When Chris Ball returns to the Arizona Stadium sidelines for NAU's Saturday contest against the UA, his longtime friend won’t be on the other side.
Ball was a former roommate of ex-Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin during their graduate assistant days at Washington State. The two squared off together in 2019, with Arizona winning 61-45.
Both programs have been on different paths since then. Arizona went through a coaching change, bringing in Jedd Fisch after playing a truncated Pac-12-only schedule in 2020. NAU graduated star quarterback Case Cookus, shifted its season from the fall to the spring, and finished 3-2.
There is one thing both programs have in common: Neither team has a win in 2021. In fact, Arizona hasn't won a game since Oct. 5, 2019.
Ball joined the Star’s Justin Spears earlier this week on ESPN Tucson to talk about the Lumberjacks, his relationship with Fisch and what “It’s Personal” means to NAU this week.
How excited are you to come back to Tucson for the first time since the 2019 season?
A: “Very excited. It’s just great to be back to normal with fans in the stands and traveling normal. It’s really nice to get back to what college football is all about; the pageantry and the excitement of being able to have a normal setting and atmosphere to go along with it.”
What have you learned about your team through the first two games of the season?
A: “We’re very young. About 60% of our team is either a freshman or a redshirt freshman, which is about 70 players. The thing we’re struggling with is the adversity during games, the flow of the game, weathering the storm, being able to adjust and keep playing without making mistakes and being distracted by those mistakes. So, those things have been glaring, and we need to narrow down our game plan to accommodate our players a little bit better. We’ve done a little too much offensive-, defensive and special teams-wise, so we narrowed it down. We’ve been practicing well and our Friday practices have been very sharp. But we get into the game and adversity happens and we don’t handle it very well. … It’s exciting to play Arizona. We look forward to that game every other year we play them or Arizona State. It’s great for our kids and it’s great for their families to be able to see them without having to travel. We’re excited, because it’s a great opportunity for us and it should be fun.”
What’s your scouting report of Arizona? And do you have any relationship with Fisch?
A: “Yeah, we ran camps together over the summer, so we saw him about three or four times this summer and hung out with him. He’s a great, great guy, and is in the process of installing his own culture, build the program, and he’s going to get it done there. He’s got a great plan, he’s done a great job of recruiting in-state guys, which I think is important. He’s got a culture to change, and that’s hard these days. It’s really, really hard to change a culture, because there are so many outside influences, with cell phones, media. The exposure you get these days, there’s so many outside influences, it’s hard to change a culture. He’s playing a lot of kids on both sides of the ball, but he’s instilling his culture, his offense, his defense, his special teams, and I think from week one to week two he’s improved. Even though the score doesn’t say that, they’ve gotten better, and they’re very well-coached. … He’s got a plan, and it takes a while for the plan to get going, but he’s heading in the right direction.”
Is this game personal for most of your Arizona-heavy roster?
A: “Yeah. We talked about it yesterday: ‘You guys think you’re an FBS football player? Well, this is a great opportunity for you to prove everybody wrong.’ Everybody sorta chuckled, but everyone was like, ‘Yeah, this is my opportunity.’ They’re excited about it, and a lot of them grew up in this state. Arizona or Arizona State, having an opportunity to play against them is a little bit more important, and we’ve got 70 guys on our roster from the state of Arizona, so it’s a really, really big deal to go down there and play them.”
Will Plummer will start at quarterback for Arizona. Did you try to recruit him to NAU when you first took over as head coach?
A: “Yeah, we did. We tried hard, but then he was offered by them. He’s very talented and just such a great, great kid. He’s a great young man and I’m happy for him. He’s worked extremely hard. I saw him this summer when he was helping out with camps and was able to spend some time with him, but what a phenomenal young man. This opportunity, he’s going to step in and take advantage of it. He looked really good in the second half against San Diego State, and did a tremendous job of moving the ball. He’s a tough kid and took some hits, but he bounced right back up and did a really good job. He deserves it and I’m sure he’ll take advantage of this opportunity.”