A conversation with Keith Patterson

Arizona State co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Keith Patterson is working with what he calls as talented and deep a linebacker group as he's ever coached entering the 2015 season. He spoke with us about that and more recently.

Chris Karpman: How rewarding was it to get the [season result after making the major in-season changes you did]?

Patterson: "....it goes all the way back to spring football. I’m sitting there and from the first day that I got here all the way until the day after the UCLA game, the one conversation I had to have with everyone in the media, everyone in the pregame interviews leading up to the game was all about how do you replace nine starters? Well I get here and I’m going, 'I have no clue,' I didn’t even know the personnel, I’m sitting here and I’m going, 'Oh my gosh what have I done? They lose all these guys' and you know…

Karpman: Because in August, you had to be a little bit alarmed?

Patterson: Here’s the thing, the day after the UCLA game that I went back to, I sat there and I’m going through spring ball and I’m going, we had big Mo Latu up front, we had (Demetrius) Cherry, we had Corey Smith, we had Marcus (Hardison), and we really didn’t have a Devil. I saw Antonio Longino was the WILL, Salamo (Fiso) was the SAM, and the offense didn’t really have a lot of success against us.

Karpman: Coach Graham said the same thing right?

Patterson: Yeah, and in your mind you sit there and look at all these young guys, 'Man they’re so talented.' I think that we were so focused on the people that we lost and focused on the kids coming in, I’m not sure we didn’t short sell the guys that were here. So I’ll never forget sitting in that office because I’d be lying to you if I said we weren’t sitting there scratching our heads. Because you look at the Weber State game they had two sixty plus yard runs, explosive plays, we didn’t really give up that many against New Mexico but Colorado. Colorado had some explosive plays, and a couple times we make tackles and if not…

Karpman: They’d be taking it (to the house).

Patterson: I’m just telling you, we were questioning and lost confidence, can we do what we were doing with those guys? Then we go to the UCLA game, one time we ran boundary pressure, one time in the whole game. One pressure against UCLA and so…

Karpman: It’s so the opposite of you guys.

Patterson: I sat there and just went 'What just happened?,' So what happened is, we sat there trying to create all these different coverage looks instead of going, 'here’s who we are, here’s what we do.' So I’ll never forget sitting there (after UCLA) and coach was sitting right there and I said , 'Coach since Day 1 that I’ve been here, we said this is who we are and this is what we do. We gotta look at two things, the personnel we’re doing it with and how we’re teachin’ it.' Because obviously there’s a disconnect somewhere. So we looked at those things, we went back and studied our guys from a year ago and went back to teaching the things, tweaking some things there and personnel.

I said 'Coach this spring I never remembered a ball going right through the heart of our defense and banged its head off the goal post.' So we moved [Longino] back (to WILL), went bigger at ‘backer, bigger up front, and all the sudden everything got tighter, all the fits were there. In that four game stretch [after UCLA] we probably played better than anybody in the conference. We would have played anyone. So it just worked, did I know it would work like that? Well I think anybody that did, they’re not being truthful if they said, 'Yeah we knew it would work.' But we knew that the path we were on, it wasn’t going to work.

Karpman: It takes a lot of guts to make a decision like that, you have to have a lot of confidence in yourselves to be able to do that.

Patterson: Which we do, that’s where my wife use to say, 'You and Todd are like Bonnie and Clyde, like Batman and Robin. That’s what makes y’all better. You’re much better together than you are apart.' Because he has the confidence in me to listen to what I said, because we did the same thing at Pitt. We were god awful in the first two games against Buffalo and Maine, and I’m going, 'my god we’re horrible,' That was part of the thought in the back of my mind and I said, 'I did the same thing,' I was trying to do everything out of a 3-4 concept, we went boom, let’s make it more of a four man front, as soon as we did boom, it just clicked.

Karpman: It just changed everything, you can’t count out experience.

Patterson: That’s right, there’s no substitute for experience, there’s no substitute for coach having the confidence and the trust to say you’re right.

Karpman: A lot of it is shared because you have the ability to bounce off what you’ve previously done going back to forever.

Patterson: That’s right, it’s just guys being on the same page and understanding, and like you said on various experiences that we’ve had in the past to draw upon. Because it doesn’t matter if we’re a 3-4 personnel we still do the same stuff, it just makes us more multiple and now we can do it because we don’t have to substitute to go bigger.

