Eve Craig/SunDevilSource

Q&A with ASU defensive backs' coach T.J. Rushing

Arizona State defensive backs' coach T.J. Rushing enters his second year as an assistant under Todd Graham and believes the overall level of competition among players in the secondary will be stronger this season.

SunDevilSource: Coach, you guys are coming off back-to-back rough seasons with your pass defense, and yet you have some talented pieces that are returning. Of course you have Armand Perry who has a couple of years of starting experience now, Kareem Orr is a really good player and then you have some guys that were in kind of adjustment phases last year with junior college in Maurice Chandler and J'Marcus RhodesMarcus Ball obviously had a lot of success when he transitioned, especially from Spur to Bandit. What are your thoughts about just where this group is at right now as you go into the spring?

Rushing: “The group is hungry, and like you said, a couple of bad years of pass defense made them that way. Nobody likes being bad, especially if you’re highly competitive, which all of our guys in our room are, and so they’re hungry and ready to go out there and work. They’ve been working like crazy the last couple of days since we’ve been back off the road, finished with recruiting, back around them and they’ve been getting after it, trying to establish themselves as a solid secondary. A great secondary. Something they can go out there and be proud of what they can put on tape.”

SunDevilSource: What were the things that you think were foundationally kind of established even though maybe it didn’t demonstrate in terms of the numbers on the field that you think will help you bridge from there to this year and beyond?

Rushing: “The basic fundamentals of DB play, in my brain. Doing your job, on and off the field, whatever it is, wherever I’m supposed to be, you’ve got to do it. Harping on that, guys are buying into it, they’re talking about it to each other. Playing with fanatical effort, no matter what’s happening, you’ve got to play hard, you’ve got to have relentless effort, you’ve got to be tough. Our guys are tough, there ain’t no bones about it. I will tell kids mentally and physically tough, and these guys are that. They’re responding because it would be easy to go in the shell right now. Two years in a row, it would be easy to go into hiding, that ain’t us. They’re going to be tough kids mentally and physically and know you’ve got to go out there and be playmakers, that’s what we say. They’re in the right spot on defense a lot of the times, the 50/50 balls, we lost way too many of those battles. Way too many explosive plays, but like I said, now they know what they’ve got to do. Fight for it. Go out there and outwork everybody in the offseason and see the results. The delayed gratification down the road.”

SunDevilSource: The explosives that you guys gave up were obviously something that you’ve got to pare down quite a bit moving forward, but you talked with us a lot in the past about not wanting to give up the cheap ones over the top and you really didn’t have hardly any of those, not very many as a percentage of the explosive plays that you gave up probably, so what is it about the yards after the catch component? Is that guys being in the wrong place or was there any sort of thematic thing that you saw to that you want to focus on shoring up moving forward?

Rushing: "We’ve got to work on, I’ve put such a huge emphasis on no cheap ones, no cheap ones, no cheap ones, no ball over the top, nothing over our head, like you said, I’ve been saying that since day one when I got here. And now, what I always emphasize in the meeting room and not so much publicly is the tackle part of it. You’ve got to get your feet in the grass, come to balance, over-emphasize the wrap, it’s about getting the dudes down. It’s hard, the game is staying wide open down there, it’s different than when I played. It’s different. It’s basketball almost out on the grass. We’ve got to be able to track them, find ourselves, wrap up on guys, hang on and get a guy down so you can go into the next play so that’s going to be the huge emphasis, no cheap ones and tackling, finishing plays.”

SunDevilSource: You guys transitioned to a rugby-style approach, the Seahawks' kind of tackling, under (Shawn) Slocum and (Keith) Patterson who sort of migrated you guys to that, do you think that from a skills standpoint, the way that it’s being taught, it takes a long time to really assimilate and develop? Or do you think that’s an athleticism-related component or something that’s more naturally innate? What kind of all goes into that?

Rushing: “It’s natural. We showed our guys the tape but the majority of our guys have been doing it, the majority of football players have been doing it. Seahawks did a great job of showing clips and branding it for themselves but since the game of football has been played, people have been doing that because that’s how you get them down. But it makes it use words, everybody likes to use short verbage, command words and kids know what you’re talking about so that’s what the Seahawks did a great job of, so it’s easy to show that tape, get our guys to know what they’re doing, same drills we’ve been doing. Now it’s just a command, everybody is speaking the same language.”

SunDevilSource: When you play for a head coach who is very pressure-oriented, it puts you in more conflict situations. Where if you don’t bring a guy down when you have that opportunity, that’s where you have a lot of your big plays when that occurs. But then again, defensive backs talk about wanting that, most DBs want to play in that sort of a style, in conflict style. What’s your perspective from a secondary coach’s perspective about just sort of that dynamic?

