Q&A: Washington State defensive coordinator Chris Ball

It's hard to say which Washington State Cougars defense was worse.

In 2008, the Cougars surrendered 44 points per game, ranking 118th in the nation. They again ranked 118th in in 2009, but they gave up "just" 38.5 points per game.

Of course, the 2009 unit ranked last in the nation in total defense, yielding an astounding 512 yards per game, which was 69 more than 2008.

Yes, those numbers will stress out a defensive coordinator.

Fact is the Cougars have been out manned the past two seasons on both sides of the ball but most glaringly on defense. They started out lacking talent and then suffered epidemic injuries. Not a good combination. That forced the Cougars to use young players before they were physically or mentally ready.

Thus the numbers.

Ah, but there is reason for hope heading into 2010. For one, those young players may have graduated the school of hard knocks and are ready to give back some of the rude treatment they received.

For the first time since Paul Wulff took over in 2008, there's legitimate competition for starting spots. Coaches are so bold to even use the term "depth."

While spring practices ended last weekend with some bad news -- defensive tackles Bernard Wolfgramm and Josh Luapo are both struggling to remain academically eligible -- Wulff called the 15 practices "by far the best spring we have had since we’ve been here."

So we decided to check in with Chris Ball, the Cougars assistant head coach who co-coordinates the defense with Jody Sears.

Give me a general assessment of spring practices: Where did you guys get better?

Chris Ball: I think we got better up front. Our defensive line probably was the biggest improvement. We got some good competition going on there.

Give me some players who showed a lot of improvement?

CB: End Kevin Kooyman, tackle Brandon Rankin, the kid we got in here in January. End Travis Long, tackle Justin Clayton. They all had a great spring.

How concerned are you about the academic status of tackles Bernard Wolfgramm and Josh Luapo? What's the pecking order behind them?

CB: We've got Rankin and Anthony Laurenzi, who played quite a bit last year. We feel pretty good about Wolfgramm. Luapo we're waiting to see.

Tell me about tackle Brandon Rankin. Sounds like he may live up to high expectations.

CB: He had a good spring. He's still got to get stronger. He needs to have a good three months here this summer to get stronger and continue to grow. But he ended up about what we expected him to be. He sat out last year so he was a little rusty at the beginning of spring. But he did a good job of coming on. He's got to keep working. He's got a lot of work to do in the weight room this summer.

What about sophomore end Travis Long. Is he a potential All-Conference player?

CB: I'd like to think so. But it also goes back to him still being young, physically. He's got to have a good next three months. He did a good job through the winter lifting, but these next three months are big for him as far as his strength is concerned.

Tell me about the secondary: Who has stepped up back there?

CB: Safety Tyree Toomer, who started as a freshman for us and then got hurt, he had a great spring. Safety Chima Nwachukwu had a great spring. Safety LeAndre Daniels had a great spring. We had two freshmen safeties who did really well: Casey Locker and Jamal Atofau. So at the safety position we've got a heck of a battle going on. At corner, Daniel Simmons has done a great job. And there's Anthony Carpenter and Aire Justin. We've got some good competition going on there, too. We're pretty pleased with the ways those guys are playing. We've got more speed back there right now than we've had in the past.

And at linebacker?

CB: We got a few injuries late and pulled some guys out, but Alex Hoffman-Ellis was doing well before he sprained his ankle. Myron Beck did a great job at SAM [strongside linebacker]. We've got Andre Barrington. He's a redshirt freshman, who had a really good spring. Arthur Burns at WILL [weakside linebacker] had a really good spring also.

What's linebacker Louis Bland's status [he's trying to come back after microfracture surgery]?

CB: He's getting better. He's ahead of schedule. Hopefully ... I'm sure he'll be ready to play come August.

The past two seasons have been a struggle for the entire program. What was it like for you in terms of trying to stop people?

CB: It was tough. The last two years we've been bitten by the injury bug and haven't really been able to get into what you really want to do defensively. It's been tough. Our depth has been poor. We've not had much competition going on at positions. But we finally, for the first time in two years -- going into our third year -- we've got a lot of competition going on on the D-line and at the safety spot and linebacker spot, which makes everybody step up and makes everybody better. We had to play a lot of young players the last couple of years. That's almost a good thing right now because we've now got a lot of guys who have actually played. They weren't necessarily ready to play [the last two years] but they got some game experience. We're still going to be young but we're a young group that has played some snaps in the Pac-10.

What's the most important thing for you guys to improve on in 2010?

CB: We've got to stay healthy. The boat feels like it's finally moving. The kids can feel it. They can feel they are getting better. But these next three months, we've got to keep the momentum we've gained in spring ball. The next three months are very, very crucial to how we start out. We've got to come into camp feeling really good about ourselves, with a little bit of swagger. The kids of done a great job with their enthusiasm in practice. Our chemistry is really good. We've worked hard. We've had good competition at numerous spots. We've got to keep this momentum the next three months. If we can keep it and stay healthy, we have a chance to make some big, big strides.