Karpman: Like you said you didn’t really have a Devil, Antonio played Devil and he did alright but he’s more of a WILL guy and he really took off when you put him there. But now you’re adding Davon (Durant), I know [Ismael Murphy-Richardson has] been one of the best guys in bowl practices and he’s physically changed. So how exciting is it to be able to get back to where you can do a lot of the things you guys prefer to do?

Patterson: It’s who we are, it’s how we got to where we are, that type of mentality. More of a three true down linemen, multiple second level players that can impact a quarterback, with the Spur position we were an attacking hybrid defense. So to do that, I mean good gosh, we’ve got a 6-foot-4, 228 pound Devil backer headed into spring ball and we just recruited a young man that has all the intangibles from the size and the strength and the speed in Davon Durant. So we got a little bit of youth with a little bit of experience so we’re really excited to watch and see how they transpire.

Then, by gosh, look at the depth we have back inside, now you’ve got (Christian) Sam, (D.J.0 Calhoun, (Salamo) Fiso, (Carlos) Mendoza, and Tony (Longino), man we’re strong up the middle, it’s like baseball. In what we do you have to be strong up the middle because we put so much stress on the safeties, the inside backers man, we can’t let the ball run through the heart of our defense. We gotta have those guys inside that can be destructive, the Will Suttons and if we do that then we’re continue to get back on track defensively.

Karpman: Right, you return your three starters at SAM, WILL, and Spur, and then you have so much depth. What does that depth do competitively in a practice setting, in your meeting rooms, that elevates your overall participation?

Patterson: It’s already made a difference, it’s all of a sudden now you’ve got peoples' attention because when you know that the guy behind you is equally as talented if not more, and if I just choose that I don’t want to work hard today or I’m not… Well guess what, they know, and it creates a competitive environment in a healthy competition, it’s healthy. They all believe and understand that we’re only as strong as the weakest link man, so we’ve got to be all the way through to Carlos Mendoza, all the way through to Fiso, and all those guys. We’ve got to get every single one of those guys, that you’ve gotta be ready and it only makes that competition and it only makes you better. It’s already happening, the way they’re competing in the off-season strength and conditioning drills, it’s off the chain, the competitive nature of it.

Karpman: With Salamo a downhill come at you type guy, square you up, but when you get him running laterally it’s maybe not as ideal but talk about the jump that he’s made or what you see from him now projecting forward, what does he have to do to go to the next place because his capability is so high.

Patterson: The thing about Salamo, if you did a physical test, change of direction, speed, height, weight, body comp., he’s not going to blow you away in comparison to a 6-foot-2, 238 pound Christian Sam. So I think the thing with Salamo is very instinctive, he has a really good feel for the game. Like you said, raw talent Salamo is in the area, he gets a little lackadaisical, is probably the nice way of putting it, in pass coverage. It’s his biggest deficiency right now, he’s got to continue to improve and that’s where I’ve challenged him in the offseason, is to become more active and better in pass coverage concepts and even developing a better understanding in not only what you’re doing but what everyone else is doing.

Karpman: Which can increase your ability to make a play because of that.

Patterson: No doubt. See if I know what the guy outside of me is doing and the guy outside of me here is doing that’s going to help me to do what you just said: take a proper angle and make a play. Then there is just little bitty fundamental things, sometimes Salamo just gets to going with the flow of the game and then all off a sudden boom. You know, I’m just going to move him here and being more discipline with your foot patterns. When we’re moving the fronts, being discipline enough to move away from it, now when the ball breaks, boom. Those are some of the things I’ve challenged Salamo with.

Then finally with him it’s look, this is going to be your fourth year here, you’re a redshirt junior, it’s time to help bring people with you. Embrace your position as a leader and there’s two things that entails, it’s your influence and your responsibility to help us bring these young guys, that’s what leadership is, it’s to bring those guys to another level on themselves and hold them accountable for that. I’m seeing him crawling in that area and beginning to recognize to look at himself differently then just that young kid who beat out a senior a couple of years ago.

Karpman: So with Antonio his passion is just infectious and I just see him chasing so many plays down all over the field and for him I know the mental hurdles initially from transitioning from JUCO were kind of steep. As he’s learned what he’s doing more he’s just kind of blossomed and he’s a guy with just a lot of potential.

Patterson: First of all I’ll talk about Tony personally, if you look at Tony he’s probably matured as much as any football player on our team, even since the day I got here. Then you throw in the factor of what we do on defense, it’s not easy. I mean I’m talking about every front, the language we use, the method of communication, I mean within a nanosecond of the ball being snapped. So could you imagine coming from junior college football to an elite PAC 12 conference program, it’s like going from consumer math to I don't know if it’s nano-physics or calculus or what but there is a major difference and I think it just takes time.

