Q&A with ASU defensive coordinator, linebackers coach Keith Patterson

Last week with sat down with Arizona State defensive coordinator Keith Patterson for his review of 2015 and a look ahead at what he wants to accomplish in the coming year.

Chris Karpman: You were talking with me a year ago about how excited you were about your linebackers and that you felt it was a great group in the making, with depth and all of that. How happy were you with their play collectively in 2015?

Keith Patterson: "I'm extremely happy with them because they played pretty well, but they are just at the tip of the iceberg. That's what we were just talking about. I met with them [last week] and was discussing just the fact that they haven't even scratched the surface of what they can become. The first challenge for them will be getting them to believe it themselves. I'm sitting there a year ago and working to have them understand, rewire Christian Sam and make him realize he's an inside linebacker. D.J. Calhoun, he's got everything you look for. Salamo (Fiso), if he will make the jump that he made a year ago from his work ethic, how he approaches practice and all those things, I feel great about him. Khaylan Thomas, I tell you, look out for that guy. He's got some things, I'll tell you. Once he sees the ball carrier, he closes. So I'm excited about all those guys. If you really look at it, having Carlos Mendoza back, and hopefully keeping him healthy, and he's a guy who understands our scheme so well and is extremely smart. Koron Crump, the addition of Koron is something I'm excited about. Marcus Ball, just some little things that we are tweaking. There's probably eight or nine guys that I feel really confident about and create depth at four linebacker positions. One thing we've got to do, we've got to keep Laiu (Moeakiola) healthy. So what we're doing is trying to be smart and look at how we utilize him and better service him, make him more of a nickel guy. Still using him and the same thing he's always done, but be smart. When that guy is on the field, I'm telling you. He's as smart a player, understands pass concepts, understands the importance of trying to eliminate the No. 2 receiver to the field as any player I've ever been around. I'm very excited about those guys and their development. This next year, I've challenged them. I want people to be going, 'my gosh, those guys, it feels like they've been playing forever.'"

Karpman: A guy like Salamo, I know you've wanted him to work on being an every down player, to have the work ethic on a daily basis throughout each practice, to get more dialed in against the pass. He seemed to have made good strides in some of those areas. Where is he at in his process? 

Patterson: "He has and I've challenged him going into his final season. You took a step forward, I'll give you that, got beat up toward the end of the season. On the same hand, I don't want the same Salamo we had the first three years. We want the best version of Salamo, so I've challenged him in some ways that he can raise and elevate his game. To continue to improve your approach in the way you train. He's 250 pounds. I'm saying, I want you to continue to improve in understanding pass concepts and not just being a run stopper. Reading plays, studying, knowing what's coming. Sometimes he just gets out there and drifts a bit against the pass in zone coverage, ho-hum. I want him to have the same sense of urgency when we're pressuring and stopping the run in pass coverage. If he does that he'll become a better and more complete player."

Karpman: Christian runs like a Gazelle, has the size of an inside linebacker. I know you've wanted him to work on his pad level. He makes most tackles but sometimes absorbs it as opposed to delivering it. 

Patterson: "That's exactly right. We want him to become an enforcer. Don't just be satisfied with making a play. I call it pursuit with a purpose. Once you get there, man, have a purpose about yourself. Have a bat for their ass. I want to see you play behind your pads, finishing plays, playing through the whistle. I've told the whole group, what people are going to see next year when they put that video on, is, 'holy crap, look how well they run to the ball.' We haven't run to the ball even close to what we've done in the past. We're going to do that this year."

Karpman: Am I right in thinking he has about as much potential as anyone who played for you last year? 

Patterson: I tell you what, physically, he does. D.J. has all the intangibles, the toughness and the ankle flexibility, the explosiveness, the physical tackler. He's got everything you look for in a linebacker. Christian Sam has all the physical attributes. 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, maybe 240 now, he looks like he got chiseled out of clay. He looks great right now. I expect big things. I'm going to raise the standard for him. He's smart, he prepares, he studies the gameplan as well as anyone. If we get him to develop a linebacker mentality to where he's just not satisfied with making a play, he's getting there with a purpose and wants to become a dominant player, there's no excuse why that guy can't be a star player. I've told them all, I've told Salamo, quit trying and commit to doing it. Just choose. That's all a commitment is, just a choice." 

Karpman: You mentioned D.J. His physical transformation since he got to ASU is unbelievable. I didn't know if he'd physically be able to support all the weight he does really well and his pop as a linebacker is really something. I know he's been more of a sub-package guy for you with how you've used him, but his versatility continues to blossom it seems like? 

