After battling injury issues throughout fall camp and into the season, Arizona State’s defense is moving closer toward full strength headed into conference play.
Aside from missing key players with injuries, the Sun Devils were also without senior Sam linebacker Salamo Fiso, who was suspended for the team's first three games for disciplinary reasons.
Fiso's three-game absence is the first block of extended time he's missed during his collegiate career, which could account for rust during Saturday's game. Still, Graham expects the veteran leader to have no problem transitioning back into the starting lineup.
“Sure, there will be (rust)," Graham said. "It will be kind of like his first game, but he’s also a veteran. Glad to have him back.”
So far, ASU has yet to play with a full compliment of defensive players. Senior Laiu Moeakiola missed time with a hamstring injury, junior Christian Sam has been held out with an ankle injury and redshirt freshman defensive tackle George Lea sat out against UTSA with a lower body injury.
The Sun Devils were also without the services of Viliami Latu for the Northern Arizona opener due to a disciplinary suspension.
Even though the Sun Devils are not completely healthy, having key players back on three different levels of the defense heading into Pac-12 play is a start. Graham did not mention Sam’s status, so it will be monitored throughout the week.
“I think we’ll almost be back to full strength, as far as not having anybody out,” Graham said. “We’ve still got a couple of guys that need to heal up, but we’ll definitely have Salamo (Fiso) back and Tim White, so that will help us. I think Zach (Robertson) will be back and I think Georga (Lea) will be back on defense, so that’s going to help us.”
Heading into this season, Moeakiola was expected to play at safety, but after junior Marcus Ball struggled at Spur linebacker against UTSA, ASU's coaches inserted Moeakiola into the lineup at Spur.
In 11 games last season, Moeakiola totaled 51 tackles with 6.5 for loss and two sacks at Spur.
Against Texas Tech, Moeakiola split reps at Spur with Marcus Ball and sophomore Tyler Whiley, but on Friday against UTSA, he finished the game with the first team defense playing the vast majority of his reps at Spur.
“Yeah, it stabilizes us I think,” Graham said. “We’re still talking about that. Obviously he’ll do whatever we need him to do. He hadn’t practiced any at Spur, he just went over and played it. Pretty good likelihood that’s probably how it goes.”
The return of key defensive players like Fiso and Moeakiola comes at the perfect time for ASU, as the Sun Devils head into their conference schedule looking to remain undefeated this week.
“I’m not looking at anything past Cal,” Graham said. “We’re just trying to be 1-0.”
News and Notes
- Prior to the season, the only freshman to score in his first three games at ASU was D.J. Foster, but wide receiver N'Keal Harry tied that mark following his five-catch, 78-yard performance against UTSA. Harry now has 15 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns, alongside a 34-yard rushing score against NAU. Graham mentioned wide receivers' coach Jay Norvell for playing a pivotal role in Harry’s development so far. “He’s (Harry) really doing a good job for us,” Graham said. “He’s continuing to get better. I think he’s staying very humble, very hungry. I mean, obviously, he’s a very gifted young man. I think Coach Norvell is doing a good job at developing him, and he’s definitely a threat for us and a guy not only getting it done catching the football, but he’s does a great job blocking. He’s learning. He’s getting better at everything he’s doing. He’s a playmaker for us."
- Another player Graham continues to talk about is junior center A.J. McCollum. McCollum, a junior college transfer who entered the starting lineup against Texas Tech has brought a physicality that Graham loves. “I tell him he’s an old school center,” Graham said. “He’s just the old, just tough, blood and guts kind of guy. I like the guy. He really just brings a lot of physicality in the run game. He’s a guy that really likes coming off the football and blocking people."
- Graham mentioned he wants sophomore Manny Wilkins to do a better job protecting himself on the run, especially after suffering a hard hit on a first half rush. “That was a really, really hard hit. It was right in front of me. He really took a very difficult hit there. He showed great courage, great leadership facing that kind of adversity.”