Tony is now, he’s comfortable, to do what he did, I mean he did not take one rep at linebacker until the week of Stanford. He was a Devil backer all the way through fall camp and the first four games and moves back and all he did was the third leading tackler on the team. It would have been hard for anyone to out-perform (Jordan) Simone or Damarious (Randall) but yet if you look at what he did it’s truly remarkable and not just what he did, it was how few mistakes he made the remainder of the season. Not out of position, all the coverage concepts, I mean there’s times we have in upwards of 23 different coverage concepts and it changes your responsibility not by those concepts but by the formation. So for him to do what he did I couldn’t have been more proud of him. I was as proud of Tony as any guy was.

Karpman: Just with (Laiu) Moeakiola, the difference in your overall team capability there's nothing more stark to me then that. I know he's not responsible for your front calls or whatever but his presence got everyone lined up where they are supposed to be and he's obviously a playmaker on top of that. Can you speak to what you've thought of him.

Patterson: When you look at the four cornerstones of our program, Laiu resembles everyone of them at the highest level. Gotta be smart, discipline, tough, I mean [he's that] guy. The leadership, I've challenged Laiu in this area here, sometimes you can get so far out in front of the pack you're not leading anymore you're just running solo and that's kind of the case with Laiu. He's so far, he does everything so right that he's so far out here that some guys can't even see him. I'm not asking you to lower your standard. But man you gotta...

Karpman: Bring them up with you.

Patterson: That's exactly right, and that's where I've challenged him, like you said that guy is like having a coach on the field and when we lose him we lose our coach on the field. What's crazy is, I don't even know, because you never hear him communicate but I know that he's communicating because you can see that there's no panic and everybody's on the same page.

Karpman: Which is really remarkable

Patterson: It is. I can't even explain it because he just has leadership qualities where I'm trying to take those qualities and make him an effective leader. He's an effective leader on the field for sure, no doubt and if we can take what he knows and put it into more of our players, guess what, now we're becoming better. That's where we've challenged him.

So you're right though I've never, since I've been here I've never seen a player ever in my career to improve as much from spring ball to fall camp because...coach [couldn't] get enough of this guy, I didn't see it, I was like you gotta be kidding me, we've gotta replace this guy and he came back from a hard hit and I'm like he's just excited about fall camp, it'll go away. Second day, now he'll come down back to earth, third day, after about two weeks I'm going, 'Who is this guy? All of a sudden, I'm scratching my head going, 'Wow, this guy is my favorite player" and he never said a word and it just all of a sudden without saying a word, this guy became my favorite player.

Karpman: What needs to happen with guys like Marcus Ball and D.J. Calhoun, Christian Sam to get those guys to the next place?

Patterson: Exactly a little bit of what we just talked about, we gotta get those guys to get more like Laiu. We gotta get those guys that understand that because here's what happens: I'm not saying Laiu's not a talented young man, he's talented or else he wouldn't be here, but when you take guys like D.J., the number one thing that really really talented people have to overcome is things just kind of come easy to them. Things have come easy for D.J. on football to this point in his life. All of a sudden now there's so much more language and defense and then the offenses are doing so much more and all of of a sudden he's out there like...a little puppy running around peeing on every fire hydrant.

Karpman: He's like a bull in a china shop.

Patterson: Yeah, just gotta get him to become a student of the game so the game slows down for him. Then how he can [play naturally] with that god given natural talent.

Karpman: Easier probably at WILL, and he's more of a WILL probably then he is a Spur.

Patterson: No doubt, he loves playing in the box, he's a 205 pounder that weighs 235 pounds.

Karpman: He plays really tough.

Patterson: I've never seen a kid at 205 pounds play and he plays like a 235 pound linebacker, he has that talent.

Karpman: Right he has things you'd expect to be limitations: he's not that big, but he's still able to do those things that you want.

Patterson: And he's a seeker of contact, there's times where he will run and hit an offensive lineman just for the sake of hitting him and I said, 'Look that's just wearing and tearing on your body.' Games 15, 14, 13, that's going to showing up, I said, 'Don't do that,' you gotta play smart. So where I've challenged D.J. is, because when you look at him he has everything, if I sit there and said here are the things I look for in a linebacker: he is a knee bender, oh man, he is going to rip for us. He's got all the physical attributes you'd want in a linebacker...

Karpman: He's a bundle of energy.

