Eve Craig/SunDevilSource

Spring primer: Arizona State's inside linebackers

Arizona State loses four-year starter Salamo Fiso at inside linebacker, but the Sun Devils hope a healthy Christian Sam will help balance the unit out after the junior essentially missed the entire 2016 season with an ankle injury.

Spring primer: Inside linebackers

Returners (4)

Christian Sam: Injured ankle in season-opener against Northern Arizona and missed the rest of the season

D.J. Calhoun: 77 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, one forced fumble in 2016

Malik Lawal: Three tackles in 2016

Khaylan Thomas: Redshirted in 2016

Mid-year additions (0)

Anticipated fall arrivals (1)

Loren Mondy: Three-star recruit, No. 86 outside linebacker recruit nationally, No. 14 outside linebacker recruit in Texas

What to expect: Entering the 2016 season, Arizona State's coaching staff attempted to devise ways to adapt the team's defensive scheme to allow the Sun Devils to use their three best inside linebackers on the field all at once.

With returning starters Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam set to lead the unit, and D.J. Calhoun back in the fold as well, three of the Sun Devils' most experienced defenders all called the inside linebacker position home.

But with just two true inside linebacker positions, Sam and Will, in ASU's defensive scheme, head coach Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson began working on a strategy that would allow Fiso, Sam and Calhoun to play alongside one another and maximize the Sun Devils' talent at the linebacker level.

Aside from running back, a position group at which ASU returned two of its best offensive players, perhaps no unit entered the 2016 season with higher expectations than the Sun Devils' inside linebackers. 

However, by the end of the first half of ASU's first game of the season, living up to the group's lofty goals essentially became impossible.

Prior to the start of the Sun Devils' season-opener against Northern Arizona, Fiso was ruled out due to academic issues, which meant ASU would take the field with Sam and Calhoun anchoring the unit and the defense's top returning player on the sidelines.

Then, in the second quarter of the Sun Devils' victory over the Lumberjacks, Sam took a blow to the ankle on a brutal low block from a Northern Arizona offensive lineman that wiped out his 2016 season.

Though ASU expressed hope that Sam would return at various points during the 2016 campaign, Sam's comeback never materialized as he spent the entire season rehabilitating what turned out to be a devastating injury. 

By the second half of the Sun Devils' opener, ASU was forced to move Devil backer Alani Latu to Sam and use Calhoun as the full-time Will linebacker, which showcased a shocking lack of depth that would continue to plague the program throughout the season.

While Fiso returned to the lineup in the Sun Devils' conference opener against Cal, the lost time greatly impacted Fiso's motor and energy levels as fatigue became a serious concern for him throughout the month of October.

By the time ASU's downward spiral was in full swing, Fiso had suffered a serious knee injury in the fourth quarter of the Sun Devils' loss to Washington State that kept him out for two more contests and limited his effectiveness in late-season efforts against Washington and Arizona. 

An otherwise outstanding career for Fiso was marred by a disappointing senior campaign that began with ineligibility and ended with him unable to play at full speed. 

With Fiso and Sam out or limited for the vast majority of the 2016 season, ASU was critically unprepared to find replacements coming down the pike, and as a result, the defense suffered. 

A pair of Devil backers, Latu and junior college transfer Koron Crump, wound up helping ASU fill the voids left by Fiso and Sam while Calhoun played on an every down basis despite not being physically capable of doing so at a high level. As a result, opposing offenses had no trouble exposing ASU's lack of depth at the linebacker level, as the unit continued to wear down during the second half of the year.

Entering the spring practice slate in 2017, ASU's inside linebackers have their work cut out for them in order to help spark a defensive turnaround for the Sun Devils.

The primary key for ASU's inside linebacker unit this spring is ensuring that Sam is back to full health and prepared to play at a high level entering the 2017 season. 

Though Sam's ankle injury was just a sprain, he never developed the confidence to train and practice at full speed during his in-season recovery process, and therefore, Sam never returned to the field last season. 

When Sam is healthy, he's one of the best professional prospects on ASU's roster because he carries the frame and bulk seen on NFL inside linebackers while boasting the athleticism to move freely in and around the box.

A natural Will linebacker who might even be able to play Spur against run-oriented opponents and heavier personnel groupings, Sam's versatility is a critical asset for ASU's defensive scheme, especially because the Sun Devils will likely continue to be plagued by depth issues in the coming season.

After finishing second on the team in tackles with 98 in 2015, Sam entered the 2016 campaign with a reputation as one of ASU's most consistent, dependable defensive players. If Sam is able to return to form this spring and prove that a year off hasn't detracted from his skill set, then ASU will get a much-needed, valuable weapon back at the heart of its defense. 

