Arizona State linebacker D.J. Calhoun poised for breakout season

After playing primarily in sub-package situations a season ago, junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun is ready for more opportunities in base downs this year.

In just a year’s time, Arizona State linebacker D.J. Calhoun has gone from breaking his wrist to being predicted to have a breakout junior year.

Despite practicing and playing in a cast for the first half of the 2015 season, Calhoun did not miss a single game and is one now of the most experienced players on ASU’s defense.

“Talking about a guy coming back, I mean the experience he has, to me, I look for Calhoun to have a breakout year,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “Really have liked what I’ve seen. The consistency that’s he’s brought to the table every day.”

This fall, Calhoun is getting first-team linebacker reps on base downs alongside junior linebacker Christian Sam and senior linebacker Salamo Fiso. It was only last season when Calhoun was notably stuck behind Sam, Fiso and senior Laiu Moeakiola for playing time.

Moeakiola has since moved from Spur linebacker to field safety, opening the door in some defensive sub-packages to have Calhoun, Fiso, Sam and Moeakiola all on the field at the same time.

Playing behind a trio of strong linebackers last season, Calhoun settled for playing on nickel downs and behind Sam at Will linebacker on base downs. The only downside for Calhoun’s nickel appearances was the predictability it gave opponents.

“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.”

Calhoun finished second on the team last season with 6.5 sacks and looked the part as a starting inside linebacker in the Pac-12. He had 26 total tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss.

“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 and Salamo being on the field together, it’s going to be wonderful.”

Sam and Fiso had a combined 197 tackles on the year last season. Fiso was the team’s leading tackler with 99 overall tackles and 20 tackles for loss for 56 yards. Fiso’s 4.5 sacks ranked third on the team behind Calhoun's 6.5 sacks and the 10 sacks former ASU linebacker Antonio Longino had.

Notably having all three linebackers--Sam, Fiso, and Calhoun--on the field together will provide ASU with a solid run defense in addition to having a constant blitz threat player in Calhoun.

When Calhoun first arrived at ASU, his energy and attacking mindset was clear, but at times, a little too clear. A tenacious pass rusher, he would sometimes run full speed on the field without a good sense of where he needed to be. Since then, Calhoun has settled into ASU’s defense.

Earning Freshman All-American honors in 2014, Calhoun played in all 13 games, recorded 35 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He is only one of eight players in ASU history to start his first career game.

Along with his mental evolution since his freshman year, Calhoun underwent a remarkable physical transformation. Gaining about 40 pounds in a year’s span, Calhoun now looks less like a small defensive back and more like a true hard-hitting linebacker.

In Calhoun’s first year with ASU, he said his goal was to be at least 225 pounds by his senior year. Going into his third year with the program, he weighs 234 pounds.  

“I want to give thanks to Griz (Shawn Griswold),” Calhoun said. “He’s our strength and conditioning coach. When I first came I was 189 and now I’m 234 so you now it’s a big different putting on the pounds, being in the film room and taking notes from everyone on the team as far as the defensive positions coming into this year.”

Set to be one of ASU’s biggest contributors this season, Calhoun said he’s just excited to get the chance to set an example for the younger players and hit the field.

“(I’m) just trying to be a leader, I’m not one of those young guys anymore,” Calhoun said. “I’m an upperclassman so I got to embrace my role. Everybody has their roles to play, but me I just got to get the edge, get interceptions and help the team as best as I can.”

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