Linebacker competitions about to heat up

Linebacker may be one of Arizona State's most talent-rich positions on the roster, which means a lot of competition and difficult decisions for defensive coaches about their depth chart. Saturday will be an early big test.

So far this spring, the Arizona State linebackers group has been a rotating carousel.

It’s Day 6 of spring practice and the depth chart has been constantly changing, but according to ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, tightly packed position battles might start to unfold and things will start to heat up during the team's next practice.

“Saturday will be the test,” Patterson said. “Everything from right now has been a bunch of pop quizzes and Saturday we’re going to take a test to see who can be consistent, who can do it without me being out there trying to hold their hand through it. The one thing I think is the competition I’ve seen so far because you take one play off, one day off, you’re going to see the other guy do it the next day so what we’re trying to create is raising the standard in every aspect.”

Each position has players jockeying for position on the depth chart. With starting Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola in green for the spring due to injury, junior Carlos Mendoza and sophomore Marcus Ball have been battling it out for the two-deep spot.

Over at WILL, senior Antonio Longino and sophomore D.J. Calhoun have traded the first-team and second-team duties off and on depending on the day and Patterson's whim.

Of all the unit's positions, what has most intrigued coaches is the competition at SAM linebacker, where sophomore Christian Sam is giving junior Salamo Fiso a run for his money.

“At linebacker if you ask me who has had the best spring, hands down Christian (Sam) has and then D.J. (Calhoun) would probably be next and then Salamo (Fiso has been) steady,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “The biggest challenge with Salamo is he’s staying the same and he’s been a solid good linebacker for us but I don’t think that’s going to be good enough to start for us anymore. We got talent. There’s a big competition there.”

Fiso ranked fourth on the team with 83 tackles and ranked second in tackles for loss with 11 last season playing SAM. Coaches have said he's been at his best against pro-style offenses in which he's been able to focus on stopping inside run. In other areas, improvement could solidify his standing.

This spring, it appears the energy and explosiveness that Sam is bringing to the field is starting to overshadow Fiso and his appearance as just a solid player.

“They (coaches) moved me to SAM because Coach [Patterson] thought it would be a better fit for the defense and I’m just trying to pick up the whole defense and he told me that SAM is the quarterback of the defense and I want to be able to know what my responsibilities are and help others around me get better,” Sam said.

Sam said during the winter months he tried to get a little bigger since he’ll be working in the box more, but he put emphasis on wanting to keep his speed and athleticism intact.

In addition to getting bigger and stronger, Sam said he’s been trying hard to take care of his body more and getting it done in the classroom so he can focus on both with the same effort.

“My first fall [semester] was a whirlwind so I’m just trying to do better because if you start doing better in the classroom then everything starts to fall in place for you,” Sam said.

Patterson said one challenge Sam has is learning to make the same transition forward that Moeakiola made a year ago when he made huge strides in his overall game and also learning the techniques at a new position.

“Playing with a power base, playing behind your pads and you can’t sit there and that’s the problem,” Patterson said. “That’s the thing you see him struggle with. Just getting his pad level up high and people getting underneath him. Once he learns that, he obviously has a very high ceiling.”

Sam, who used to play defensive back in high school, said the biggest thing he is trying to focus on is quickly identifying the run and seeing when something happens and know how and when to react to it.

“Reading the pass comes naturally because I used to play DB so Coach [Patterson] told me you know just worry about recognizing runs and where you fit so that’s what I’m concerned about,” Sam said.

The Spur position got a little shakeup during Thursday’s practice when Ball didn’t take any team reps at all at Spur, instead heading over to so-called Muscle Beach during individuals and rode the bike.

In his place, Mendoza, who has had a good spring thus far, got the first-team reps at Spur.

Mendoza, a player who has seemingly never been 100 percent healthy for any extended period during his time at ASU, is again getting a chance to get good backup reps and earn a spot in the two deep.

Mendoza is versatile because of his athleticism and skill set, so moving him to Spur seems like the right move given the depth and talent inside and with Moeakiola not being able to go this spring since he already played Spur for a full camp previously.

“One, we put him out there because of that and also I would say he has struggled in the box and staying healthy so maybe having him on the perimeter would help him and he’s a very smart and talented player,” Patterson said. “Fundamentally, does things right. Obviously there are some things he’ll learn from Laiu and Marcus as we go and then we will just see.”

