Through the first two games of the season, Arizona State played without one of its key defensive communicators, senior linebacker Salamo Fiso, and with limited use of another critical defensive asset, senior bandit safety Laiu Moeakiola. Head coach Todd Graham spoke about both players in his weekly press conference on Monday.
Fiso was suspended due to disciplinary reasons, while Moeakiola has been battling a hamstring injury since the early days of fall camp. Graham also used Monday's press conference as an opportunity to update the statuses of junior linebacker Christian Sam, who missed Saturday’s game due to an ankle injury and sophomore tight end JayJay Wilson, who was suspended for a team rules violations.
“We don’t have Laiu (Moeakiola) back full speed, yet,” Graham said. “He played sparingly in the game. So, that would help to get him back. Obviously, we’re going to get Christian (Sam) back, Jay Jay Wilson will be back this week. So, Salamo will not. We’re hoping to have him back by conference.”
Graham touched on how ASU’s defense suffered multiple coverage breakdowns against Texas Tech in the Sun Devils’ 68-55 victory, and suggested a healthy Moeakiola should make a difference for ASU moving forward.
“It helps tremendously,” Graham said of Moeakiola. “No one’s asked me that question. I mean, you know, Salamo Fiso is really, really important to our system and what we’re doing. We have critical errors that happened due to miscommunications. That’s been tough. Not having him and not having Laiu full strength, that’s our two most experienced communicators.
Last season, Moeakiola and Fiso combined for 130 tackles at Spur and Sam linebacker, respectively. Though ASU has been challenged by Fiso’s absence and Moeakiola’s limited impact, Graham highlighted the efforts of their replacements, particularly Alani (A.J.) Latu, who have stepped up and helped ASU to a 2-0 start.
Latu played three different positions in three different looks for the Sun Devils against Texas Tech, which showed off his versatility. Without being prompted during his Monday press conference, Graham acknowledged how important Latu’s presence was for ASU against the Red Raiders.
“One of the guys that I want to point out that to me epitomizes what we’re all about is A.J. Latu,” Graham said. “A.J. played nose tackle in our nickel package, played Devil backer in base, and then on run downs played Sam linebacker. Played all three positions, because the injuries that had us a little depleted, and that was a challenge.”
On Saturday, Moeakiola split reps at Spur with junior Marcus Ball and sophomore Tyler Whiley. Playing in that position requires Moeakiola to cover less area than if he was playing bandit safety, where ASU hopes to use him in the future.
With Moeakiola still not fully recovered from his hamstring injury, Graham said ASU has been cautious and taken a conservative approach to help keep him fresh.
“We’re also trying to be very smart, too, because, you know, all these games are important, but conference play is the most important thing,” Graham said. “We want to make sure we’re smart and we get him back healthy before we put too much on him.”
News and Notes
- Graham said ASU’s defense gave up 28 points to the Red Raiders due to misalignments and blown coverages in the secondary. He believes without those mistakes, ASU should have won by three or four touchdowns.
- Graham singled out a handful of offensive players from Saturday’s victory including senior tight end Kody Kohl, who had his best blocking game in his college career, junior running back Kalen Ballage, sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins and offensive linemen Quinn Bailey, Stephon McCray and A.J. McCollum.
- McCollum’s added physicality along the offensive line was something that stood out to Graham, who said the potential for that group is extremely high. The overall depth and competition on the line excites Graham.
- Heading into Friday’s game against UTSA, Graham spoke on how this trip is big for ASU in the state of Texas, recruiting-wise. Texas is ASU’s third largest alumni base. Outside of Arizona and California, this is Graham’s next highest-priority. “It’s hard to recruit a place you don’t play,” Graham said. “Get great support when we go there. Need all of Texas alumni to come out in force. It’s important for us to play there because of that. That’s the number one priority, outside of the base area, that’s a significant place to recruit.”
- Graham said Wilkins’ playmaking ability as a runner adds an extra element to ASU’s offense, and he was inspired by Wilkins’ hurdle. “I like the edge he plays with, when he does,” Graham said. “This is a quarterback that gets next to the edge and puts the throttle down. I like that, he needs to be smart, too. It impacts our players, our guys like his mentality. We want to be smart, but I like that he’s not scared to get hit. He’s a guy that can hurt you with his legs and make good decisions. We want him to be smart, just being honest, I like that play (hurdling a defender in open space)."