Linebacker injuries provide ASU defense with complex challenge

Injuries to linebackers Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam have severely limited Arizona State's defensive depth and put the team's defense in compromised positions.

In the first quarter of Arizona State's first game of the season, junior linebacker Christian Sam suffered an ankle injury that left the Sun Devils short-handed on defense.

With senior linebacker Salamo Fiso serving the first game of a three-game suspension, the Sun Devils' linebacker unit, which was expected to be a team strength at the beginning of the season, immediately turned into a glaring weakness.

While Fiso returned in time to help ASU notch a victory over Cal to open Pac-12 Conference play, Sam has yet to return this season, as the severity of his injury has prevented him from even taking practice reps since September. 

With Fiso and junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun on the field together in the middle of ASU's defense, the Sun Devils had two proven playmakers, but lacked the requisite depth to contend against up-tempo offenses like Colorado and Washington State. 

Regardless, with Sam out, ASU needed Fiso and Calhoun to take the lion's share of the reps at inside linebacker, but unfortunately for the Sun Devils, the combination was short-lived. 

In the fourth quarter of ASU's 37-32 loss against Washington State, Fiso suffered a knee injury that kept him out of the Sun Devils' recent contests against Oregon and Utah and could force him to miss Saturday's matchup with Washington. 

ASU head coach Todd Graham has shied away from using injuries as an excuse during the Sun Devils' current four-game losing streak, but on Tuesday, Graham said the inconsistent availability of key defensive players like Fiso has hindered ASU's ability to communicate effectively on the field. 

"But when you have Salamo out, you have Christian (Sam) out, that's a lot of guys there that are key, especially Salamo and how he communicates," Graham said. "But he's going to graduate so we've got to have someone else do that. What hurts is all the reps, it's just like the deal with the quarterback, it's not just him playing, it's being able to get practice time and reps and all of those things and when you're playing against really good people it makes it difficult. But the key is practice."

With Fiso and Sam unable to practice and play for much of the season, ASU has used senior linebacker Carlos Mendoza, junior Devilbacker Alani Latu and junior pass-rusher Koron Crump at inside linebacker this year in an attempt to find replacements for a unit lacking key depth. 

While ASU has relied on a rotation of players at inside linebacker to try and offset Fiso and Sam's injuries, Graham has called upon senior Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola to replace Fiso as the Sun Devils' primary defensive communicator.

Moeakiola has long been lauded by Graham as one of ASU's sharpest and smartest defensive minds, and this season, Moeakiola's transition from Bandit safety back to Spur linebacker has helped the Sun Devils find a rare glimmer of stability at one of their most important defensive positions.

"One guy I want to mention who's just been incredible this year is Laiu (Moeakiola) and he's just trying to communicate what Salamo usually communicates and we've got two guys playing linebacker that are both Devils (Devil backers)," Graham said. "There are just so many reps that you lose and all of that, but that's the nature of it."

With less than three months to go until National Signing Day, ASU is still exploring various recruiting options in the hopes of landing high-caliber players who can begin to shore up the team's depth issue at inside linebacker. With Fiso and Mendoza set to graduate, the Sun Devils will have Calhoun and Sam back, but will again be forced to start the season with an unproven group behind its top players.

One depth option ASU is hoping to count on in 2017 is sophomore linebacker Khaylan Thomas, who is recovering from a knee injury and entered the season as a candidate to redshirt. Thomas has yet to play this season, and Graham said the Sun Devils believed it was in both the program's and Thomas' best interest that he sit out the entire season to ensure he starts next season completely healthy.

"Khaylan Thomas is going to be a great player, but we wanted to redshirt him and we think for him and for us it's the best thing because he wasn't healthy most of the year," Graham said.

While little has gone right for the Sun Devils in the way of injuries this season, ASU is hoping Fiso can return from his knee injury either this Saturday against Washington or next Friday against Arizona to boost the team's chances of securing an ever-important sixth victory in their quest for bowl eligibility.

News and notes

  • Sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins had his ankles heavily taped and warmed up with the rest of ASU's quarterbacks. Wilkins led the first team offense during an 11-on-air tempo drill.
  • Sophomore left guard Sam Jones wore cleats to practice Tuesday, but was still in the injury line during warmups and went to Muscle Beach after warmups.
  • Redshirt freshman defensive tackle George Lea wore a brace on his right knee and didn't participate in individual or team drills, instead heading to Muscle Beach after warmups.
  • Fiso wore a brace on his left knee and had his left knee heavily taped. Fiso went through practice normally in individual drills, but no team defensive periods were open to the media.
  • Sophomore wide receiver Jalen Harvey had his right ankle taped and was limited in position drills and did not go through team periods on Tuesday.
  • Junior defensive lineman Christian Hill warmed up in the injury line after sitting out of Thursday's game against Utah.
  • Junior offensive lineman Stephon McCray wore a green non-contact jersey and warmed up in the injury line, but did practice normally in position drills and then worked with the second team offense at left guard during the 11-on-air tempo period. 

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