Rushing: “Absolutely love it. Absolutely love it. And I tell our guys, when I’m recruiting them, you’ve got to be up for the challenge. You have to have super-thick skin, you’ve got to be a dude that’s a dominant personality that wants the fight. There are some kids that shy away from it, there are some dudes that run toward it. I want all the kids who think, hey I’m big enough to take on the challenge and I’ll get it done. All the great corners in the league, that’s their mindset. All of the great safeties in the league, that’s their mindset. So I want guys that want to be great, that want the bullseye on their back and know if the team’s counting on me, I’m going to get it done.”

SunDevilSource: With the addition of Phil Bennett, I went back and watched his defenses the last few years, they played a lot of base nickel and they were lighter personnel. He talked about the fact that he was just very, didn’t have a lot of heavier-bodied guys, bigger, bodied guys so he went with some 30-front as a result of that but he said we wants to be a 4-2-5 kind of a defense. What changes do you anticipate from an installation standpoint going into the spring and I say that knowing that you’re still formulating all of that right now?

Rushing: “I would say we just did day one, so I’m not sure. I think there will be a lot of similarities but there will be some things that are different. Coach Bennett has his own style of doing stuff like you said and he’s a great ball coach, I can tell that already, so his plan, what he did at Baylor, what we’ve done here, he’s going to mesh that together and give us whatever he believes is best for us and our players and our guys’ athletic ability because that’s what you have to do whenever you take on a new role as a coordinator.”

SunDevilSource: Will you be coaching the whole secondary, will you be splitting it with Jarred Holley, will Bennett be more involved in skill development, what will that look like in the spring?

Rushing: “I’m not 100 percent sure. I know coach Bennett has been a secondary guy his whole life so I’m banking me and him will head it up and we’ll get it going. He likes to walk around also, he’s heavily involved with everything from my understanding so we’ll be sharing coaches, we’ll help each other out.”

SunDevilSource: So let’s take a quick rundown of some of your players, Armand Perry, when he’s been healthy obviously he’s been a solid player for the most part at the field side safety position. I think that he’s ideally suited to maybe play on the boundary or closer to the line of scrimmage because he’s so good against the run, he’s physical coming up, what do you think his future is from a position standpoint and from a skill development standpoint to take him to the next place in his game?

Rushing: “Armand, he’s been doing a great job, he’s one of those kids, it’s been unfortunate for him, he’s battled through a lot of injuries, being tough, and I think he’s one of those guys I always talk about position flexibility, wherever we need to plug and play him at, he can do it. Both safety spots. Last year he did a really good job at the field safety, whenever he was in there he played well and now we just got to get luck on his side. For whatever reason, not to get these freak accidents, freak injuries, cause his future could be bright. He’s putting in the work, so if he puts in the work, he’ll reap the benefits.”

SunDevilSource: Do you think he’ll stay at that spot for at least the start of spring?

Rushing: “Not sure, not sure at all, he has a good chance to try, I’m not sure where he’s going to end up honestly.”

SunDevilSource: Obviously I know Bennett has to evaluate a lot of the players on the field before you know. Kareem Orr, led the Pac-12 in interceptions playing safety, coming off the bench as a freshman, played corner last year, where is he at in his evolution and what do you want to see from him moving forward?

Rushing: “I want to see him embrace the leadership role. As a teammate, do everything the right way, he’s been doing a great job so far, but I’m pushing him to go where he’s never been, to step it up. Like you said, he’s had a lot of success here, he’s been a great ball player, and now as a ball coach, you’re always trying to push him to be better at something, and so that’s the challenge for him. He’s going to keep plugging away in the secondary, keep doing us a great job and now that’s it.”

SunDevilSource: Maurice Chandler, I liked his film a lot coming out of JUCO and sometimes he had injuries, and all kinds of things that held him back. Sometimes that first year is an adjustment year and then guys kind of really take off. Oklahoma guy, you’re an Oklahoma guy, so you’ve got that little extra connection, what are your conversations with Maurice like moving forward?

Rushing: “With Maurice, he’s excited. He’s excited, like you said, that first year, you’ve got to get acclimated, I don’t care how good your tape looks, it’s a learning curve. He came out and he realized that and now he’s putting in the work to establish himself just like he has at every point in his career. In high school, in junior college, now everywhere he’s been, he’s established himself as the guy or a guy that can play well so that’s where he’s working towards. Now he realizes what it takes to go out there and be great in the Pac-12 on Saturdays so he’s working toward that goal.”

SunDevilSource: Marcus (Ball) looks like a Spur, but quick reactive key read stuff maybe was a little bit of an issue for him playing that tight, and when he saw it more, and had a little more ability to see and react, a lot of his best attributes seemed to come to the surface as a Bandit. Do you see it the same way and a guy who obviously has a lot of the intangibles that you want?

Rushing: “I’d say Marcus is, I think last year, he could have done either really well. He’s like you said, blessed with great size, so everybody is like, golly, he should be in the box, he’s a big old kid. But he has fluid hips, good movement, faster than people realize, so he can play back there. That last year at Spur, he had Laiu (Moeakiola), and he’s a ball player, so there’s no sense in two really good football players sitting on the bench. Try to get this thing worked out where you can get both of your better players on the grass and Marcus, like you said, he excelled back there at safety and he’s been working like crazy and wherever we need him, I don’t know if that will be at Spur or at Bandit, he’ll be able to play there. Because he’s a good football player that loves the game and loves working at it.”

