Spring evaluation: ILB preparedness grades

Arizona State coaches felt as though they had a lot of parity at the inside linebacker positions this spring, with a depth chart that changed seemingly on a practice-to-practice basis. What's our take on the talent and preparedness level of the personnel?

1. Antonio Longino (senior) -- Last season, Longino found a home at WILL backer once he was moved to the position full time after earlier being used at Devil backer due to Arizona State's pass rush personnel limitations. Once he settled into his new position Longino really started to flourish. He's a heavy tackler who has great range of pursuit and an impressive motor that revs high in games and doesn't quit. As a result he makes a number of unexpected out-of-area tackles far from his initial alignment. He hasn't always sustained that energy on the practice field though, which has led ASU coaches to push Longino by platooning him with D.J. Calhoun in spring practices. This, despite Longino finishing third on the ASU defense last year with 94 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and two sacks. At 6-foot-2 and 230-ish pounds, Longino is long and had a nice frame for a linebacker. He is arguably ASU's best upside linebacker given his size and athletic versatility and is someone who could make an NFL roster if the next year is a good one. He made a lot of strides as the 2014 season unfolded in terms of his performance reliability and play-making. He's also a pretty good attack blitzer for a WILL because of his willingness to blow up and chase through protection blocks. Longino can really help his chances of success and stabilize his position as a first-teamer by being reliable with key reads against the pass when he has to carry and cover running backs into the boundary vertically. He has enough mobility to do this effectively. Preparedness Grade: 3.5 / Potential Grade: 4

2. Salamo Fiso (junior) -- After flashing potential greatness as a true freshman against pro-style offenses -- especially at Stanford -- Fiso sort of plateaued last season as a sophomore at the SAM position. He's at his best playing in the box against run-heavy teams that like to play the game north and south. Fiso will fill his inside run fits efficiently and delivery blows/tackle with pop ,and loves that style of play. Where Fiso leaves more to be desired is against spread teams that run the ball east west and use misdirection flow. Those opponents require more lateral range from inside backers, and Fiso's reactions and pursuit last season was just decent in this regard. Fiso has been a borderline liability with his drops and decision making on passing downs and as a result is more of a two-down 'backer, with ASU often bringing him off the field on nickel downs other than when he's blitzing. Even so, Fiso was fourth on the ASU team last season with 83 tackles and second with 11 tackles for loss -- usually run stops inside for a loss of one or two yards. ASU's pushed Fiso in the spring to improve his deficiencies by having him split first-team reps with Christian Sam, a player whose strengths are lateral range and coverage ability. Thus, the two players compliment one another at SAM. Preparedness Grade: 3.5 / Potential Grade: 4

3. Carlos Mendoza (junior) -- Though he doesn't have as much athletic potential as D.J. Calhoun or Christian Sam, Mendoza's overall reliability, fundamental skill base and knowledge of the game make him a good reserve option. He has enough versatility to play SAM, WILL or Spur. Occasionally Mendoza will blow an assignment but he's quite reliable on the whole. He has very good technique as a tackler and plays with proper pad level and sound footwork. He feels plays with his feet and never gets unbalanced or tangled as a result, which off-sets modest athleticism. Mendoza plays the game with a lot of passion and is a great teammate. He's been really hampered to this point in his career by untimely injuries that have included shoulder, knee and ankle procedures. Half the battle for Mendoza is staying healthy and on the practice field. He's not going to excel in any other area in terms of flashy playmaking, but he would likely do enough to be able to be counted on if need be. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 3

4. D.J. Calhoun (sophomore) -- A quick-twitch athlete for a linebacker, Calhoun is undersized but has a physical disposition that compensates for that to some degree. This spring he had clearly added size and looked more the part of a Pac-12 linebacker and that should help him ward off blocks a little better because he had a tendency to get absorbed a bit also due to a shorter arm span than average at the position. Calhoun relishes attacking blocks, is very sudden from idle and probably the team's best blitzing linebacker due to this attributes and his fearlessness. Calhoun is at his best playing in closer quarters when given aggressive assignments, which he showed as a better fit at WILL than Spur. In that regard, he's a good fit for an attacking scheme. The flip side to this is he isn't patient enough for a linebacker and is especially susceptible to misdirection flow. The biggest way Calhoun can help his cause is to become a greater student of the game and learn to sniff plays out better and be more patient reading plays and less comital with his feet. He's blown too many wheel route coverage assignments and has to address that to earn the truth of coaches in a way that could lead to him being the regular starter. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 3.5

5. Christian Sam (sophomore) -- Sam is a very good prospect because he has a prototype linebacker frame and the feet of a safety. He can really run and move well in space and tends to be more comfortable chasing down plays laterally or being in zone drop coverage than he is at coming downhill and making physical stops against the run. At the SAM position there is a major contrast in terms of styles between Fiso and Sam and Sam could use some of Fiso and Calhoun's tenacity and physicality. Sam's is too indecisive at times against the run, most attributable to a lack of fluency of the scheme and his role and a need to spend more time watching film. He also plays too high with his pads and as a result blockers and running backs can get up under him. But his potential is very high if he can figure it all out and bring improved physicality to the position. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 4

6. Jamal Scott (redshirt freshman) -- At this point it's really hard to know what ASU has in Scott other than a kid who looks the part on the hoof. He's big-framed and very long, with the type of physique that makes us think he may even end up as a Devil backer down the line. But Scott arrived at ASU with a lingering shoulder injury suffered in high school, tried to rehab it and ultimately needed surgery which has made him essentially a non-contact player since he's been on campus. As a result, we aren't able to do much of an evaluation. He's expected to be fully cleared for contact in pre-season camp, however. Preparedness Grade: Unknown / Potential Grade: Unknown

Preparedness/Potential Grade Key

5: All-American level performer

4: First/second team all-league level performer

3: Mid-level Pac-12 performer

2: Fringe Pac-12 performer

1: Non-Pac-12 level performer

Editor's Note: Players are ranked in terms of overall current preparedness and not based on potential.


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