Patterson: "I'm telling you right now and I've told coach (Todd Graham) this and talked about this multiple times since the season, and that's there has to be a way to get those three guys on the football field together. That has to be part of our build and design of our system, because they can be dominant players. They all bring something a little different and yet collectively as a group they can be as good as anyone in the country. D.J. Calhoun weighs 233 pounds. Have you seen how wide his neck is? Plus his attitude and his maturity is really coming along. It's like, D.J., you've got all the god given ability. So that's all well and good, you can get away with that in high school, paying fast and physical in high school, a little out of control. Let's take it to another level. Let's start studying practice and game film like you never have. I'm not asking you to try, I'm asking you to commit to it and see what happens."

Karpman: I felt like he started to identify his key reads better, was carrying the running back when he was supposed to, things like that as a sign of his process. 

Patterson: "There's no doubt. He at times this year played better than anybody. His production, his so-called on-base percentage was off the chain when I looked at number of plays and productivity, it was off the chain."

Karpman: I know you tinkered with looking at him as a Devil backer previously. Size or length maybe is a bit of an issue as an every down player there. What is the way that you can get them all on the field together? 

Patterson: "Coach (Graham) and I are talking about that.  We're really looking at it. We've just got to design the system to get playmakers on the field. It makes no sense to me to have guys like that standing over there on the sidelines."

Karpman: "So is that more base 4-3 type (traditional) stuff? Is it tailored to who you're playing? 

Patterson: "Without giving anything away, staying in the concept of how we've done things in the past. We're still going to be multiple, we're still going to be in an attack front. But the way we do it, the presentation, because I'm not sure there really is a 4-3 defense anymore."

Karpman: Right, there are hybrid players that you use to fit what you're trying to accomplish relative to your scheme and any given opponent. 

Patterson: "That's right. That's how you have to be any more with all the spread offenses. I'll say this, we are definitely examining how we are going to deploy people and get the right people on the field. Our ideas right now are a little different than what they've been, but not that different. People aren't going to look at us and be like, 'who is that team.'"

Karpman: How you play pro-style teams may be different than how you play spread teams? You've already tailored to your opponents in the past, like 2014 how you went to a different type of personnel in the front in the middle of the season when you had USC, Stanford, UCLA, which I felt was one of the smartest things we've seen defensively. That's the stuff you're talking about?

Patterson: "No doubt. There's certain groupings you're going to see and this is going to be your base defense. There's certain groupings you're going to see and this will be our base defense. Make no mistake, our defense has to be signed to go through certain [teams] to win this conference. Even though you might not see them very often, and without mentioning names, I think you understand what I'm saying. We've got to build a defense to win the Pac-12. So you've got to have sub-packages, so-called, and your base packages, have to be things you do (regularly). You can't get to a big game and all of a sudden say, 'okay, now we've got to build it like this.' It doesn't work like that. 

Karpman: I've spent some time this season studying your defensive numbers. It seems like when you have a dominant pass rush with four, you've done extremely well. When you have to rely on more creative ways to get to the passer and your sack distribution is broader, it exposes you to more big play opportunities, and of course speed on the back end is essential too. It seems like that's a big part of the special sauce, am I right? 

Patterson: "When you can rush for and play coverage, it's a big advantage, no doubt about it. Those are things that coach and I have talked about. There's a couple different ways of doing it though. It's lining up four guys and saying, 'boys, go hunt.' But it can also be done out of our odd fronts. Who is the fourth in the charge? Understanding peoples' protections and how to attack those protections, and make them go, 'hmm, is it going to be that guy or that guy or that guy?'"

Karpman: So when you have three guys who can be good blitzers and also cover. 

Patterson: "Exactly. So, multiple but simple, and those guys have to prepare for all sorts of different concepts which come out of the same personnel. When we get back to that, those guys are going to say, 'man, they're only rushing four and they are still playing coverage, look out.'"

Karpman: Last year seemed hard because even though Antonio (Longino) was effective (at Devil backer) and other guys were effective, you still had to manufacture pressure, but you still had your issues on the back end with speed and coverage, so it seemed like kind of a pick your poison situation. Were you just not able to address everything that needed to be within the construct of your scheme and philosophy? 