SunDevilSource: You have obviously a handful of other guys, that are coming back and competing, you’ve got Chad Adams, J’Marcus Rhodes, you’ve got Das (Tautalatasi), what do you, collectively, with some of these guys who are now getting up in terms of their years and their experience, what do you need to see to get those guys to where they’re able to really stay on the field?

Rushing: “I tell my guys and it’s the same for everybody, I don’t care wherever you’ve been, if you’ve been a two-year starter, it’s the same for everybody, the guys who compete and are consistent day in and day out there on the grass, those are the ones that are tried out there in front of our fans. So consistency from everybody in the group. The fact that we have a new D-coordinator, a clean slate for everybody is a good deal and now you go out there and work, compete like crazy and see what happens. So the competition in the room should be great, it should be really good this spring.”

SunDevilSource: Chase Lucas, Todd told me that he thought about burning his redshirt after about a month of the season and you guys decided not to, do you think that he’s more of a field safety or more of a corner? And where do you think you guys are going to use him? What’s that going to look like for Chase?

Rushing: “For Chase, Coach Graham is absolutely right, we had those conversations, burn his redshirt or not? Burn his redshirt or not? Ended up not doing it which I think Sun Devil fans will be excited about because he’ll be a lot better in his fifth year than he was in his first year. He’s a guy that will go out there and compete at corner. But like you said, he has flexibility, you name-dropped the positions so it’s either going to be at corner or at field safety but he has a chance to go out there and compete in the spring and looking forward to watching him work. He’s been doing a great job in the offseason, put on a lot of good weight, staying fast and he’s looking good.”

SunDevilSource: There’s a lot of different possibilities with how this works out. How locked in are some guys? Do you look at Armand and Kareem and say these guys are locked in, but we don’t know where exactly they’re going to play? Or Marcus? Or do you just say, even those guys can be beaten out?

Rushing: “That’s the way that I tell my guys, first day on the job here I told them there’s going to be open competition forever. I don’t believe in complacency or a guy, I don’t care if he was a Thorpe Award winner of an All-American. It’s going to be hard to beat that guy out if he’s that good but he still, I still want him to feel the pressure of the room because they owe it to each other. Because any time you get relaxed like that and you don’t go all out every single day, it might not be a guy at Arizona State that’s getting better than you, but it’s a guy in the conference or in the nation that’s getting better than you and I want my guys to strive to be the best in the country so that’s how you make them go and you want the guys in the room to not come in and go, alright, these two spots are already taken. Why am I even trying? Because they’re taken, it’s over.”

SunDevilSource: I thought Robbie Robinson had a lot of good reps playing nickel and he didn’t really get as many opportunities as the year unfolded. Size is always going to be his challenge probably but really quick and hard-nosed sort of a guy, what do you make of him? Very smart and has a lot of the other intangibles.

Rushing: “Robbie did a great job making the ball bounce. As I call it, a lot of incompletions, right? So he just has to stay active. We’ll see how it shakes up for him but he’s one of those dudes who does a great job, you want to see him keep competing, keep trying, keep going after it, and we’ll see. Because like I said, in my opinion, cream always rises to the top. I’ll never, because you can’t in this business, I’m not going to put a kid on the bench that deserves to be out on the grass and vice versa.”

SunDevilSource: I’m focused on the spring so I’m not talking about Evan Fields and K.J. (Jarrell), but Ty Thomas is here now and looks like a more athletic version of Jordan Simone or something, what do you think about his indoctrination into the team?

Rushing: “Been thrilled with him, been thrilled with him, he’s a tough, hard-nosed kid that moves well. He’s better than a lot of people are going to think, was glad to see on the evaluation that we were right. The kid is going to be solid and do stuff the right way. He’s going to have a chance to get in there and compete.”

SunDevilSource: What haven’t I asked you that you want to give us some juice on?

Rushing: “You know all the scoop. I’m trying to think of the juice. What I can tell you is that come out to the spring, first practice, you’ll see it, it should be lively, energetic, guys having a good time, ready to get out there and compete and striving for greatness. And I know that’s a lot of coaching cliches and a lot of just rhetoric, but that’s where the program is at.”

SunDevilSource: How do you feel about the talent quotient from your arrival to what you think is going to be 2017-2018?

Rushing: “It is getting there. It’s getting there. Clear progress. Because those guys when I first got here, the Kareem Orr’s of the world, the Armand Perry’s of the world, those guys were just getting better. They didn’t know what they didn’t know, now they’re getting better. And the five DBs we just brought in, we got guys that will come in and if anything else, bring out that competition in the room. And all of those guys that have been in the program, they’ve got to work a little bit harder so they have to continue to get better. Like I said, it’s progress, we’re moving in the right direction, and it’ll be fixed quick.”

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