of that, but what are the keys to getting to where you guys want to be in the year ahead compared to some of the issues that you guys had last year?

Simon: “It’s a combination of things and if you go back and you look at Southern Miss, the year before what we did rushing the football, you’re talking about the combination of a young line at Southern Miss in ‘14 and that whole group coming back in ‘15 and a similar situation here. A younger line offensively last year, that entire line is coming back for the most part, and you feel comfortable with the experience and the overall talent on your offensive line and seniority as well is a big component when you’re talking about up front. Then again, you’re talking about two running backs that are young, coming back with their first year with the coordinator, second-year in the system, so it takes a lot as you see. It has only happened a few times in the history of our game, so that’s not something we can just turn around and say we can do it real. I don’t want to disrespect what we accomplished in Southern Miss with that unit and with that staff, but talent-wise, I do think we have it here in the backfield and we have to be the right combination of keeping guys healthy, offense playing well, being ahead in 75 percent of our games gives you those opportunities in the second half. Because that’s when those big chunks come, in the second half, late in the third, early in the fourth saying, ok, let’s run the football, eat some clock and the defense is tired and worn out and your play call is in that high 70s point to 80 plays, defense is worn out and you pop one for a big one. So you need a perfect storm to happen but I think we have a talented group and it can happen.”

SunDevilSource: You mentioned the 2014-2015 Southern Miss, do you see a similar climb here, I know when you look at Steve Miller, Quinn Bailey, Zach Robertson…

Simon: “No I do, that’s why I brought that factor up, if you look at 2014 as the same group but they were younger, if you look here, you’ll see that they were a younger group last year but the entire group is coming back. So the continuity of those guys up front and working together, getting a feel for each other, watching the film, seeing where they need to improve, seeing what we need to improve in the backfield, what are some things we could have done different and being held to a higher standard. I think that you can definitely see the signs of what we had at Southern Miss that allowed us to be successful running the football that it could possibly happen here.”

SunDevilSource: I view Kalen and Demario as complementary because they’re different types of backs in some ways. Kalen seems like more of a pro-style back, Demario is a spread kind of back, I’m sure he’s versatile enough to do almost everything, but do you have that feel about them and the way that the parts work together or do you think they’re more redundant?

Simon: “No, I definitely think they’re complementary backs for one another, two different styles, Kalen is faster so he would be your speedier guy but he does possess the power to run inside. D-Rich is a physical guy, a power guy who’s game is centered around punishing a defense, setting up the defenders and punishing them so that’s his style. At the same time he’s athletic enough to run routes, catch the ball and do some things in space. But I definitely think their skill set is different, but they are very complementary.”

SunDevilSource: So as you transition now to Billy Napier, and you know a lot more about your position than you did a year ago, how does that shape what you guys will do offensively?

Simon: “Well obviously there’s going to be some subtle changes in what we’ve done system-wise, but I think the changes definitely compliment the guys that we have in that room.”

SunDevilSource: Napier comes from, they obviously ran spread with Jalen Hurts, but Alabama has historically been a very pro-style offense and I know at Clemson they did different things quite a bit. Do you think that Napier could have some offense that’s better suited for a guy like Kalen Ballage?

Simon: “I just think that combination of things of what Alabama does system-wise, what Clemson does system-wise, if you look at the places Napier has been and how they’ve ran the football, using the tight ends on the front side, on the back side in multiple ways, to find ways to create edges, I think it’s always going to give you a better opportunity to be productive anywhere with some of the things that they do structural-wise. So schematically, it’s going to give us more opportunities to be able to run the football in my opinion.”

SunDevilSource: Your conversations with Demario and Kalen as they go into their last year about how do you guys put yourself in the best position to have an opportunity beyond that, what is that like?

Simon: “It’s real simple. Take advantage of every opportunity that you have, stay focused on your play, your performance, your energy, your effort and your body language. But at the end of the day, don’t focus on missed opportunities or opportunities for the other guy. You have to stay focused on what you do and the opportunities that you’re given.”

SunDevilSource: How hard is that for young players or young backs?

Simon: “It is, but you say that we mentioned the group that we had at Southern Miss because those two kids had to do it. One of the kids, he ended up starting for the Raiders this year as an undrafted free agent. There were times where he didn’t get as many carries as the other guy, it just depends on what direction the game is going, but you can’t harp on that because you never know when your opportunity is going to come. If your attitude isn’t right or you’re not focused, you can miss out on an opportunity to do something special. So it’s not easy, but if you’re talking about being a professional, if you’re talking about playing on Sundays in the NFL, then those are some of the things on the decision you’re going to have to make here mentally to prepare yourself, it’s going to be tested on this level and to prove that you’re that type of player that’s going to be part of the process.”

SunDevilSource: What do you think about where those guys are at from a leadership standpoint as they go into their last year?