Patterson: "No, we couldn't. And also the thing about it, even with all of that, you lose Armand Perry, you lose Jordan Simone, and even with all that, look at our season and look at the difference in 2014 and 2015. Let's look at Utah, overtime, all-american kicker misses two field goals, 18-14, minus-23 yards rushing going into the fourth quarter. Win, lose. Could have went either way both years. Look at Oregon, USC. Win on a Hail Mary, get beat on a fluke. The guy throws the ball up in the air, a blind throw with JoJo Wicker in his face and it's a touchdown."

Karpman: Right. The last four regular season games you lost you had a lead in the fourth quarter. What do you think is the reason 2015 was different? 

Patterson: "Cal we were up 28-3 or something like that, am I mistaken?"

Karpman: I think it was 24-3. 

Patterson: "Right, something like that, 24-3. I'm sitting there going, golly. We are on the 1-yard line getting ready to go up against Washington State 21-0. If you truly go back and truly assess and make a logical evaluation, it's so close. All a lot of people see is 10-2 or 6-6. The difference is [not that much]. Every year, as long as I've been coaching, the difference between 10-2 and 8-4 and 12-0 and 6-6 is that much. It's going to boil down to about four games. It's hard to say what it is in one season that goes right or another when I don't think the quality of our young men is different from one year to the other. 

Karpman: Probably 30-40 plays or something determines a handful or more games. 

Patterson: "Yeah, if you want to get specific we can go through the plays. But I'll tell you, there are things we'd do different. I can remember them all. Sometimes we knew what was coming though. We were up 18-14 against Utah and knew was was coming because they'd done it to us the year before on third and 1 and scored a touchdown on a speed option, and we knew it, 'they're going to run that speed option here,' and we just didn't stop it."

Karpman: They had used that play so successfully against USC I believe it was just one week earlier. 

Patterson: "Yeah they scored on us a year [earlier] on third and 1, our kids know it's coming, we worked with our kids all week long, speed option, and they got it on us."

Karpman: Obviously you mentioned the injuries in the secondary and then Kweishi Brown struggled at the tail end of the season. Those things were costly but were there any things from a coverage shell standpoint, or style of play that you think you could have done differently and had more success? Like, 'man, maybe we should have played more Cover 2 and let them dink and dunk us but keep it underneath.' I know it's contrary to your styles and you hadn't practiced that and within the season it's hard to change course. 

Patterson: "Honestly, I think, and coach and I have talked about it over and over again, even with all of that, even with not changing the scheme or playing conservatively, we still gave ourselves a chance to win those games in some regard. But yeah, we've talked about it. One of the things we've identified is we definitely want to make and take the pressure off our secondary. We're not going to change who we are, we just need to tweak who we are. There's got to be times when you say, 'hey man, catch that right in front of us and let's tackle him and go on to the next play.' So yeah, there are (things we'd do differently) and you're fooling yourself if you say, 'oh we wouldn't change nothing.' So I don't like to use the term second-guess, but are there things we would do differently, heck yeah. What people don't understand is the nature of the grind. When you get in at three or four in the morning from Washington State and try to get some sleep and then you come in Sunday and try to put that game to bed and move on to the next game, you get into such a mental grind, sometimes it's like, you believe in what you do so much, almost maybe to a fault."

Karpman: Is getting your players to think about adapting to such a course correction in the middle of a season with game weeks piling up also a challenge as far as the decision to do that? 

Patterson: "It is. it's almost a double edged sword. By making such a change you're basically saying to your players, 'well, we don't believe in what we do any more.' It's like you said the year before (2014), when I challenged coach, 'you told me when I came here from West Virginia this is who we are, and now all of a sudden you want to scratch it?' Where are we going to go? We don't have any options. Now it's the same on the opposite. Yeah, I'm sorry that Armand is hurt and Kweishi has played every play of the year and played on special teams and might not be [doing well enough] but we can't use that as an excuse as far as changing who we are. All of our reps and all of our stuff has been designed, and even with that, still had a chance to win if we'd done some things we could have."

Karpman: So that's the positive. 'Even though we weren't nearly as good as we wanted to be things went wrong for us, we were a bowl team and were right there in all these games?' 

Patterson: "It's like, all of a sudden you're sitting there, 24-3 against Cal and then you get conservative and defend and they dink and dunk us all the way down and score and people are saying, 'golly, they quit pressuring.' So who knows how it's going to turn out. Who knows if changing, being more conservative would have been the difference. It could have possibly helped. But there's no need to beat a dead horse. We've looked at it, yes, we'd have changed some things, probably. But we're here now, let's figure out what's best for us moving forward and let's go."

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