In Todd Graham’s tenure as Arizona State’s head coach, four separate defensive players have produced 100-tackle seasons thanks in part to a hyper-aggressive defensive scheme that relies heavily on defenders to bring down ball carriers in one-on-one situations.
When SAM linebacker Brandon Magee notched 100 tackles in 2012 and WILL linebacker Chris Young duplicated the feat in 2013, it marked the first time since the 1989 and 1990 seasons ASU produced back-to-back 100-tackle seasons from different individual players.
In 2014, safeties Damarious Randall and Jordan Simone each crossed the 100-tackle plateau, which marked a rare but unsurprising milestone considering ASU depends on third level defenders to accumulate tackles in bulk given how frequently Graham blitzes the Sun Devil linebackers.
This year, Simone is on track to surpass the 100-tackle mark yet again, but the redshirt senior Bandit safety is on pace to be joined by a fellow Sun Devil rising up the national leaderboard in tackles.
Redshirt junior linebacker Salamo Fiso has been an undeniable star for the ASU defense this season, routinely dissecting plays and reading keys with newfound purpose that has helped key a successful start to the season.
After five weeks of play, Fiso leads the entire country in solo tackles with 39, and trails only North Texas sophomore defensive back Kishawn McClain (8.8) in solo tackles per game at 7.8.
Fiso’s staggering statistical output leaps off the page, and his performance this season has jumped off the screen in the film room. Graham believes Fiso has taken the next step in his evolution as a linebacker, and at Monday’s press conference, began to lobby for potential postseason accolades for the centerpiece of his defense.
“Salamo (Fiso), I couldn't be more proud of him,” Graham said. “If you knew what he did as far as what he calls and how smart he is, the volume of what he does, and he is at a different level than he's played. I think he's playing at an All-Pac-12 level. He's a guy, you look at the numbers he's putting up, are Player of the Year caliber numbers, and he's been phenomenal.”
Fiso’s playmaking abilities are integral to ASU’s defensive success, because the Sun Devils frequently send five or six players in a pressure scheme predicated on keeping opponents off balance. When teams do pick up blitzes properly or identify the correct players to run block against, Fiso is often ASU’s only hope at preventing a big gain. Often, Fiso himself is part of the pressure package, chasing down ball carrier from behind as he did several times against UCLA.
The SAM linebacker is in his third-year as a starter under Graham, and after racking up 48 tackles as a redshirt freshman and 52 solo tackles last year, he’s off to a much more prolific start this season.
The Long Beach Poly product admitted understanding the intricacies of ASU’s complex scheme has been a challenge at different points throughout his career, but this season, he feels as if he’s finally playing with the freedom to roam and make plays at a higher level because of the experience he’s gained over the years.
“It feels good to be a fourth-year guy,” Fiso said. “It feels good to understand the game more, and just get in the film room more, I’m just playing free. Coach Graham has a complicated scheme and it’s hard for offenses to prepare week for week for what we do so it just speaks volumes of our defense playing together.”
Including Fiso’s redshirt season in 2012, he worked with a different linebacker coach in each of his first three years in the ASU program. Last season, Graham brought current defensive coordinator Keith Patterson aboard, and for the first time in Fiso’s career, he enjoyed continuity with a position coach as Patterson stuck with the linebackers through the offseason, spring ball, and into fall camp.
Fiso indicated the relationship he’s built with Patterson is among the most meaningful bond any player and coach have at ASU, and he heaped praise on the way Patterson cares for his players after Wednesday’s practice.
“Keith (Patterson) is great, he’s a great coach, he really cares about us and you can really feel that,” Fiso said. “You can really sense that he really cares and as a player, that’s reassuring because you want to play for a guy like that.”
The trust and loyalty Patterson has in Fiso has become apparent in the way ASU is calling its defense this season, and the faith Fiso has in his coaches has manifested itself in the spike in his production.
For all the talk about ASU’s corners and safeties being left on individual islands when ASU elects to send the house, Fiso is often the player who has the most ground to cover and the greatest responsibility of preventing explosive plays.