Simon: “I don’t know, this is going to be different for them. This is a different seat that they’ve never had to sit in. You only get one year to be a senior and it’s a group that came in and they played as youngsters so they didn’t necessarily have that leadership over them to watch and see what it means to be a leader. A senior leader. They’ve always kind of been a leader in that room, by example, by their play, so it’s going to be different to see how they evolve into being a vocal leader as it relates to being a senior in that room.”

SunDevilSource: Is that even more of a challenge, just given that you’re the only offensive coach who’s still on the staff, is that more important or more challenging given some of the turnover and changes that are taking place?

Simon: “People harp on that, on the turnover and changes, but if I’m not mistaken, Alabama had a lot of turnover. They’ve lost two offensive coordinators and I don’t think anyone is going to go in there feeling sorry for themselves. I don’t think the rankings or the preseason rankings are going to change based on the coaches. This is a professional business that we work in and coach (Graham) has done a great job of hiring coaches that are qualified guys. There’s a lot of guys that are qualified to wear hats in this country that do a good job of coaching kids, so at the end of the day, the kids have to stay focused on what they need to do to be successful. And if they do that, we will be successful as a team. We have great guys on the staff, just as we did in the past that are going to come to work, put the time in and be professional, be diligent in doing their job, our kids just have to stay focused on the guys that are wearing the helmets and making sure they’re holding the guys accountable with the helmets to doing their job and if they do that, we’ll all be fine.”

SunDevilSource: Nick Ralston, I thought he did well with his opportunities, he lost a lot of weight from the first year to the second year, he obviously was a workhorse back in Texas and they weren’t sure what they were going to do with him position-wise, but is he poised to really emerge, if not this year because of the two guys above him, but as his career unfolds?

Simon: “I’m excited about Nick, for a kid to be as productive as he’s been and he’s a kid that will continue to grow. I think it’s good that he had a chance to sit a little bit, coming from the Texas style of ball, being able to rest, having two guys in front of him, but you’ll see the kid just gets better and better, it’s important to him. He’s smart, he’s intelligent, he has the skill set, he’s physical so I think the future is definitely bright with the guys that we have in that room. I don’t think it’s a room we look at and say, we have a need that we need to address right away and I feel comfortable saying that for years to come, that it’s going to be a solid room, it’s going to be exciting for Sun Devil fans to watch.”

SunDevilSource: Is there anybody that you’ve coached or been around that Nick reminds you of?

Simon: “Nick reminds me a little bit of the kid that plays for the Raiders right now (Jalen Richard), because he’s very smart, he’s very coachable and it’s important to him to win and he soaks all the information up like a sponge. Nick definitely reminds me of him, that kid is probably a little bit better running routes but that kid was a senior, Nick is a freshman and I have three more years to develop him and he’s doing a good job of understanding it. I think it’s going to be exciting to watch him this spring come into his own a little bit, we know what those older guys can do, we don’t have to see them as much as we evaluate the next group of guys, but I think that you’re going to be able to see it in the spring that Nick is a back that could be starting at a lot of Division I schools right now. It just so happens that he has two NFL players in front of him, but I think Nick is going to surprise a lot of guys, a lot of people as soon as he gets his opportunity to go.”

SunDevilSource: What about Kalen and Demario, I see Kalen as a Demarco Murray type of a running back, is that what you think he’s like style-wise?

Simon: “I think the sky is the limit for Kalen, there’s not much that he can’t do, I just think as he continues to study the game, he’s closer to a Darren McFadden type of guy, size, physical and can block and Kalen’s a pretty fast guy as well. A very explosive guy, so right now, he would probably be closer to the comparison of the running back with the Cowboys right now, skill set, talent-wise, size-wise, he’s going to be closer to that kid, Ezekiel Elliott, to have the opportunity to get into the open field. With that line, the way the Cowboys block it, that kid would average three yards before he was even touched sometimes. But Kalen, in the right system, featured that way, I think he can really excel.”

SunDevilSource: What about Demario?

Simon: “Demario is more of your old school, Pittsburgh Steelers-type running back, a cloud of dust, grind and pound type guy. Inside the tackle guy, a power or gap scheme type of guy, a physical bruising runner. That old Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins-type of football, the old days. Double tight, bunch formation, just downhill ball. He’s powerful through contact. But I would compare him closer to a Marshawn (Lynch)-type physical runner. Not the exact same skill set as Marshawn, but the physical part of trying to punish a defender when he has the ball. It’s like a linebacker running with the football.”

SunDevilSource: Tre Turner, a two-sport guy, redshirted last year, we didn’t get a chance to see that much of him, a different type of a back, what do you think about his process?

