Though he's not even taken the field in spring football, Laiu Moeakiola remains at the forefront of what Arizona State coach Todd Graham is conceptualizing with his 2016 defense.
Moeakiola, recovering from shoulder surgery that forced him to miss the team's Cactus Bowl game in December, has mostly conditioned or simply been an observer to the Sun Devils' practices in the last month. But the fifth-year senior is going to be on the field with the first-team in preseason camp, that much is for sure.
What's going to be different is where Moeakiola lines up. Since transitioning to the position during the 2013 season, Moeakiola has started at Spur, a hybrid linebacker/safety role in which he's played close to the line of scrimmage on the wide side of the field. Beginning in August, Moeakiola will move to a deep safety role, which is where he initially practiced at ASU as a freshman out of Trinity High School in Euless, Texas.
Graham is making the move in part because of concerns the Sun Devils have with their secondary, which finished last in the nation last year in passing yardage allowed per game, and is replacing three starters.
"One of the things we can't have with replacing that many people on the back end is just lose that experience," Graham said. "Some of the things we're modifying with our coverage, we'll be very similar when the safeties spin down he'll be doing some of the things that he did all year last year.
"But Laiu is such a smart player, we need experience back there with that group. He'll play free safety starting in fall camp, and obviously we'll have different packages."
Moeakiola, 6-foot-1, has already worked on losing weight from the 215 pounds he played at last season to accommodate the demands of having to play more coverage in wide open space.
Last season, Moeakiola had 61 tackles including 6.5 for loss at Spur. With Moeakiola's move to safety, ASU may be able to afford to play one of its two other players with starting safety experience, sophomores Armand Perry and Kareem Orr, to cornerback. Perry and Orr each worked at cornerback upon arrival at ASU. Orr has practiced with the first-team at corner at times in recent weeks.
A further sign of Graham's evolution on personnel this spring has been the move of sophomore Das Tautalatasi back to field safety. Last year, Tautalatasi practiced at Spur behind Moeakiola, and the two are somewhat similar players in terms of style. Monday, Tautalatasi was out of the green non-contact jersey he had been wearing, and was working with the first-team at field safety, the position he first practiced when he arrived at ASU.
"They got me repping both safeties (field and boundary), getting a shot with the ones, so it feels great," Tautalatasi said. "The way they have our safeties playing, it's more balanced. We'll both play man, we'll both play off, we'll both be cutting the ball. There's no big difference."
The base defense ASU appears poised to play in 2016 is bigger, and more of a 4-3 or 3-4 depending on whether the Devil backer plays from a 3-point or 2-point stance. In 2015, the Sun Devils were essentially a 4-2-5 defense with Moeakiola, at Spur, as Graham acknowledges.
"Last year we basically played with five defensive backs, a strong safety, two free safeties and two corners," Graham said. "So we'll still do that. We'll still do that. We go what we call our cheetah package, [Moeakiola will] do what he did last year, a strong safety. In our base package he'll play free safety. I'm looking forward to watching him do that, and obviously, I do think it'll help keep him healthy."
With Moeakiola moving to field safety, the top candidates to play Spur appear to be Koron Crump, a 6-foot-4, 220 pound junior who arrived at ASU this spring from Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, and Marcus Ball, a 6-foot-2, 225 pound junior.
One thing that may help the Sun Devils this year according to several players is better communication and understanding that comes from dual-training and movement from corner to safety and Spur to field or Bandit safety.
"You can help everyone line up," Tautalatasi said. "You know what their jobs are so it helps you understand what they've got and you've got even more."
Friday practice includes team run with tackling
ASU showed reporters some 11-on-11 action in Friday's morning session, which leaves just three more practices remaining in the spring schedule. After dual-training earlier in camp, the Sun Devils looked more traditional with how they utilized their positions in the session, aligning to field and boundary.
"Today we did quite a bit of series work," Graham said. "I thought the defense got the better of them today, so that's a good sign. We had a lot of fourth-down, game on the line situations. Worked overtime. A lot of good work. Our guys are working hard. As far as our goal in the spring of establishing our identity, we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of inexperience at key positions, but I like where we're at.
-- Players in green non-contact jerseys who are not participating in a majority of practice include Moeakiola (shoulder), linebacker Christian Sam (hip), tight ends Kody Kohl (thigh) and Grant Martinez, offensive linemen Marshal Nathe (ACL) and Dillon Faamatau (new on Friday), safety Armand Perry and cornerback Tyler Whiley.
-- Linebacker Chans Cox is out for the season after suffering an Achilles injury. Defensive tackle Emanuel Dayries had surgery on both lower legs and is out for the rest of spring ball.
-- Devil backer Bo Wallace has not been in attendance at any spring practices due to what's been termed as a "personal" absence.