Patterson: That's right, energy, explosive, and he lets you coach him hard, he embraces you coaching him hard. The whole thing with him is to become a student of the game. You can't play by the seam of your pants, you know, come and learn and study. Not only what we do but opponents, when he does that look out, he'll take out. Same thing with Christian, same thing with all of them.

Karpman: Christian and Marcus are so gifted it's just a matter of knowing what they're doing.

Patterson: You're talking about guys that got 3.3 and 3.4 GPAs, they're smart. Christian's six foot 2, 230 pounds, I mean Marcus...

Karpman: They look like great football prospects.

Patterson: And they're going to be. I mean that's what's so exciting is that what's crazy, lets take those three positions: Spur, Marcus Ball; SAM, Christian Sam, WILL; DJ Calhoun. Now you put guys those three guys we just talked about, Laiu, Fiso, and Tony, if I'm those three guys, I'm worrying to death and I'm a heck of a player. But I know right now those guys behind me honestly, if we were going to have an athletic test, they're all better. I mean you want body composition? 6-foot-2, 230, I can't remember what Ball weighs off the top of my head.

Karpman: Probably 215.

Patterson: Yeah probably, I got it right here, 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, and then you got D.J. who plays like a 230 pound linebacker.

Karpman: There's too many [missed assignments] at this stage and alignment [issues] and stuff.

Patterson: That's right, because what we do is not easy and then all of a sudden, I'm a full time student, Mom and Dad's not here to get me up out of bed and tell me what I'm suppose to be doing. There's just so much and it's a process.

Karpman: As a coach with how attacking you are, if one guy is out of position something breaks and that's just what you can't have.

Patterson: That's it, and the thing too, the thing that those guys bring, if you look at the Oregon State game, if I'm that remaining backer in the box and my foot pattern is wrong by that much it can be the difference between that ball going out or not and those are things we have to get better at defensively we cannot stay and do what we did this past year and give up that many explosive plays. We're three plays away from playing in the PAC-12 championship, and two runs against Oregon State, one run at...

Karpman: That's the biggest thing.

Patterson: That's it, and all of them were just guys that far out of position. Marcus Hardison against Arizona, knew the play that was coming, we knew stretch to the field was coming, so Salamo isn't suppose to make that particular call, so Hardison's suppose to set the backstop. Fiso's expecting to set the backstop and strafe inside out, but he knew the play and he tried to cut it a little bit and the guy got around him.

Karpman: And that's a really hard thing for football players who are naturally so good because they just wanna do what they know that will get them results but you have to do your role in the operation.

Patterson: That's why I love coaching defense, because it's the greatest team sport in everyone of those plays. In Oregon State plays, I sit there and tell you exactly what happened, one gap, one gap missing their assignment and it's a breakdown.

Karpman: Linebacker, patience is really rewarded as a linebacker.

Patterson: No doubt, It's different then when I played football. We could have played the game in this (small) room right here, we're gonna run iso, we're gonna run power.

Karpman: But now, if you're too quick you're done, that's how you get beat.

Patterson: Because of all this [read option] right here, all this here. Balls in the gap here. It can break here, you're exactly dead on.

Karpman: And they're trying to trick you with all the everything.

Patterson: They're faking the ball here and pulling the guard this way. But that is the number one virtue.

Karpman: That's hard for kids because it's not natural to be patient, to wait to read.

Patterson: Because they've been taught to just go.

Karpman: And it's also film studies and being prepared for your opposing tendencies.

Patterson: That why you heard me talking about the different foot patterns that we have based upon the call. If you ever see linebackers, and I tell them anymore, there's nothing in football that makes you react fast, there's nothing that makes you react fast. You're dead on, so those are things that were hammered like foot patterns and being disciplined. When you sit up front a group of kids and you say boys look you're three plays away from playing for your second PAC 12 championship, three plays, man that stings.

Karpman: But that's what gets them focused.

Patterson: When you couple that with competition, oh boy we've got their attention. We're gonna get better, we're gonna get better.

Karpman: It's gotta be the most talented group that you've probably ever worked with or right up there?

Patterson: From top to bottom, there's no doubt, that's what I tell coach I'm as excited to coach this group of young men just because of the talent it's because of the, first and foremost, the type of people that are included. I think they genuinely care about each other, I think they genuinely care about their teammates, and It's exiting to know. Let me tell you something, they realize that. I mean you think Salamo wouldn't like to have those two plays against Oregon State back? You think he wouldn't like to have that play back against Arizona? You know, dang right? Also I know good gosh, I got this frickin' animal behind me breathing down my neck, I gotta be better in every aspect of my life I gotta be better.

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