Q&A: Arizona State defensive line coach Joe Seumalo

Recently we spoke with newly hired Arizona State defensive line coach Joe Seumalo about his background, coaching style, recruiting charge and much more.

Chris Karpman: I've read about your background. What's it been like going through the process of maturing into who you are as a football coach, who your mentors are, and how this process unfolded for you. People like to understand about coaches' backgrounds and how they came to be where they're at in their careers. 

Joe Seumalo: "I think the biggest impact in my whole deal here, this goes back to the University of Hawaii when I played, I think my junior or senior year. It was the late 80s, a guy by the name of Rich Ellerson -- a lot of people know Rich as the Desert Swarm guy -- and people don't understand it started with us there in Hawaii (in 1987) because Rich had just come from Canada (where he was the Calgary Stampeders defensive coordinator in 1986) and that's where it started with the flex alignment because in Canada you have to play a yard off he ball. So when he came to Hawaii, he had the three level concept, which made it harder for guys to get to the linebacker. So I kind of like embraced it, because I was the flex guy. I was playing the 4i (inside shade on the tackle) working to the guard, so that's kind of where I'm from in terms of gap cancellation. It's a little off the beaten path, not your traditional clinic if you ever hear coach Ellerson talk. If you've never played in the defense, you'll never understand it. He did that on purpose I always thought, so people won't play the defense. So it's funny though because you'll see some 3-3 scheme or 3-5 scheme or however it is, some of that 4-3 scheme and sort of be able to rotate guys. There's some things that sort of correlate to what we did. 

"With that being said, I coached four years with [Ellerson] at Cal Poly. He kicked me out the door, remember when Dick Tomey got the San Jose State job? I didn't want to go because San Luis Obispo is like God's country. My wife was like, 'no, I'm not going from San Luis Obispo to San Jose.' I said, 'I'm not either but coach said he's going to fire me.' Anyway, so I ended up going, the second time when coach Tomey asked. So I was with coach Tomey for a year. Then I went up to Mark Banker (defensive coordinator at Oregon State) and Mike Riley (at Oregon State), and the cool thing about it was Mark Banker used to coach at Hawaii with the flex (as outside linebackers coach in 1995), so he knew the gap cancellation system a little bit. And then Greg Newhouse, who was the linebackers coach at the time (at Oregon State). So I've always been around guys that knew that system. So now that takes me to here."

Karpman: So that was my next question. I know you've watched ASU's defense, you're familiar with Todd Graham, his aggressive one game scheme. What are your thoughts as far as merging what you guys do? 

Seumalo: "Exactly, it's aggressive. It's funny because it's no different than the concepts and the approach that the Wildcats did back in the day (during the initial Desert Swarm defense). It gets about as close as you can be as far as the style to how we played, how coach Ellerson coached it back in the day. That was very appealing to me. Back in the Pac-12, coach Graham, after I met with him in the interview I had a completely different perception of him. Loved the guy, completely sold, where do I sign up kind of deal. The aggressiveness of the defense I love. Coach Patterson asked me about my thoughts and I said, 'you guys play fast.' The d-line is, I've always felt like, the d-line's job description has to be the easiest because it has to be the most demanding physically. So the cool thing about it is, we get to be aggressive on our charges and let the guys behind us fix it. That's gap cancellation." 

Karpman: You mention your perspective of Graham when you started talking with him? Tell me more about that. 

Seumalo: "I'm nine years at Oregon State, you watch him on the sideline and you get a perception, he's a tough hombre. He'll get after guys. But it's funny because in that interview, if I had to do it all over again, I'd bring Isaac (Seumalo, Joe's offensive linemen son who left Oregon State to enter this year's NFL draft). Isaac can play for this guy. Yeah, he's a little demanding, yeah he's got his value systems, but that's what you want your kids to have. For me, as a parent, that's what my kids need nowadays."

Karpman: So the discipline coupled with the approach? 

Seumalo: "Exactly. The ability to serve and then we accountable. How do you get there, because you've go to make some sacrifices."

Karpman: So you've gotten to know your players here a little I'm sure, maybe you've watched some tape, I don't know, maybe you're a blank slate approach. What's your process like?

Seumalo: "Not really (watched tape). My son and I -- right now my best recruit I was able to bring in with me was my son, Andrew Seumalo (a former defensive tackle at Oregon State who was a graduate assistant at the school in 2015) as a graduate assistant. He sounds like me. We share the same objective, the same things that will make us better. He sounds like me, he's a duplicate of me but better looking. I'm sure in another year or two he'll be a better coach than me. It's huge. I can't tell you how important. When coach Patterson said the graduate assistant position was open, I said, 'I'll go get him myself.' I asked Andrew, because I wasn't sure. They got the new defensive coordinator (Kevin) Clune from Utah State and Andrew really likes him, he's a little more structured I guess and thought it was a great fit. But I asked him once and he said, 'I'm there. Let's go. Let's get this thing done."

Karpman: So as you look at the spring, what is your focus on, what do you want to get accomplished? 

