Coming off a record breaking performance from junior running Kalen Ballage, we talk to running backs coach John Simon to get his thoughts on the Ballage’s performance and more about the ASU offense.
Zac Pacleb: When you see Demario (Richard) do what he did, pounding away for more than 100 yards, and seeing Kalen do what he did - these are guys you’ve worked with for a while - what is it like to see them have that amount of success?
John Simon: It’s always a proud moment for you as a coach just based on how your guys perform. More so than their performance or on top of that is their ball security. I’m really excited about their ball security. When you watch the film, you’re watching them keeping it high-and-tight and protecting the ball.
At the end of the day, if you’re protecting the ball, they’re going to have a lot of opportunities to do a lot of things, so (I’m) harping on that. It was very impressive, it was very gratifying for myself for the accomplishment had, but D-Rich was right there with him on every touchdown blocking his butt off, pounding the rock, getting the hard yards, finishing the game on a fourth-and-one.
We have a thunder and a lightning, and that’s how we use them and using those guys to the best of their abilities, so it’s definitely gratifying for them and for their success. When they’re at their best, we’re at our best.
ZP: It’s not every day you see two successful and talented running backs who are so close or seem so willing to block for each other the way Demario did for Kalen. It seemed like it didn’t matter who was scoring. It seems like their relationship has grown.
Simon: Their relationship has grown, and I know they were really close friends when they got here. At the same time, they’re competitive. They’re competitors, and they compete against each other as well, but it’s all out of love. It’s family.
We have a family environment to where we love each other and we don’t always like each other and always get along, but there’s a certain respect for our brother that we’re going to have and we’re going to go out there and give it our all for the guy next to us, and that’s what you saw out of D-Rich. You saw an unselfish guy going out, doing what he had to do to help his team get a win.
ZP: I saw a stat where close to 60 percent of their yards this season have come after the first contact. They’re just running really physically. Kalen is running physically between the tackles, Demario always does. What does that do to a defense, and what does that do for an offense when you’re pounding away like that?
Simon: It defines who we are at our position, and that’s an identity that - I don’t know what they had before I got here - but it’s an identity that I believe in. In the past, my running backs have been the same way. What defines us is yards after contact. Before yards after contact, that’s “thank you” to the offensive line. That’s the offensive line doing their job.
Your job is to demolish a guy, or go around him, or go through him. That’s where we’re defined. That’s where we’re graded - after contact - and our guys understand that. Our guys in that room, we have guys that want to play on Sunday, and if they want to play on Sunday, they have to understand that it’s going to be yards after contact, the tough yards. It ignites your team. It ignites the offensive line because when they see guys playing hard. There’s not too many guys on defense that wants to take a guy running through their face every play, and that’s how we’re going to play the game.
ZP: Kalen said Texas Tech wasn’t the best tackling team, and you guys were more physical than them. Now you have to take that success and go to UTSA, a completely different team.
They have some physical guys in there. How do you approach that knowing that it’s not going to be the same shootout that it was against Texas Tech, and there won’t be as many opportunities?
Simon: Every fight presents its own challenge. Every battle presents its own challenge. That was last week’s team. That has nothing to do with this team. This is a more aggressive bunch, more physical bunch on defense, a well-coached bunch as well.
They’re a little bit more sound. They’re going to do a little bit more stuff scheme-wise, so we have to come and play with that same intensity and understand that those runs that Kalen had, those bigger runs that D-Rich had, they come in the second half after you’ve been pounding the ball and making the game a physical game, so we’re going down and playing a pretty good team on defense. If we take care of the ball and run hard and play the game we’re capable of playing, we’ll be happy in the end.
ZP: You obviously take great pride in taking care of the ball. I don’t really see Kalen and Demario dropping many fumbles or anything like that.
Simon: Again, we take things one week at a time, and we’ve done a tremendous job up until this point, but we’re going to keep harping on it. What did we do to get to this point? And keep doing that, and not being boastful or prideful in our success and understand that every week is a new week, is a new opportunity.
ZP: Obviously, you guys have some depth between Demario and Kalen, but there’s also Nick Ralston, and Jason Lewis was at practice today. How does that bolster the things you guys can do as a group when you have that much depth and talent?
Simon: The great thing about it for those younger guys is to watch it and see what we’re doing, and those older guys are setting the tone for our room, and those younger guys are seeing it and understanding what it’s going to take for them to be successful, and what it’s going to take for us to be successful in the room.
Demario and Kalen have set the standard, the physical play that I’ve asked of those guys, and they’ve responded well. We’re excited about all those guys.