Q&A with Mike Nixon

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Devils Digest sat down at the Pac-10's football media day with senior linebacker Mike Nixon to reflect on his ASU career thus far and talk about the 2009 campaign.

Devils Digest: Mike, as you enter your final season at ASU, what are your thoughts when you reflect back to early 2006 when you decided to step away from minor league baseball to resume playing football? Have the past three years validated that decision?

Mike Nixon: "I really haven't put it all in perspective, because all I'm worried about right now is the upcoming season. Every day we're working out, running, doing something else to get ready for the season. But if I did look back, I would say that my last three years at ASU have been awesome, everything I hoped it would be. There were so many ups and downs, but I had a good time and I hope to leave here with a bang.

"I always believed that I could come back (from baseball) and play. Just getting the opportunity to play football and making the most of it shows that I did make the right decision. I've been happy with school, happy with football and I have no regrets."

DD: I know you've been asked a lot of football versus baseball questions before, but maybe you haven't heard this one already. What's more fun -- hitting a grand slam or returning an interception for a touchdown?

MN: "Wow…(smiles). I would have to say an interception for a touchdown. Just the amount of fans that are there (in a football game) is a little more than a minor league ballpark where you have 2,000 fans cheering for you. And there's a little more desperation running an interception back. You can run into a home run once in a while, but in football an interception for a touchdown has to work out perfect."

DD: Some are calling ASU's 2009 linebackers corps the best in the Pac-10. How do you view the depth of talent right now, and how has it changed since you've arrived on campus?

MN: "I think we have a nice blend of guys that coaches know can come out and play very steady at linebacker and guys that have the potential to be true big time playmakers. If we can find the right mix of players and develop a level of consistency week in and week out, we have a chance to be pretty darn good."

DD: We hear a lot about needing leaders to emerge from the players themselves. As the oldest player on this squad, what does it mean to be a leader on the team?

MN: "There are a couple of types, the vocal guys and those that lead by example. I feel you need a little bit of both. You need guys that show day in and day out what it takes to be a Pac-10 winner, a Pac-10 champion and hopefully they follow in your footsteps. But you also need players who are vocal enough and say what needs to be said and guys will listen.

"For whatever reason I think we lacked that a little last season, but we have a great senior class this year that I think the underclassmen respect them quite a bit."

DD: You talked about having a lot of talented underclassmen in the linebacker unit. Does that even further emphasize the senior leadership that needs to take place?

MN: "Physically, we know how talented those guys are. They just have to put it all together mentally. Week and week out they have to execute a game plan. When those guys get to that level our defense is going to get that much better. As a senior, my job is to help speed up their learning curve and make us a better linebacker group.

"I remember coming out of baseball, and I was a 23-year old freshman, and I had trouble grasping the defense here and there, understanding all the nuances of it. So for an 18-year old to come in here and be expected to contribute right away…if there's anything upperclassmen can do to help that they'll do it."

DD: A lot of coaches and players today talked about the Pac-10 being perhaps less finesse than before and more of a conference that puts a lot of emphasis on running the ball. As a linebacker, would you rather face a smash mouth, power offense that pounds the ball at you or a spread offense that is more about making reads and fulfilling assignments than physical play?

MN: "The past couple of years we had success against the smash mouth teams like Stanford, and even USC we played pretty well at times last year. Oregon and their spread has kind of been our Achilles heel. But going into a game, no matter what offense you're facing, you know you have to stop the run first and make team one dimensional."

DD: Now put yourself in the quarterback's shoes, and that's a position you played in high school, what kind of offense would you prefer to run?

MN: "The running game is always the quarterback's best friend. So regardless of the scheme, when your running back is rolling your life at QB is much easier. Defenses that think run first can open things up for the passing game. If the defense is shutting down the run and the quarterback is just a sitting duck there, things can get ugly in a hurry."

DD: You talked about coming in as a 23-yar old freshman, and you have been the oldest player on the team ever since. So, is it hard to bond with the 17 and 18-year old freshmen that have just arrived on campus or do you just stick to bonding with Dean DeLeone since you two are the ‘old guys' on the team?

MN: "It's been pretty easy bonding with the younger players. When I started in baseball I was the youngest player and the bottom of the totem pole, and I saw what the older around me were like. So I'm trying to be that for the younger guys.

"Even though there is a six, seven-year difference there's enough things in common that I can dumb down (laughs) to their level. We get along just fine."

DD: And there probably is an advantage for those young players hanging out with someone much older like yourself…

MN: "I think so. Just by talking to them, leading by example like watching film for an extra hour and grabbing a freshman to watch film with you…anything you can do study habits wise is where you help them a lot."

DD: With the defense expected to be the catalyst of the team this year and with you being one of the top defensive leaders, what do you feel you need to provide to help drive the defense and the team in general?

MN: "I just try to build on what myself and the team did last year. I did some good things individually, but there are always so many things you can improve on year in and year out. I want to make another big stride like I did from my sophomore to junior year. If I do that I can help the team be better."

DD: What advantages do you feel you have being three years older than most college seniors -- on and off the field?

MN: "I can put things in perspective, have my priorities lined up. If I have a bad day on the field, it's not the end of the world. You brush it off and get better the next day from there. Playing a lot in my three years helps a ton because there haven't been a whole lot of things that I haven't seen yet and hopefully you can take those experiences and use them to your advantage."

DD: Even though you are a big team guy, what personal goals do you have for the 2009 season?

MN: "As cliché as it is, most of my goals are team goals. I much rather play a smaller role that plays on a 10-win team and goes to a top bowl game and get back to where we were two years ago. So if I have to sacrifice playing time or do more coaching of the younger guys I'll do that and the personal stuff will take care of itself."

DD: Back in 2002, if you had been told that in 2009, at age 25 you'd be a All-Pac-10 caliber senior linebacker at ASU having been a high school quarterback/safety that committed to UCLA, what would your reaction have been?

MN: "I'd probably say things have gone terribly wrong at some point (laughs). For some reason I'm eight years in college or I took another path and that didn't work out. I wouldn't have predicted that back then but I'm obviously I'm happy with the way things have worked out."

A special thanks to Eric Menkhus and Joe Healey who assisted in questions for this interview.

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