The release by Arizona State of its first game week depth chart brought confusion to some dedicated fans for an apparent defensive incongruity.
Practice reports in the week-and-a-half or so leading up to the release indicated sophomore Tyler Whiley as the projected starting Spur. But then Monday came and Whiley was listed third on the official depth chart at the position, behind juniors Christian Sam and Marcus Ball.
Wait a second, Christian Sam is a Spur and Whiley is running third?
Not exactly. Let us explain.
The "attacking, hybrid" Sun Devil defense is becoming even more multiple this season, and in the explanation of that is a better understanding of what ASU coaches Todd Graham and Keith Patterson are doing with their personnel and scheme, and why.
It's best to think of the Spur position as a flex option in the ASU hybrid scheme.
The Sun Devils are likely to utilize that position as more of a true linebacker against certain opponents this season. Offenses like Stanford, Utah, USC and UCLA require more of a physical presence at Spur to combat their heavier personnel groupings and play tendencies. Internally, ASU isn't even calling this position Spur when it is used against these types of offenses.
This is where Sam is an asset. At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds he is a rangy athlete and has position versatility. He started out at Spur at ASU because he was a defensive back in high school, but has continued to physically mature into an inside linebacker. When he's on the field at "Spur," as listed by the Sun Devils on the depth chart, the defense is actually operating with four linebackers: SAM, MIKE and WILL in addition to the dedicated pass rusher known as the Devil backer. It's really a 4-3 when the Devil backer is playing from a 3-point stance -- such as it will when Joseph Wicker is at the position -- and a 3-4 when the Devil backer is in a 2-point stance like with juniors Alani Latu and Koron Crump.
There's never been a MIKE -- or middle -- 'backer in the ASU scheme under Graham until now. The coaches have wanted to keep some of their plans under wraps this off-season and their depth chart only vaguely hints at some of the new wrinkles that may be unveiled beginning Saturday against Northern Arizona . But he and Patterson wanted to figure out a way to combat the heavier personnel groupings that some teams use in the Pac-12. They also wanted to figure out how they could get Sam on the field along with senior starter Salamo Fiso and junior D.J. Calhoun at the same time.
In his first two seasons at ASU the 230-plus pound Calhoun has primarily played on nickel downs only. But he's evolved into too good of a player to always be on the bench on first and second down for the Sun Devils and Patterson has said this plainly. Certainly, he's one of the best 11 defensive players on the roster.
So, against some of the aforementioned opponents the Sun Devils are making Fiso a MIKE 'backer, playing Calhoun at the WILL position and using Sam at the flex position that is labeled as a Spur on the ASU depth chart, but functions more as a SAM 'backer in some regards. As Sam explained it following a recent ASU practice, the position has some of the traditional Spur responsibilities but also will play more in the box depending on what formations are shown by the opponent.
When Graham said during Monday's ASU press conference that he views Ball as more of a SAM linebacker than a true Spur, he revealed all of this even more clearly. Ball is listed at Spur along with Sam atop the depth chart. But Graham doesn't even consider Ball a Spur. The reconciliation of this is that Sam and Ball are linebackers when they're on the field at the position, and it's really just a "Spur" as conveyed externally.
Whiley has also worked with the first-team defense on base downs, but when he's out there with the starters the flex position is operating as more of a true Spur in the way most fans have come to understand the position. This is more of a 4-2-5 look -- or 3-3-5 if the Devil backer is operating in a 2-point stance -- with the Spur as more of a "strong safety" as Graham has identified the position at times.
Senior Laiu Moeakiola, started his college career at field safety and migrated to Spur, where he's started the last two seasons. This year he's projected to play Bandit (boundary) safety. When Moeakiola's been on the field for the Sun Devils at Spur the defense has really had five defensive backs on the field including the Spur being a strong-safety type player. That player is just ideally able to also be physical in the alley against the run, and be able to blitz with potency in addition to having coverage skills.
That's what ASU coaches are hoping to get from Whiley, or maybe sophomore Coltin Gerhart, a hybrid safety listed below Whiley on the depth chart.
The Sun Devils will likely play one of these players at Spur when they're facing spread teams that like to run the football outside the tackle box, have more mobile quarterbacks by design, and stretch the field more laterally along the line of scrimmage as a philosophy. These are the teams like Arizona and Oregon. They're offenses in between the Stanford and Utah type pro-style teams, and the pass heavy and more pocket-oriented Air Raid teams like Washington State, Texas Tech and to a large degree Cal.
Against those pass heavy teams ASU's tended to play in a nickel personnel grouping on base downs, with a true cornerback replacing the Spur on the field. This is because the Sun Devils need a coverage player operating against the four wide receiver sets that predominate the types of offenses that rarely use tight ends and operate out of a lot of single back sets.
We can have reasonable confidence that ASU will have a good run defense with Sam or even Ball on the field in the heavier personnel grouping and SAM, MIKE and WILL alignments. A question is how much of a trade off is made against the pass on base downs as a result of this approach? Another unknown is how well the Sun Devils will do with Whiley or Gerhart or someone else who has been to this point completely untested in the Spur role, and whether that shapes what Graham and Patterson elect to do structurally against the offensively more ambiguous teams in the league.
It's also possible that ASU decides to move Moeakiola between Bandit and Spur based on opponent type, particularly if the other traditional Spur options are not as well as hoped.
Keith Patterson: "We’re really a culmination of everything that we’ve been since 1995. 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."
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," Patterson said. "We've got a lot of guys that I think can play and perform well there (at Spur)."
Christian Sam: "For the coaches [to get Sam, Calhoun and Fiso] on the field (together) it's good for the team. It's probably something new for me. I kind of did it my freshman year, kind of like a Spur. As a team it's a good thing to get all three of us on the field together so I see what they're doing. So it's like a Spur but still a linebacker in the box. It really depends on their formation, I can't really get in depth with you. It depends on the offensive formation where I'm lining up."
Tyler Whiley: "It (Spur) gives me a chance to be involved in the run, and also the pass. I feel like I’m a bigger type of DB, so it feels good to be in the run a little bit. I can cover as well, so I think it helps.”
Todd Graham: "He (Whiley) just really came back a different guy. It just sometimes takes kids a little bit to mature and he's really matured mentally, and I think physically he's developed himself. He's faster, and it means something, he wants to play. He's been one of the bright spots of this camp. A guy that has turned it around and still has a lot of work to do. But a guy that I'm really proud of and have a lot of confidence right now."
Marcus Ball: "The versatility helps with being an athlete. The versatility helps me play the safety spot, the Spur spot, anywhere they need me. That's something God has blessed me with, the versatility, some talent to play both and do what I do. It's key that you bring a positive attitude, a positive outlook and be a selfless player because it takes a bunch of guys who are selfless to really come together to try to win a national championship."