With all the injuries, including two shoulder surgeries, a knee injury, and a severe ankle sprain that had him in a walking boot, it could have been be easy for a player to give up or not continue with the same level of effort or intensity.

But Mendoza said Graham is one of the best coaches he’s ever had and he’s never given up on him despite the numerous back-to-back injuries he’s endured.

“I can see it in his (Graham’s) eyes that he thinks I can still be a good player for the team,” Mendoza said. “I’ll do just about anything I can to help the team out.”

“It’s always a big challenge mentally to come out here, but it’s all about the maturity and the discipline that you have on the field. If you love this game you aren’t going to quit and give it everything you got and that’s how I play so I’m not going to let anything like that affect me.”

Mendoza said he learns from Moeakiola daily, but the big emphasis he put on this spring is explosiveness and getting his leg strength back up to where it was before he had all his injuries.

“I have had a couple things wrong with my legs in the past so you know, it hasn’t been something like I’m trying to catch up to everyone, but I’m just trying to build my body to the best shape I can build it too,” Mendoza said.

Coming into spring practice, Mendoza thought he would be working at WILL or SAM so he tried to put on more bulkiness and ended up at 230 pounds.

However when he got moved to Spur, he said he felt a bit heavy but it would be something he would work on and learn to adjust to.

Aside from learning from Moeakiola and Patterson, Mendoza also gets to work with new special teams and Spur/Devil coach Shawn Slocum.

“He’s a great coach,” Mendoza said. “One of the best experiences that I’ve ever had in my life, getting the NFL experience and understanding the way he sees the game and the concepts on the field and how he’s taught us to play slow and slow our body down and it’s a whole different level of coaching and wisdom that I’ve got and just understanding all the little concepts that he’s seen in the NFL and now brought to us."

New Teaching Techniques

For the first time this spring, and any time during the Graham era, a coach was mic’d up during specific practice periods in order for all players to clearly understand the instructions given to them.

Specifically, Slocum was the voice behind the microphone, teaching players like he normally would, just with a microphone on his collar and his voice blaring from the speaker in the middle of the practice fields for everyone to hear.

It's all part of Graham's stated off-season No. 1 goal of significantly improving ASU's special teams, from what he has admitted to be in the bottom half to the Pac-12 in recent years.

“Our deal is, really just trying to improve our ability to teach on the field and so coordinating the special teams,” Graham said. “He (Slocum) can talk to everyone at once out there and obviously during practice we are trying to coach situation. So everyone on the field knows it’s fourth and 1 and the game is on the line and it’s really just coach (Danny) Phillips and coach Slocum are directing the instruction during the team portions and special teams it helps coordinate everyone out on the field.”

With the speaker going, all players could hear the situation instead of Slocum having to go individually to each player. Other coaches who are involved with special teams didn’t have to constantly yell at the players they were in charge of. Instead they let Slocum do the majority of the talking and they coached players in their immediate area after the fact at the end of the play.

Another big difference this spring that is congruent with what Graham said in recent months is his move away from constantly overseeing the defensive install at the beginning of practice. Graham is letting Patterson do defensive install while Graham can roam around practice and be the overall program head, coaching, advising and overseeing things more broadly.

In addition to the new teaching techniques on the field, off the field the techniques have changed as well.

“Our meeting rooms have turned into simulators, we obviously spending more time with walk throughs, and more time sending stuff to the iPads, having them watch, most of our chalk-talks and stuffs are sent to their iPads so they can watch and rewind on their own time so it’s another teaching tool that we’re adding in there and I think it really helps us,” Graham said.

Notes

  • Graham will be travelling Friday to watch the ASU Women’s Basketball team compete in the Sweet Sixteen Friday night at 9:30 p.m. in Greensboro, N.C., against Florida State and then fly back to Tempe overnight to make it back to Tempe for football practice Saturday morning.

  • Sophomore tight end Raymond Epps was in a green non-contact jersey, not participating in any team periods. Epps was banged up a bit during Saturday’s practice.

  • Freshman running back Demario Richard was out of the gold non-contact jersey and back into the maroon offensive jersey Thursday.

  • Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Connor Humphreys practiced with the second-team on the defensive line for the first time this spring. Humphreys previously was working with the third-team.


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