With the loss of starting Arizona State Devil backer Antonio Longino due to graduation and current senior Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola for the spring due to shoulder surgery in the offseason, the Sun Devils have been tinkering with a variety of player combinations at outside linebacker over the last several weeks.
“It’s spring, we’ve got guys banged up so we’ve had different lineups each day,” outside linebackers coach Shawn Slocum said Monday. “But we’re battling through that and the guys are growing each day and we are making progress as a defense.”
In addition to the injuries/absences piling up -- Moeakiola unavailable for the spring, junior linebacker Chans Cox out for the year with an Achilles injury, redshirt freshman Bo Wallace absent from spring ball thus far, and the dismissal of Ismael Murphy-Richardson in January -- a change in approach to teaching the Spur and Devil positions has been implemented as well.
Instead of separating the two positions into completely different roles, Spur and Devil are being taught interchangeably as players are getting dual-training at both positions so they can play on either side of the field, regardless of whether it's the shorter (boundary) side or wider (field) side.
This method is also being applied in the secondary, but to an even greater degree: sophomore Kareem Orr, junior Chad Adams and, according to ASU coach Todd Graham, redshirt sophomore Armand Perry are all getting team reps at both corner and safety so the “next best defensive back” can hit the field at any of the four positions if someone goes down.
Additionally, Graham said Friday they want to explore having Moeakiola play the Bandit position when he gets back on the field.
“I just think it (dual-training the outside linebackers) gives us more flexibility with play-calling and more flexibility with how we disperse the guys. And even taking it further, into our nickel package,” Slocum said.
To start spring ball, junior linebacker Marcus Ball was getting reps with the first team at one outside linebacker position, until on Friday, redshirt freshman Malik Lawal got first team reps at the outside linebacker position, in addition to junior college transfer Koron Crump getting first team reps instead of junior linebacker Alani Latu.
“Those guys (Lawal and Crump), we like the speed and athleticism of both of those guys and then the length and the size of the other guys,” Graham said Friday. “So we feel like we’ve got some good combinations where we can on third down, put in a big lineup when it’s a third down and three, four, five in our nickel package and when it gets into the longer downs, put some speed guys in.”
Lawal, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound linebacker out of Chaparral High School in Temecula, California, said Slocum has told him his athleticism is well suited to playing outside linebacker and Devil backer in particular, where he can be more of an attack oriented player.
With Slocum dual-training the outside linebackers, Lawal said he is getting comfortable playing the Spur position and dropping into coverage, and if it “comes down to it” he feels like he will be ready to play either position once the season starts.
“There will be times where we will be doing checks and stuff like that where I’ll be up doing the responsibilities like a Spur will do,” Lawal said about getting dual-training. “It’s just one of those things, no matter what side we’re on we’ll be able to know both sides and both positions.”
Lawal, who tore his ACL in April 2014 and then took a redshirt year with ASU last year, said at this point in the spring, his motions feel natural and he’s now starting to feel stronger and more comfortable in his pads since he didn’t get to do a lot of football work last fall.
“He (Lawal) was slowed down a bit when he came here initially last year and we played him at inside and outside linebacker and now going into the spring decided to move him outside and use his speed and athleticism on the edge of the defense and has looked pretty good so far,” Slocum said.
Strength-wise, Lawal said his bench press has gone up about 15 pounds since he first arrived at ASU, his power clean max has gone up 60 pounds and with squats, he’s “tossing up 450 (pounds) for sets of threes.”
“It’s like an uphill battle for me, so the fact that I can see the top of the light coming closer and closer I’m just ready to get that money this year and make an impact,” Lawal said.
In addition to Lawal getting first team reps, newcomer Crump has even impressed the likes of his teammates.
“Crump is a tremendous add-on,” Ball said. “A tremendous athlete. A tall guy. A speedy guy. He’s a guy who is fast off the edge, brings a lot of hype to the defense and like I said, we can be diverse with him as well. He can do a couple of different things on the defense and he’s a guy that wants to learn.”
Out of Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, Crump, a four-star prospect as a pass rusher, had double-digit sacks in each of his his two seasons at the junior college level.
Crump, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, said he’s looking to gain about 10 more pounds before the season begins. He said he feels comfortable ASU’s defensive scheme, citing his previous experience in a similar system.
As for learning more techniques and skills, Crump said Slocum has been showing the group film on NFL players like Von Miller in order to see what they can do on the field to get better and improve their game.
“He (Slocum) is the best,” Crump said. “He’s very detailed in telling me (what to do). When we watch film one on one, he’ll just tell me every little thing I need to work on and that’s what I’ll try to work on next day at practice and I get better each day.”
As one of the more veteran players in the group, Ball said he remembers coming in and finding it slightly challenging to learn ASU’s defense, so he knows getting accustomed to the system will take time for the newcomers like Crump and 6-foot-4, 245-pound junior college transfer Dougladson Subtyl, who arrives at ASU in the fall.
Additionally, Ball said ASU is running a slightly different defense with the dual-training aspects of the Spur and Devil, but with the adjustments, he likes the position he’s at and thinks as a whole, the change is well-suited for the personnel ASU has available.
“They (Spur and Devil) do some of the same things so we have a couple defensive schemes obviously and it’s one of those things that I can play to the field and I can play to the boundary,” Ball said. “It’s different techniques throughout the schemes, but the Devil is the Devil position and the Spur is the Spur position. We just operate depending on what the call is.”
With this change of teaching, Ball plays closer to the line of scrimmage, an area where he feels like he can excel. Ball said with the change, it allows the defense to show other teams in the Pac-12 a different look than in previous years.
“I think he (Ball) is progressing,” Slocum said, “He is doing really well and the biggest thing he has learned to do is play with more physicality. He’s been primarily as an edge defensive player or a perimeter defensive player and he’s gotten into the mix of having to play against tight ends and I think he’s growing.”
With the progression of Spur and Devil looking to continue into the fall, the added experience along the defensive front behind sophomore defensive lineman JoJo Wicker, junior Tashon Smallwood, and senior defensive lineman Viliami Latu, has not only helped bolster the pass rush, but also provides a handful of intriguing sub-packages and third down options.
“Again, we’re fortunate in that our front rush unit is talented,” Slocum said. “We got guys like JoJo Wicker who adds an element as an outside rusher that is a little bit different than a speed guy like Koron Crump. Now we can use either one or both at the same time so that’s just to name a few. (Redshirt freshman defensive lineman) Jalen Bates, Lawal and even A.J. Latu is in that mix and then we got the guys inside like (sophomore defensive lineman) Renell Wren who has really had a good spring.”
-- Graham told reporters after Monday’s practice that junior linebacker Chans Cox will have surgery and miss the season. Cox has an Achilles heel injury.
-- Junior linebacker Christian Sam (hip), Moeakiola (shoulder), freshman offensive lineman Marshal Nathe (knee), senior tight end Kody Kohl (leg), redshirt sophomore defensive back Dasmond Tautalatasi, sophomore linebacker Khaylan Thomas (knee), and redshirt freshman Jason Lewis were all in green non-contact jerseys and working on Muscle Beach.
-- Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Bo Wallace, junior college transfer defensive back J’Marcus Rhodes, senior defensive lineman Viliami Latu, and junior linebacker Alani Latu were all not in attendance.