At Arizona State's Monday practice, many of the players who have practiced at the Sun Devils' Spur linebacker position this fall were spread out among different position groups.
ASU head coach Todd Graham said prior to fall camp the Spurs would practice with the defensive backs this season, but up until late last week, most of the players ASU tried at Spur worked with defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Keith Patterson in portions of practice the media was allowed to view.
Throughout Graham's tenure, the Spurs have almost always practiced with the linebacker unit, which makes Monday's personnel groupings intriguing. Among the players ASU has used at Spur this fall, junior Marcus Ball and junior Tyler Whiley practiced with the defensive backs, sophomore Coltin Gerhart and sophomore Deion Guignard worked with the linebackers, and junior Koron Crump lined up with the ends and Devil backers.
Placing the various Spur candidates into different position groups at practice is an indication ASU's defense will significantly adjust relative to its opponents' scheme and style in 2016.
This development comes on the heels of a broader change within ASU's defense, as Graham handed off the play-calling duties to Patterson this fall.
ASU is the fourth school where the duo has coached together, as their history dates back to stops at Pittsburgh, Tulsa and even Allen High School in Texas. Graham said when Patterson has served on his staff, Patterson has traditionally been charged with making defensive play calls and audibles.
However, when Patterson first arrived at ASU in 2014, the pair didn't return to their previous dynamic, and Graham remained in charge of ASU's defense as he had been since his arrival prior to the 2012 season.
“When I came back, they had just won the South, just played in the Pac-12 Championship game so I just tried to come in and say hey, what’s my role here?" Patterson said. "What do you want me to do? You know, so I just kind of slid in there, coached the linebackers, tried to help out with some special teams and just tried to help us become a better unit without upsetting any kind of the balance that they might have already had."
The coaching staff understandably didn't want to upset the balance of power following a 10-win season, so Patterson's role on Graham's staff took on a different form than it had in previous seasons.
After a second consecutive 10-win season in 2014, Graham and Patterson again elected to maintain the status quo. But in 2015, ASU's head coach realized Patterson needed to become more involved.
Against UCLA last year, Graham invited Patterson from the coach's box to the field to help with on-field decision-making, and Patterson began to offer more input over the course of the season. Still, Patterson said finding a balance in that role became increasingly challenging because of the style of defense ASU operates.
A year in which ASU finished last in the nation in passing defense and was decimated by injury turned out to be a transitional season for Graham and Patterson, as Graham agreed to restore Patterson's play-calling duties heading into 2016.
"It’s actually like coach said, like it was at Tulsa, it’s like it was when we were at Pittsburgh and I know what coach wants from a defense, I know he wants to play aggressive, but calculated in pressuring and impacting the quarterback," Patterson said.
While Patterson and Graham are both firm believers in blitzing and pressuring opposing quarterbacks, their defensive philosophy has evolved through their years of coaching together.
When the pair first worked with one another at Allen High School, Patterson said the coaches ran a base 4-3 front. Over the past two decades, Graham and Patterson have evolved from the 4-3 and tried just about every defensive front imaginable, and at this point, Patterson said all of the trial and error has led to a comprehensive playbook that makes ASU's defense truly multiple.
"We’re really a culmination of everything that we’ve been since 1995," Patterson said. "You look at it, when we started out, we were a 4-3, then we went to a 4-2-5, then we went to a 3-3-5, then we went to a 3-4 and then right back to everything. Now we do it all. We have all those concepts now built in. It’s made us who we are."
With a variety of defensive concepts built into ASU's overall scheme, the Sun Devils can afford to be selective with how they deploy various packages.
Against run-heavy teams like Stanford and Utah, ASU has the luxury of playing a heavier 4-3 front, and can use a trio of linebackers in senior Salamo Fiso, junior Christian Sam and D.J. Calhoun who are all geared toward stopping the run. Against up-tempo spread teams like Oregon and Washington State, ASU can use a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5 and use a faster player with better coverage abilities like Ball at the back end of the defense.
"You’ve got the Air Raid, then you’ve got the Pro style, then you’ve got basically, your multiple running back, tight end groups with Stanford," Patterson said of the various offensive schemes in the Pac-12. "So I’ve always believed defensively, you have to be multiple but simple. You have to be able to move the dots and show them one thing in presentation and give them another, and then you’ve got to make them think hey we’re defending and you’re pressuring. So it’s a cat and mouse game."
If Patterson is able to successfully incorporate the multiple fronts he's described into ASU's defense this season, the Sun Devils have the ability to achieve more schematic flexibility than they have previously in the Graham era.
In the past, ASU has employed heavier and lighter fronts based on an opponent's scheme. But with Patterson at the helm of the defense, the Sun Devils appear determined to experiment with an even greater range of sub-packages and personnel groupings.
On Monday, the different positions groups that players technically considered Spur linebackers by ASU broke into gave a clear indication Patterson wants to give himself a deep playbook to work with when it's his turn to make calls.
"We do have a system where we can create matchups--personnel wise--just like offenses can create match ups by trying to get this receiver on this nickel back or this receiver on this linebacker or this DB," Patterson said. "I think you have to be able to do the same thing now defensively. I don’t think you can just line up and play this front or this front, I think you have to be able to say, we’ve got to be able to get this guy on that guy and let him go to work.”
Sam, Will and...Mike?
Throughout Graham's tenure, ASU has labeled four positions with linebacker titles. The Sun Devils have used a Sam linebacker, a Will linebacker, a Spur linebacker and a Devil backer, which has traditionally been the hardest position to define.
Though the Devil backer is a linebacker in title, Graham's Devil backers have typically lined up with their hands in the dirt in a three-point stance as edge rushers in a 4-3 or 4-2-5 look depending on ASU's coverage shell.