The next building block for ASU to focus on this spring is finding an effective counterpart for Sam at the Sam linebacker position. 

Last season, with ASU rotating various run-stoppers like Fiso and Latu in at the Sam position, it was Calhoun who started at Will for the Sun Devils and wound up leading the team in tackles with 77. 

Because Sam was injured, Calhoun played Will by necessity, even though he's better suited to play Sam or fit into ASU's scheme as a subpackage linebacker.

In 2015, Calhoun was ASU's nickel linebacker, playing primarily as an additional pass rusher in third down and obvious passing situations. In 2016, though, Calhoun took on an expanded role, and one that proved difficult for him to handle.

To this point in his career, Calhoun hasn't demonstrated the mobility or spatial awareness to cover running backs and tight ends in the open field, and hasn't shown the capacity to hold up physically for 75-to-85 plays over the course of a game. Additionally, Calhoun isn't a sure tackler, often attempting to deliver a crushing blow to backs and receivers instead of using proper form and wrapping ball carriers up. As a result of all of his inconsistencies, Calhoun was somewhat of a liability for ASU as a Will and may not be the program's best full-service option at Sam in 2017.

However, because Sam is a more natural Will linebacker than Calhoun and because those are the program's two most experienced inside linebackers, ASU may look at using Calhoun as the starting Sam linebacker this spring anyway. 

Ultimately, ASU must consider starting Sam and Calhoun alongside one another because the Sun Devils have a serious lack of developmental players in their pipeline at inside linebacker. 

Two of the other options ASU will explore this spring and likely give extended looks to are the only two other true inside linebackers on the Sun Devils' depth chart, sophomores Khaylan Thomas and Malik Lawal.

A former four-star recruit, Thomas sat out the 2016 season after undergoing knee surgery in the spring, but should be healthy and ready to play at full speed this spring. With the speed and range to play Will, Thomas also diagnoses plays well and drew praise during his freshman season from Patterson for having a natural feel for the game. 

At 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds, Thomas may not have the bulk needed to play Sam yet, but if he adds weight in ASU's offseason training program and proves he can hold up against the run, the Sun Devils may take a look at using Thomas alongside Sam and playing Calhoun as a third inside linebacker and subpackage defender.

Lawal, meanwhile, won't develop the size to grow into a Sam linebacker, but could contribute at Will or in a subpackage capacity this fall. The most explosive of ASU's inside linebackers, Lawal is also the slightest at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds. 

ASU's coaching staff has raved about Lawal's ability to rush the passer in practice settings, and after last spring, Graham called Lawal a third-down starter for the Sun Devils. Though that role obviously never materialized, probably in large part due to Crump's development as ASU's Devil backer, Lawal does have the speed and explosiveness the Sun Devils felt they were lacking on the defensive side of the ball last season. 

If Lawal fits into ASU's scheme in 2017, it will likely be as a third down pass rusher, as the team's nickel linebacker on passing downs, or potentially as a Will linebacker with Sam sliding over to the Sam linebacker spot. 

Because ASU is considerably short on depth at inside linebacker, the Sun Devils may also be forced to consider moving players from other position groups to add reinforcements.

Crump and Latu are the two most obvious candidates to switch to inside linebacker this season, and their potential moves will likely depend on how effective mid-year enrollee Doug Subtyl is during his transition to the college level. 

A junior college transfer who sat out the 2016 season after failing to academically qualify, Subtyl has the potential to become ASU's first true full-service Devil backer since Carl Bradford, but may also take time to get in shape and get back up to speed.

If Subtyl proves capable of playing on an every down basis, ASU may be best served moving Crump to the Sam linebacker role and playing him alongside Sam on base downs. On obvious passing downs and in nickel situations, ASU could then shift Crump to Devil backer, slide Subtyl to end and use Sam and one of Calhoun, Lawal or Thomas as the Sun Devils' second inside linebacker.

If the Sun Devils feel Subtyl isn't going to be ready to play on an every down basis, then the program may look at sliding Latu back from Devil backer to Sam and using him as a run-stopper on base downs. In this scenario, Crump would stay at Devil to keep a dynamic pass rushing presence in the fold at that position, and ASU would play Latu at Sam and Sam at Will. 

Should the program choose to use Latu extensively at Sam, the Sun Devils would definitely need to use a subpackage personnel grouping to replace him on passing downs, much like they did with Fiso. 

At this point, there's a wide variety of combinations of inside linebackers ASU can evaluate this spring, but there's not a clear-cut personnel grouping that stands out above the rest. 

What the Sun Devils should hope for this spring is that Sam is comfortable in his return from injury and that someone on the team's depth chart forces the coaching staff's hand through their development and progress and carves out a reputation as a reliable, consistent defender ASU can count on heading into the fall.  


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