Of the top 50 tacklers in the country, Fiso is one of only five players with fewer than 10 assisted tackles. Of the top 150 tacklers in the country, Fiso’s five unassisted tackles rank as the fewest of any qualifying player.
Why is his ratio of unassisted tackles (39) to assisted tackles (5) important? It proves Fiso’s significant value to the ASU defense, and suggests his presence has perhaps been more vital to the Sun Devils’ success than any other defensive player.
Though Randall and Simone recording 100 tackles is a nice individual accomplishment for each player, it’s preferable for a defense to have linebackers, instead of safeties, with inflated tackle totals. Linebackers play closer to the line of scrimmage and have the best opportunity to make plays against the run, and Fiso’s totals this season suggest he’s doing an admirable job in his role.
Aside from making plays at or near the line of scrimmage, Fiso has managed to account for 8.5 tackles for loss, and his 1.7 tackles per loss per game ranks No. 19 in the country.
For Fiso, the primary difference in his effectiveness this season hasn’t been a physical maturation, but rather a mental one. In his third year consistently practicing and playing as a starter, the game has begun to slow down, and ironically the slower the game becomes, the faster he’s able to play.
“Slower,” Fiso said when asked about the biggest difference for him this year. “It’s like, you just have to play your game. It’s not going to be slow if you don’t prepare, but we do a good job and they do a good job at preparing us week for week and it’s slower. Communication is key for us and I feel like that’s a good thing that I’m on the field because I feel like I’m a good communicator.”
Patterson doesn’t think that’s the only difference for Fiso, as he’s noticed an increased level of commitment to his craft.
From his first game as a starter when Fiso led ASU in tackles as a freshman against Sacramento State, the physical tools have always been there. Now, he’s combining his abilities with a much more disciplined approach, and it’s clearly paying dividends for the Sun Devils.
“It’s all Salamo (Fiso),” Patterson said. “He is taking that experience that he has and he has just chosen to commit to being a better player. That’s not to say that he wasn’t trying, that’s how I put it to him, ‘You’ve been trying to be a good player, but all you’ve done this year from your first two years, the only difference is you’ve committed to being a better player,' and that’s how I put it to him.”
Though it’s unclear whether Fiso has taken a more prominent role than junior Spur Laiu Moeakiola in terms of defensive communication this season, Graham went as far as calling Fiso the leader of the second level of the defense on Monday, which is a significant development in its own right.
“Salamo Fiso in my opinion is our leader,” Graham said. “He's the leader on that field. I mean, he is the guy that calls everything. He's kind of the quarterback. Obviously he and Jordan work together. They're the two communicators back there, and Salamo is making plays, really playing at a high level in his efficiency, and the other guy that I think has really stepped up big time in the leadership.”
Though Fiso admits vocal leadership has never come naturally to him, he hopes his teammates see his production and desire to make plays and feed off of the energy he brings on every play.
So far this season, Fiso has had his hand, or shoulder pads, in on nearly every play. If ASU continues to lean on Fiso, and plays at least 13 games this year, the heavy-hitting linebacker is on pace to record more than 100 solo tackles in 2015.
Though it will certainly take continued health and practically unmatched consistency to reach the 100 solo tackle mark, Fiso has the potential to join Mark Tingstad (1988) as the only other player in ASU history in that elite club.
While the majority of the country’s best defenders reap the benefits of assisting on tackles and having teammates aid them on their own takedowns, Fiso’s solo act has become a remarkable trend that continues to give ASU the confidence to leave him on an island against opponents.
And even though Fiso isn’t receiving help in the statistical category of assisted tackles from his teammates, he knows his success filling the gaps against opponents isn’t possible if not for the continued production of the defense surrounding him.
“It just speaks on our team, my own success doesn’t come from just me, it comes from them,” Fiso said. “My D-line has been working, the backside is just playing, and we’re just playing as a team and you see what it does, it opens holes for me.”