Arizona State preparedness and potential grades: Inside linebacker

The inside linebacker position may be the strength of the Arizona State defense in 2016, with at least three players capable of being all-league performers this year or in the future.

1. Salamo Fiso (senior) -- Fiso enters the 2016 season as one of Arizona State's most established and experienced players and one of the Pac-12's best inside linebackers, particular as it relates to stopping the run. Last season he led ASU with 99 tackles and 20 tackles for loss, one of the best performers in the conference. There's no question that Fiso has great patience and play diagnostic skills at this stage of his college career, and he lives for blowing up interior run lanes either violently attacking would-be lead blockers in the gap or heat seeking the running back. He has a good understanding of play concepts and when and how to be most disruptive operating between the tackles. 

We've seen annual progress with Fiso's consistency of effort and focus, which had lapsed at times in the past when he was asked to do things he probably isn't as well suited to do nor enjoys as much, particularly managing zone coverage drops or chasing the full width of the field. By showing improvement in these areas Fiso has rounded out his game quite a bit in a way that helps make it easier to see how he'd translate to the NFL level after the 2016 season.

Fiso is the key communicator in the ASU defensive front seven and a very smart player who continues to impress in that regard. It's going to pay dividends from an intangibles standpoint as he progresses beyond college. Fiso is going to warrant serious draft consideration as a MIKE linebacker in 4-3 schemes as an inside backer in 3-4 defenses. If he's able to continue to progress as much this year as he did in 2015 he should be a first or second-team all-league player.  Preparedness Grade: 4  / Potential Grade: 4.5

2. Christian Sam (junior) -- In the last year Sam has transitioned from being one of the best prospects on the ASU roster to one of its best players. He had 98 tackles last season including a remarkable 69 solo tackles, one of the best results in the league. He also has great athletic attributes for his size and frame, with quick feet and the ability to get out a run and make plays with a wide coverage range. The move to inside linebacker only further enhanced that advantage, as Sam can run as well as a lot of safeties despite being in the neighborhood of 240 pounds. 

Playing with proper technique and pad level against the run has been one of the biggest adjustments Sam's had to make to the position and he's shown significant improvement in this area but still has room to further develop as he prepares to put film on display that will resonate with NFL scouts. He has the patient, gathering feet that all great linebackers have, diagnoses plays increasingly well, and comes unhinged through the hips with a lot of suddenness for his size in reaction to the play. The next phase is dropping his center of gravity and becoming a more functional Hawk tackler, tracking his eye to the near hip of the ball carrier. As a sophomore he had a tendency to be too upright and catch approaching rushers, which is a leverage issue transitioning to the next level. 

Sam can run, blitz and zone drop very well for an inside linebacker, which makes him a particularly versatile player. He's a true three down inside linebacker. To become the player he's capable of being, a more consistent high-revving motor is going to be important. At times Sam will get very fired up on the field, but he's just too good of a player to not dominate the game with consistency via blowing up blocks and tracking to the football with relentless purpose. Preparedness Grade: 4 / Potential Grade: 5

3. D.J. Calhoun (junior) -- Calhoun has significantly evolved as a player since arriving at ASU in January of 2014. From a physical standpoint he initially looked somewhat like former ASU safety Alden Darby at the time, no more than 195 pounds despite being a linebacker. There were some questions we had about whether his frame, at no more than 6-foot-0 and not especially wide or long, would be able to support all the weight he'd have to carry to be a true linebacker size. He's eliminated any concerns about that question at this stage of his development, as he was 233 pounds in the spring. 

The additional size and strength comes in the form of dense muscularity and it is befitting for Calhoun, a player whose demeanor on the field resembles a junkyard dog. He's an extremely intense and physical competitor who attacks and displaces would-be blockers quite well for not being long-armed by using proper technique and having the correct mindset. He's got a lot of suddenness as a blitzer, who blends well with his disposition and has made Calhoun a real weapon on third downs for the Sun Devils. Last season he finished second on the team with 6.5 sacks. 

Where we've seen the most development with Calhoun as a player is his understanding of the game. He became a Scout.com Freshman All-American in 2014 on sheer will and toughness, but at times he was running around at full speed without a good sense of where he needed to be on a given play and why. That's changed now. He's clearly started to study film and become more of a student of the game. He's carrying running backs on routes out of the backfield now with quicker diagnostics, and starting to understand when it's prudent to be patient as opposed to taking himself out of a play prematurely and creating a voided gap. That's the area Calhoun has to continue to work on, studying film and becoming a master of the craft so as to understand why and how to best use his positive physical and mental attributes.  Preparedness Grade: 3.5 / Potential Grade: 4

4. Khaylan Thomas (sophomore) -- There are some similarities between former ASU linebacker Chris Young and Thomas. Both are ideally suited to play the WILL position in ASU's defense but have the movement skills, instincts and playmaking ability to play the Spur position and be exposed to more open spaces. Like Young, Thomas has a very good feel for the game, with play diagnostic skills that belie his age.

Thomas is patient enough to allow the extra split second to let a play concept reveal itself before reacting, rather than prematurely commit to the fake, and when he does commit, he has a cat-quick pursuit reaction and approach that is very smooth and yet potent. A stout, low-center-of-gravity linebacker, Thomas plays with good leverage, is a technical tackler for his age and completes the play. He also makes extended arm and grip strength tackles that are challenging and generally has a knack for bringing down the ball carrier. 

Thomas isn't ideally built for coverage in wide swaths of the field but he's able to run with running backs and tight ends and tends to pick up assignments quickly in the passing game. He's got decent physicality in the gap and is a pretty decent blitzer. Added strength and potency with moving bodies around and being a physical presence on the field are areas in which Thomas will continue to grow and develop. He has a young looking face and is still growing into his physique. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 4

5. Carlos Mendoza (senior) -- As has often been the case, Mendoza practiced well when healthy this spring and showed that he's very capable of playing a second-string role at a minimum as he enters his fifth-year senior season. Mendoza has enough scheme flexibility to play SAM, WILL or even Spur. Perhaps due to the fact he's entering his senior year, Mendoza had a real edge about him in the spring. His energy was palpable, often showing a little more physicality than even called for in the drills or team work.  

It's a shame for Mendoza that he's had injury problems every year since arriving at ASU because he has a pretty good skill set and football IQ and is a moderate athlete for the position. The injuries allowed others to rise up and flourish at the positions and that makes playing time tough to come by as he gets into his senior season even though he's capable of playing effectively in the Pac-12.  Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 3

Preparedness/Potential Grade Key

5: All-American capability/prospect

4: First/second team all-league 

3: Mid-level Pac-12 performer

2: Fringe Pac-12 performer

1: Non-Pac-12 level performer

Editor's Note: Players are ranked in terms of current preparedness and not overall potential. 


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