TEMPE, Ariz. -- In football, everything can change in an instant. Often it does, both for better and for worse, a fact that Arizona State freshman Marcus Ball learned last August.
Upon arriving in Tempe, Ball made his mark with an impressive fall camp performance. With that high level of play intersecting with team needs, Ball quickly found himself in line to earn a large role, perhaps even a starting job in the secondary.
“I had to grow up fast," said Ball. "I had to come in and take over a position that they wanted me to at an early age, and I was doing that as a freshman."
However, that came to a sudden halt when he suffered a clavicle injury during the team's scrimmage at Camp Tontozona. The injury ultimately sidelined him for the year and Ball took a redshirt for the season.
While it was certainly a disappointment to Ball, the team, and Sun Devil fans, Ball now looks back upon the injury in a different light: learning opportunity.
“Obviously, it is an unfortunate situation, but by the grace of God, it’s a blessing," Ball said. "It’s hard to go off on that note, but I went out knowing how to practice and what to expect. I got a redshirt and got to sit back and watch how the coaches practice, how to become a better player in practice. With that year off, and being able to travel with the team, it’s given me a great deal of experience.”
Ball had the advantage of being part of a veteran-laden position group that included such standouts as Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor, and Robert Nelson. Collectively, those players provided a graduate-level course in preparation, leadership, and understanding the finer points of the game.
“I’ve learned so much from those guys. Essentially, how to work the system and how to practice," said Ball. "That’s where you get better, in practice. You have habits in practice and those habits conform to the game. In high school, you hear about practice players and game players, but in college and at the next level, you can’t get by that way. I learned how to practice and be enthusiastic every day and act different than you feel. One hundred percent of NCAA athletes go out there some days tired and beat up and not wanting to be there, but you need to act different than you feel. That’s something you have to do if it’s a dream."
Despite the injury, there were thoughts at several points throughout the season that Ball would be able to return and contribute to what was ultimately a division championship team. Staying sidelined was difficult, but Ball realized the future was too valuable to jeopardize.
“I wanted to play so bad," said Ball. "We had a great team, a great group of seniors. I really wanted to play for our seniors. USC I wanted to play and I was close. They had to tell me to take my helmet off because I was so anxious. Colorado, and down the stretch UCLA. But I knew in my heart, and the doctors were saying ‘You can’t play.’ You have to follow the rules. Health comes first."
Now six months later, Ball is still on the mend and will be held out of contact during spring practices. When he does return to the practice field, he is once again being looked at as one of the favorites to earn a starting job on a defense that loses nine starters from a year ago, including three of four in the secondary.
Ball's size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds), speed, and skills, make him a viable option at a number of different positions, but he sees himself most valuable to the Sun Devils manning a safety spot.
“For the betterment of the team, I’d love me and Damarious (Randall, one of the two returning starters on defense) to be back there playing safety, whatever safety it may be, boundary or field," said Ball. "That’s the one I want to lock down, and I will lock down."
If Ball can indeed earn the job he covets and play to a high level, it will go a long way into helping solidify the defensive side of a Sun Devil team that should once again challenge for a Pac-12 South championship.
So confident is Ball in his team that he feels the sights are set much higher for 2014.
“I believe that this squad, first and foremost, can win a national championship," said Ball. "That’s our goal. Everybody believes. Everybody’s hungry and believes that we can win a national championship. The Rose Bowl and national championship, we’re not going to settle for anything less this year."
How did Pac-12 ball compare to your expectations?: “Being a high school football player from the Midwest (Westerville, Ohio) and not really catching a lot of Pac-12 football on TV, you can underrate it and underestimate it. You’re watching a lot of Big Ten, slow-paced, big-hitting guys out there. But you come to the Pac, it is a lot of faced paced, a lot of throwing, diverse teams, and a lot of opportunity in the air. There are different types of athletes in the Pac. It’s a lot faster game.”
What skills to you bring to the field: "Some skills that I bring to safety is that I have a knack for the ball. When we see the ball, we go get the ball. We’re smart guys, and we really pride ourselves on being smart guys. High character guys, positive guys, leaders out there. Damarious and I are really vocal. Those are the types of things I bring to the defense: being vocal, making sure our guys are where they need to be, telling our corners the coverages. Also, something not a lot of people know about, is I love delivering the blow. I have a big body and long arms. It’s being a balanced player but also coming down and giving a big blow."
Where have you improved most over the last year?: “Physically, I took a lot of time off due to my injury to the upper body, so I definitely go my legs in shape. I ran a lot during the time period in which I couldn’t do any arm motions. On the field, I got my hips together with my footspeed, opening up and turning. It’s a big part of playing safety. Mentally, it was acting different than you feel. Coming out every day because you choose to. Are you going to get better? Are you going to win this day or lose this day?”
The focus of his offseason work: “First and foremost, I have to get healthy. After I get healthy, I need to get in shape and get the body back. I’m in no rush, because my health is important. I would never want to do something 50 percent. Then it’s continuing to fine tune my skills in all areas and all aspects of the game. It’s learning the defense, not just my position, but all the other guys’ positions. That’s what I valued, and what Alden Darby knew where everybody had to be on that defense, and what everybody was doing. When you learn that, it’s the differential between good and great.”
His goals for 2014: "I want to be great. That means extra work and extra time. It’d be awesome to get into the Heisman talk as a freshman safety. I definitely want to be a freshman All-American. I believe that is something that I can do, and I believe that I have the right people in my corner to help me do so.”
What should ASU fans expect from you in 2014: “A lot of excitement. A lot of hard hitting. A lot of picks. A lot of pick sixes. You can expect, from me and my team, that we’ll win.”