Seumalo: "I just want to be able to be fundamentally sound. Obviously the job description that we have has to be simple. I usually gauge so it so that if guys can handle a little more information I'll give it to him. If not, I'll keep that back a little. They have to have it simplified as possible. No different than what coach Graham explained in my interview. It's aggressive, like you're blitzing on every play. Sometimes you're blitzing with three guys, four guys, the fourth guy being the Devil. Get them to understand and buy in to that. And to listen. If we can do that then we've got a chance. We've got a chance to be good on the back end, but it starts with us up front and winning the line of scrimmage. Where do we win the line of scrimmage? On their side of the ball. The big key is keeping it simple for those guys, that's what people have to appreciate."

Karpman: It makes it easier on the coach, do you think, to teach it that way? 

Seumalo: "Yes, and then they're taking ownership. They know they can do what's being asked of them and then they're coaching each other to that and everyone is on the same page and same mindset. It's not overthinking, it's not too many things to remember. For me, I want to coach guys getting lined up correctly and technique with getting off the ball, and then I want to coach guys giving effort, effort to the ball, and then take the ball. It's not good enough to get a sack because the defense lends itself to that. But then, can we take the ball."

Karpman: Graham has talked about it recently, not converting sacks and tackles for loss to takeaways last year.

Seumalo: "I keep asking players, you get sacks, yeah I get it. But if you do that, does your stipend go up? Do you get more in the lunch room? I keep telling guys, what changes the momentum of the game and the biggest factor is turnovers. That gives us a better chance to win. I want to get that unconsciously in their mind so that you start and finish, and the finish is the takeaway. I want to simulate that so we understand, that's what wins?"

Karpman: Will you guys play all the same techniques that have been in place here before?

Seumalo: "I'm not sure. Like I said, I think there may be some changes here and there, things I'll say a little bit different. But I want to make things simple. When I was a player, I think simple was good for me. I wasn't an all-american, but I think simple was good. 

Karpman: One of the things I always thought about watching your Oregon State defense is the guys always seemed to play very hard. Were they the most talented group? Probably not although there were some very talented players. But man, a lot of guys with great motors, great effort. Where does that come from? It seems like it must be a manifestation of the coach. 

Seumalo: "Well I think it's the players. It's getting the right ones and we've had a very diverse group. Like our personnel guy said, 'you've got the most diverse group.' You've got a kid from Miami, a kid from American Samoa, a kid from California, and some of that has to do with the fact that they weren't recruited as high. I was just looking for the right guy. I was looking for the explosive guy, passion, athleticism. I felt like Dick Tomey always told me, 'you want to find a kid who can do it one time and then your job is to make it so that he does it every time.' I took that and ran with it a little bit at Oregon State. We couldn't get the (ASU redshirt freshman) George Lea guys there. So we looked for the receiver who was too big to play receiver but could play defensive end. You look for the outside backer who can do it, or the defensive end who is big enough to move inside. It was a little bit of a projection, and then just coach them up."

Karpman: Do you think your ability to access Hawaii, or some of these other recruiting markets, American Samoa, wherever, will be a little easier? What are the opportunities to recruit in some of these areas where it hasn't historically done that much? 

Seumalo: "I don't think it's a matter of they didn't do it well (previously), it's just, was there a presence, was there a focus? I don't think that was the focus, but now it's a little bit. Like I said, I'm going to recruit Hawaii but it's got to be the right fit. If it's a d-linemen, he better be as good as the guy we have or we'll get stuck with a player who needs to be developed into two or three years instead of one. I'm excited to recruit the Islands, but like I told those guys, don't tell me this guy is like this guy. I'll show you film, this is how they play. Is he really like that guy?"

Karpman: Will you primarily recruit defensive linemen? 

Seumalo: "From what I understand, right now it's primarily my defensive position group, which is kind of a a national deal, the state of Hawaii, and if there is a reason, I'll go to American Samoa. The same kids you see at Washington State, I tried to recruit them all. From Destiny Vaeao (defensive tackle) to Robert (Barber, defensive tackle) to all of them, so if there is a reason, I'll do that. Then there's a little portion of California that I'll have, the [Inland Empire]. So let's get Centennial's best kids again like Will Sutton and let's go. I loved Will coming out of high school."

Karpman: You look at your players, do you have any initial thoughts of them?

Seumalo: "Coach Patterson has given me the low down about these guys and I'll see where we're at when we start and am excited about it. It's like, if you ask me my one, two three goal, I don't have that. I have one goal, just to listen. There's so much going on in their lives, weight room, school, family, and I just want them to listen when they're here. I know they'll hear me, but listen, get over that hump and be consistent with that. Let's get over that hump first."

Karpman: What are you like on the field, because the last coach Jackie Shipp was a pretty intense guy? 

Seumalo: "I like for our guys to be able to freely come and talk to me about anything, doesn't have to be football, just whatever it is. I love talking with my former players and still having those relationships and still do that a lot, guys like Scott Crichton, Stephen Paea, just telling stories and that stuff is huge for me because it's about more than football. I'm here for them, their choices outside of football. I'm more than just a football coach to these guys, I want to be that."

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