This season, though, Patterson has introduced a true 4-3 look to the defensive scheme, which features a Sam linebacker, a Will linebacker and a Mike linebacker.
During media viewing periods, ASU has used this defense occasionally with a personnel grouping of Calhoun as the Sam, Fiso as the Mike and Sam as the Will linebacker.
Calhoun said Saturday this is the first time in his career ASU has used this particular terminology, and he described it as a completely different defensive look.
Last season, Calhoun was sometimes the odd-man out in ASU's defense, as he's too big to play the Spur position but wasn't consistent enough to beat out Fiso and Calhoun at either inside linebacker spot. Still, Calhoun is one of ASU's top playmakers defensively, so by using a 4-3 front, Patterson can get the top three linebackers on the field at once.
"I can say as far as me in general, I’m not selfish, you know, if I don’t get on the field, I’m not going to be mad, but I have to contribute in some type of way whether it’s going to be amping up the team or being on special teams," Calhoun said. "But as far as me, Christian (Sam) and Salamo (Fiso) being on the field together, it’s going to be wonderful.”
Last season, Calhoun found himself on the field in third down pass rushing situations as the team's nickel linebacker in its nickel package. Aligned over the center, Calhoun blitzed on a majority of his defensive reps, which allowed opposing offensive lines to anticipate his pressures.
In ASU's 4-3 look, Patterson should have the freedom to vary the linebackers' blitz tendencies, and Calhoun is looking forward to the opportunity to finally take an opponent by surprise.
“One thing that I don’t like, if it’s a third down and I come into the game, everybody knows I’m coming," Calhoun said. "Every team knows that I’m coming. I don’t really want to say it out loud, but I just have to show different types of techniques of what I can do.”
Less talk, more stops
Another interesting twist to Patterson's first season calling ASU's defense is the demeanor of his key personnel. With Fiso returning for his fourth season as a starter and senior safety Laiu Moeakiola back for his third season in a significant role, ASU has two of its most respected on-field leaders back in a critical year.
With Fiso and Moeakiola on the field, Patterson said he has no qualms knowing he has players he can trust to get the defensive call relayed and individual players properly aligned.
Still, Patterson's comfort level with Fiso and Moeakiola's communication skills comes as a surprise, even to him. ASU's defensive coordinator joked he didn't expect either player to go on a speaking tour anytime soon, as both Fiso and Moeakiola are among the softest-spoken Sun Devils off the field.
"That’s what you’ve got with Laiu and Salamo, they just have a way and a comfort level of communicating on a football field that’s unexplainable and it does make them very effective," Patterson said.
Even as a sophomore and as a junior, Graham heralded Moeakiola's abilities to set ASU's defense in hectic in-game situations. As Moeakiola has battled injuries over the past two seasons, Graham has often lamented his loss suggesting the mental edge ASU has with Moeakiola on the field is irreplaceable.
Moeakiola said his football acumen rapidly developed upon arriving at ASU, because in high school, he could rely on talent alone to succeed. Nowadays, he sees coordinating ASU's alignment as part of his on-field duties, practically serving as a coach on the field.
"Coach Graham and them do a great job of the X’s and O’s and the scheme part and getting guys lined up is just part of my job," Moeakiola said. "It’s understanding the the defense and to make their jobs easier, if that’s just getting them in the right position. We have other guys that help along with that, Salamo Fiso, this is his fifth year, he’s a fourth year starter and he knows the defense just as much as Coach Graham does."
Patterson said a defense often assumes the personality of its coach, so it should come as no surprise Moeakiola's fellow defensive players have assumed the personalities of their on-the-field leaders.
The Texas native said the next generation of ASU playmakers are some of the quieter types on the team, which doesn't bother him at all.
“We have so many guys who are just quiet personalities but when they’re on the field, they speak volumes," Moeakiola said. "Some guys like Tashon Smallwood, he’s not really a hoo-rah kind of guy, we have Christian Sam, he’s a quiet leader, the greatest thing about them is they do the job and they’re not asked to do it twice."
With the old dynamic Graham and Patterson previously used returning to ASU's field this fall, Graham will still enjoy heavy involvement in creating defensive game plans and in the in-game decision-making process. Patterson, however, has always built and called a defense with Graham's philosophical viewpoints in mind.
As long as Graham and Patterson are in charge of the defense, ASU will not relent in its attacking approach. This season, though, Patterson is hoping to make that attacking approach more multiple in its nature, and he has a room full of players who bring a business-like mentality to the meeting rooms and the practice field to help make that goal possible.
"That’s what I do love about our defense, there ain’t no talking," Patterson said. "There’s no called meetings, there’s nothing to talk about. Hey, show up today and let’s get better. Every time I’ve challenged this defense to this point in fall camp about a certain issue or a certain concept, they’ve accepted that challenge and they’ve done it. It’s called player-to-play accountability."
News and Notes
- Junior running back Kalen Ballage was in a green jersey at Monday's practice, but went through the normal warm up line. Ballage does not have an injury, but he recently had his wisdom teeth removed.
- Fiso was in a green non-contact jersey, and he jogged through the injury line during Monday's warmups. When individual drills began, Fiso walked over to Muscle Beach and did not participate in any portions of practice the media viewed.
- Sophomore wide receiver Jalen Harvey only has light tape on his ankle, and was practicing at or close to full speed during the portions of practice the media viewed. Harvey is still in a green jersey, but worked with the second team offense in an 11-on-air drill and performed in a wide receiver blocking drill requiring good ankle stability.
- Junior college transfer A.J. McCollum was out of a green jersey on Monday and wearing a maroon offensive jersey. McCollum has eased back into individual drills of late, and ditched the green jersey altogether on Monday.
- Senior linebacker Carlos Mendoza was back at practice Monday after missing the last few practices for an undisclosed reason.