Simon: “We’re going to get a lot of questions answered with Tre this spring. This is a very important spring for Tre going into your second year, because going into your second year, that’s when people make decisions on who you are and what you are. So it’s very important that he comes out and has a really good spring, and shows that he can be an explosive guy, that’s what we’re going to need out of Tre Turner. Tre Turner was signed as a running back that’s supposed to be a blazer, was a 4.3 guy, low 4.4 guy, that’s what we’re going to be looking for. To find ways to get Tre out in space this spring and see if he can challenge the defense with his speed and see if he can bring us back some big plays so it’s going to be very important that we see some big runs out of Tre this spring.”

SunDevilSource: Eno (Benjamin) is already here and enrolled in classes and everything, probably the highest-rated back signed during Todd Graham’s tenure at ASU, very productive at a high level in Texas so you have high hopes for him obviously?

Simon: “Without a question, I think Eno is one of the rare guys that we have that we feel like he’s an every down back that has the ability to run inside, is strong, can break tackles, but then he has the speed to get outside and outrun guys and the long speed to hold guys off, to go 70 yards. We’re definitely excited about that kid, being here in our program, and obviously with the injury that he had, I feel that’s working in his favor, allowing his body, because Texas football is hard on your body, just giving him this time to rest and recover and then have an opportunity to showcase himself in the summer and then the fall.”

SunDevilSource: Will he (Benjamin) be able to do anything this spring?

Simon: “I think he will have his cast off in a couple of weeks and he’ll be very limited in the spring, I don’t think we’ll see anything where he’ll be able to get out with the team and go full-go. I think towards the end we may be able to see him in some individual stuff, but I don’t think he’ll be able to go through any team drills.

SunDevilSource: Obviously you feel like you can bring him along slowly?

Simon: “Without a question, because there’s no need to rush a kid coming off an injury like that when you have three-to-four guys that are ready to go right away. We can go ahead and make sure we take care of that kid and then heal completely before we introduce him to this level of football.”

SunDevilSource: Trelon (Smith), a guy who plays behind a really good offensive line at the high school level, but very quick, makes guys miss in space, a home run threat...

Simon: “He’s a Tre Turner type of guy, he and Tre are both on those lines of, hey which one of you guys are going to be able to provide a spark for us? Provide a big play to make a guy miss or a screen guy, a route, 1-on-1 with a linebacker that you can win and outrun some guys and make some special plays. Very good ball skills. So that’s their opportunity, Trelon and Tre Turner is to come in and make a spark for us and to run around on some special teams.”

SunDevilSource: This is an 11-personnel offense, but do you think that just given the strength of your unit we may see more opportunities for you guys to go 20 or 21?

Simon: “It’s a possibility, it’s early, it’s real early to say what we’re going to do and what’s the strength of our unit until we get out there in the spring, have an opportunity to evaluate the receivers, evaluate the tight end position and make a decision for what’s best for us going forward.”

SunDevilSource: How excited are you for just turning the page, you’ve got one year in the books coaching at this level, now the assistant head coach which is really cool distinction for you, so just what’s your mood going into spring and beyond?

Simon: “I’m excited about it, not only for myself but to be here, this city, this conference, this league, this great university, the program, the vision under coach Graham, he sets the right attitude, the right mindset for our kids. He’s the right leader for kids, period. He holds the coaches accountable to providing the proper leadership for the guys on the team, in the building and outside of the building. He’s the type of guy that the parents will want their kids to play for so with all of those things said, that’s where my excitement comes back to me going forward. To face the challenges of how close we were, one of the greatest starts of Arizona State history to the season, now to come back and see if we could build on that, and then carry the torch throughout the end.”

SunDevilSource: You were a high school athletic director so you have a sense for the administrative component to that, do you have a sense that the culture, what do you think about the culture right now in that respect?

Simon: “I think the culture is really good, and it’s tough because for Graham, when you lose guys and you have to continue to bring guys in, it’s tough but he does a great job of setting the mandate for what the vision of the program is regardless of the guys that come in and he does a great job of not hiring guys and trying to teach them the vision, but hiring guys that believes in the same things that he believes in and that makes it easy. So I think the culture is good, I think everybody around here feels it with the guys on the staff. When you meet them you see the smiles and you see the focus, you see the commitment and the drive, you see the experience and the resumes so I’m excited about the culture, I think we’re in a great place and I think the staff is excited about it as well.”

SunDevilSource: Three things that you want to get accomplished this spring, what are they?

Simon: "The first thing is that you want to get out of the spring healthy. We want to improve on running the football up front, I would say as well as the execution of plays and yards after contact and being more detailed. Being more detailed and understanding when there’s a time to be physical, when there’s a time to be special and bounce it and make big plays. And the third thing would definitely be our physical play in the pass protection, in the pass game, of blocking, so that’s one of the things that we’re definitely going to put emphasis on. Running the football, and we’re going to do a lot of one-on-one blocking with the linebackers, something that we didn’t do in the past.”

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