The bedrock strength of Arizona State's defense in 2016 will be its inside linebackers, led by senior multi-year starter Salamo Fiso, junior returning starter Christian Sam and key sub-package player D.J. Calhoun.
How much the three players occupy the field together much remains to be seen, but in any combination they'll make the WILL and SAM formidable this season. ASU's inside linebackers are as good as any unit in the Pac-12, particularly with regard to stopping the run.
An honorable mention all-conference selection who had a strong case to be at least a second-team member, Fiso led the entire Pac-12 last season in solo tackles with 78 in 13 games and also finished fifth overall in total tackles He led the Sun Devils in total tackles and finished second in tackles for loss with 20.0, and also third in sacks with 4.5.
Fiso had has many interior run stops as any player in the Pac-12 last season and his 13.6 run stop percentage ranks No. 1 among returning players in the league according to Pro Football Focus. He's +16.1 run defense grade is No. 2 nationally among Power-5 linebackers.
Not surprisingly, Fiso has been named to five preseason watch lists: Bednarik (defensive player of the year); Nagurski (defensive player of the year); Butkus (linebacker of the year); Lombardi (linemen of the year); and the Polynesian Player of the Year.
With his 98 tackles Sam finished sixth in the Pac-12 and second on the ASU team, just one tackle behind fellow inside linebacker Salamo Fiso. Sam's 69 solo tackles were fourth in the Pac-12, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. He tied for the team high with two forced fumbles and had one interception.
Fiso is a high-volume tackler who had 49 run stops in 2015. Fiso’s 13.6 run stop percentage ranks No. 1 among returning Pac-12 defenders. His value is very high against pro-style offense and really any opponent that relies heavily on running the football, especially between the tackles.
There is a diminishing return with Fiso on teams that are pass heavy, and that's reflected in his reduced production against opponents like Cal and Washington State. ASU linebackers coach and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson has challenged Fiso to keep his body lean and be more fully engaged with pass-heavy teams in terms of his drops and coverage focus. On passing downs ASU tends to bring Fiso off the field as part of its nickel personnel grouping.
In ASU's base defense Sam is a prototype WILL backer. He's got the athletic range of an in-the-box safety with the size of a linebacker, at 6-foot-1 and 241 pounds. As a result, he's one of the better NFL prospects on the ASU roster among veteran players.
Patterson has worked with Sam on playing with a greater level of tenacity and violence, and also on his pad level. Perhaps in part because he grew up playing defensive back, Sam tends to be too upright as a player and particularly when preparing to make tackles. Sometimes he'll catch the opposing ball carrier and then bring him to the ground rather than delivering a blow with proper pad level. It's an approach that is going to not work consistently enough against higher end talent.
Sam has the ability to chase down a lot of plays because of how well he covers ground, and when he does play with good leverage he has plenty of pop behind his pads. He had arthroscopic surgery on his hip in the off-season and was perhaps a bit heavy at the outset of camp due to conditioning limitations. But he appears to be back in better shape now and is moving seemingly normally.
One of the next steps of Sam's progression will be to show up at the block with greater physicality to shed and return to the football. That's partly related to his habit of being too upright as a player. Against some of the most talented opponents Sam didn't play as well as he did versus other teams. He should be ready to elevate his play this year including against the best opponents. Next year he could shift over to the SAM position with Calhoun moving to WILL when they're both seniors.
Calhoun primarily served as a third-down pass rusher last season in the team's nickel package. He had 26.5 tackles, 7.5 for loss and 6.5 sacks, which was second-most on the team behind Antonio Longino. He's a tenacious blitzer who has fearlessly and aggressively takes on protection blocks.
But Calhoun has evolved into much more than a role player and that's presenting some challenges for the Sun Devils. He's clearly one of the Top-10 returning defensive players on the roster and yet because Sam and Fiso also are, and there's only two inside 'backer positions, someone is going to be left out...unless Patterson decides to just play the three of them together.
Sam played Spur early in his career and has the movement skills to do it in a manner similar to what we saw from a similarly sized -- or even heavier -- Chris Young at the position in 2012 before Young transitioned to WILL in 2013 following the departure of Brandon Magee.
