SPRING PREVIEW: Safety is wide open says Ball

YOU MIGHT THINK Xavier Hicks, the Cougs' second leading tackler last season, 13 career starts under his belt plus the fact he was clearly one of Wazzu's best players on defense in 2008, you might think a guy like that would have the starting free safety job heading into spring drills. Not the case, says safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball. Nobody, says Ball, has an inside track.

Maybe it's just a coach who wants to get better across the board, and a spirited competition for open jobs in the spring will make everyone that much improved.

Or maybe it's that starter's jobs truly do have to continually be earned -- and what better time to start than heading into the spring session.

Whatever the reasoning, Ball says Hicks, a senior-to-be and Chima Nwachukwu, who will be a junior, do not hold the starting safety spots coming into spring.

"Nobody has the inside track," said Ball.

Still, Hicks and Nwachukwu are the most experienced of the group with 32 combined career starts.

Hicks had 79 tackles (47 solo) in 10 starts last year after missing the first three games of the season. Nwachakwu, despite only seven starts in '08, was the Cougs' fourth leading tackler with 57 take downs (31 solo). It also probably escaped notice for the most part but Nwachakwu's third down tackle on WSU's five-yard line in the first overtime of the Apple Cup may well have preserved the win for the Cougars.

The four who likely figure to challenge the duo most are Tyree Toomer, Eric Block, LeAndre Daniels and Jay Matthews.

Toomer showed raw promise as a true freshman this past season, posting 34 tackles, four for loss, with two sacks, two pass breaks ups and a forced fumble. He even logged four starts as a walk-up safety, playing off the d-end position, when Wazzu went to their 3-3-5.

Block is the X factor here coming into spring.

He was expected to challenge for playing time last fall but lost much of the season to a long-term illness. Healthy now, he has athleticism and football smarts -- he started at quarterback and safety at Bellevue High as a 14 year old sophomore through his senior season.

Matthews and Daniels, who both redshirted this past season, are among those who have earned praise from the coaching staff this offseason for excellent work in the weight room.

Also perhaps in the mix when drills kick off next week, Deon Ford and Easton Johnson although their calling could be found at linebacker and wide receiver, respectively.

Ball, normally a loquacious and effervescent bundle of energy, already appears to have his game face on for spring drills.

Asked about his goals for the safeties this spring, Ball kept it close to the vest. He didn't talk about his defensive backs getting better at reading the quarterback or taking better pursuit angles nor anything of that nature.

Instead, he said his goals for the safeties are the same as they are for the defense as a whole. And he was, if not overly insightful, simple and direct.

"To get better, to become better football players...We've got to find 11 guys to get this thing done," said Ball.

Cougfan Top Stories