Calhoun told us that when he's on the field with Fiso and Sam together they refer to it as more of a true MIKE, SAM and WILL designations. Those typically correlate to a 4-3 scheme, but the Devil backer in ASU's defense could play the same role whether out of a 3-point or 2-point stance. Regardless, what appears to be the case is ASU looking at using those three players together against offenses the put more players on the line of scrimmage and use more multiple back sets. In such a role, Sam would play a linebacker spot that is similar to the Spur but more in the box at times.
Since arriving at ASU, Calhoun has gained upwards of 45 pounds and is now without question a full service interior linebacker. He's significantly improved with his understanding of the game and play recognition.
ASU is relatively thin here on scholarship bodies and that should make it a point of recruiting focus in 2017 and 2018. Senior Carlos Mendoza has been around a lot time and knows the system and isn's athletically unequipped to play as a reserve. Sophomore Khaylan Thomas played last year as a true freshman in a limited fashion. He suffered a torn meniscus in his knee that necessitated surgery and isn't quite back to 100 percent. But he's a WILL who may also be able to play Spur.
The Sun Devils have also explored using redshirt freshmen Malik Lawal and Coltin Gerhart inside at WILL. Lawal has taken a lot of reps at Devil and Gehart at Spur as ASU coaches try to figure out what type of role they're best suited for.
Keith Patterson: "You know, who knows, it's one of those things, we're a sub-package defense anyway and I mean, we're going to match personnel depending on what we're seeing. We've got a lot of guys that I think can play and perform well there. That's just the nature of football, when you get people that are banged up and are in and out of the lineup, I feel good where we are. We've got people more than capable of playing there and being productive."
Keith Patterson: "We want [Christian Sam] to become an enforcer. Don't just be satisfied with making a play. I call it pursuit with a purpose. Once you get there, man, have a purpose about yourself. Have a bat for their ass. I want to see you play behind your pads, finishing plays, playing through the whistle. I've told the whole group, what people are going to see next year when they put that video on, is, 'holy crap, look how well they run to the ball.' We haven't run to the ball even close to what we've done in the past. We're going to do that this year...He looks great right now. I expect big things. I'm going to raise the standard for him. He's smart, he prepares, he studies the game-plan as well as anyone. If we get him to develop a linebacker mentality to where he's just not satisfied with making a play, he's getting there with a purpose and wants to become a dominant player, there's no excuse why that guy can't be a star player."
Keith Patterson: "I've challenged [Salamo Fiso] going into his final season. You took a step forward, I'll give you that, got beat up toward the end of the season. On the same hand, I don't want the same Salamo we had the first three years. We want the best version of Salamo, so I've challenged him in some ways that he can raise and elevate his game. To continue to improve your approach in the way you train... I'm saying, I want you to continue to improve in understanding pass concepts and not just being a run stopper. Reading plays, studying, knowing what's coming. Sometimes he just gets out there and drifts a bit against the pass in zone coverage, ho-hum. I want him to have the same sense of urgency when we're pressuring and stopping the run in pass coverage. If he does that he'll become a better and more complete player.
Keith Patterson: “Talking about a guy coming back, I mean the experience he has, to me, I look for Calhoun to have a breakout year. Really have liked what I’ve seen. The consistency that’s he’s brought to the table every day.”
Christian Sam: "My whole life I played corner, I played defensive back. So I'm always trying to make the plays. [Patterson] wants me to come in with more force and just work on that day by day and I think I've gotten dramatically better."
Christian Sam: "Now when you're on the field (as a veteran) stuff you didn't pick up on when you were out the field early on you see now. It's like, 'this play is coming. This is the formation.' You know what you have to do. It's almost like you're getting a step before the offense and it feels great."
D.J. Calhoun: “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. But as far as me, Christian and Salamo being on the field together, it’s going to be wonderful.”
D.J. Calhoun: “(I’m) just trying to be a leader, I’m not one of those young guys anymore. 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.”