Sale's fire, passion driving ASU offensive line

First-year Arizona State offensive line coach Rob Sale brings intensity and fire to the practice field on a daily basis, and so far this spring, the Sun Devils' linemen are responding.

The 350 miles separating Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama aren't linked by much more than Interstate 59 and bad blood, but they do share a few commonalities.

The stadiums are home to a pair of the SEC's most prominent programs, LSU and Alabama, and they're both stadiums Arizona State offensive line coach Rob Sale spent the formative years of his football career.

A three-year starter for the Tigers in the early 2000s, Sale overcame an undersized frame to become a key contributor at both center and guard under then-head coach Nick Saban. 

Sale's coaching philosophy was undeniably shaped by Saban's presence, as he not only played for one of the most successful head coaches in college football history, but coached under him as well, making the trek up I-59 North in 2007 to join Saban's Crimson Tide staff as a strength coach.

During a five-year stint at Alabama in which Sale worked his way up to holding an offensive analyst title, he learned the ins and outs of coaching offensive line from Joe Pendry, a 41-year coaching veteran who spent the final four seasons of his career leading the Crimson Tide's offensive line. 

"No. 1 is Joe Pendry, I was at Alabama the first four years, he was the offensive line coach and I was the quality control, worked with the offensive line and basically assistant offensive line coach and he is by far, to me, the best teacher," Sale said. "The way he has the remote in his hands and he can explain it, and teach it. We're coaches, yes we are, but we're teachers first so they can apply the information you give them."

Pendry spent 10 seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator and six additional seasons as an offensive line coach at the game's highest level, but the imprint he left on Sale while working in the college sphere forever shaped Sale's philosophy and style. 

After five seasons serving as an offensive line coach at McNeese State, Georgia and Louisiana-Monroe, Sale has made his way west, reuniting with another coach who worked as an offensive analyst for Alabama back in 2011, the Sun Devils' new offensive coordinator Billy Napier. 

ASU head coach Todd Graham hired Napier away from Alabama in late January, and less than two weeks later, the pair was tasked with replacing recently hired offensive line coach Josh Henson, who left the Sun Devils after a three-week tenure to return to his alma mater, Oklahoma State. 

Though the unexpected departure created a challenging situation for the Sun Devils, it did allow Napier to fill out his offensive staff with a coach he at least had a significant level of familiarity with. 

"Obviously, his (Sale) relationship with Billy is the No. 1 reason why we brought him here because with that opportunity, I wanted to get somebody that Billy was really, really comfortable with and on the same hand, he had to fit what the profile for what we were wanting and I've been very, very impressed with him and his demeanor and his ability as a teacher," Graham said.

While Sale spent his playing days at an SEC powerhouse and the early part of his coaching career working under two legends, Saban and Pendry, his resume isn't the only factor that helped him land the ASU job.

After former offensive line coach Chris Thomsen departed the Sun Devils following a four-year stint to return to his alma mater, Texas Christian, this offseason, Graham wanted to find a coach who possessed more energy and fire. Though Graham has a tremendous amount of respect for Thomsen's coaching style, he wanted to find an assistant who inspired more passion in his players, and he and Napier worked to bring in a fiery personality in Sale.

"Obviously you know Chris (Thomsen) was such a special coach and person to me," Graham said. "But Rob (Sale) is a guy, when Chris left, that's one of the things, we really wanted to focus on someone, from a profile standpoint, I wanted someone to really add some energy and some edge and trying to improve upon what we had. And I thought we had a great teacher in Chris."

Though Sale only boasts two seasons of experience coaching offensive lines at the FBS level, one at Georgia and one at Louisiana-Monroe, Graham said the three years Sale spent at McNeese State after leaving Alabama are part of the reason why he considered him such a qualified candidate.

During Sale's time with the Cowboys, McNeese State won 23 games and nearly pulled off one of the greatest upsets of the college football season in 2014 before falling 31-24 in a memorable battle with the 19th-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers. In that game, the Cowboys completed fewer than 50 percent of their passes, but Sale's offensive line helped keep McNeese State in the game as the unit helped eight different ball carriers combine for 45 carries and 178 yards on the ground.

"I wanted a guy that really fit the blue-collar, hard core discipline, a guy that you look at his background," Graham said. "Being a player at LSU, you look at his size, undersized guy starting at LSU for two or three years. Obviously his background being in really good programs for two or three years, I was so impressed with him at McNeese State, how well they ran the football when they would play Auburn and people like that."

On the field 

Though the task of turning around ASU's offensive line won't be easy, Sale wasted little time getting to work, earning a reputation as one of the Sun Devils' most detail-oriented coaches from the earliest days of spring practices.

A season after the Sun Devils finished 10th in the conference in rushing yards per game and dead last in sacks allowed, Sale takes over a unit with only one player, junior tackle Quinn Bailey, who has started more than 10 games in his ASU career.

To help ignite change, Sale has harped on the details from the moment the spring began, helping his linemen understand the big picture of what ASU is attempting to accomplish offensively while giving his players the tools to see what they need to improve upon to perform at a higher level. 

"He's (Sale) definitely brought a lot more detail, we're more detail-oriented, we have a lot more small, minute things that we've got to focus on and remember, especially as far as fronts go, linebacker depth, linebacker alignment and stuff like that," sophomore guard Steve Miller said. "You've just got to focus, DBs rotation, safety rotation, we just have a lot more tools to work with and we have to be more understanding of the details of the game so we can perform better."

But to understand Sale's coaching points isn't enough to understand what Sale is like as a coach. As junior guard Sam Jones puts it, there's something different about the Louisiana native's demeanor. 

"Obviously coming from down south, just a little bit different, a little bit more fiery, but it's good for us, we need it," Jones said. "He's a really good dude."

From the instant the Sun Devils' linemen break out into individual drills, Sale is delivering coaching points, whether it be correcting a player's stance, tweaking a lineman's footwork, or asking a walk-on simulating a defender's positioning to adjust his stance and give his offense a better look. 

While the precise nature Sale expects his drills to be conducted in is impressive to watch, it's the manner and speed with which he operates the drills that could help expedite his linemen's improvement. As the Sun Devils' linemen work through their drills each practice, they're doing so with a quicker tempo and taking their coaching points on the fly as opposed to stopping and waiting for eye-to-eye instruction.

Sale's particular style forces him to yell more frequently to get his point across, but it also allows the next group of players participating in a given drill to take action and correct potential mistakes before they even happen. 

"They've been fine with it (yelling), as long as it's consistent, as long as it's fair, as long as they know where it's coming from and as long as you as a coach define your expectations in day one meetings and every single day," Sale said. "You can't just come out onto that field, they understand that I'm trying to make them better and you can't take hard coaching personally. I love them just like my son off the field and I think if you do that and you understand and you explain to them in detail where you're coming from, the kids are okay."

Through the first two-thirds of ASU's spring practice slate, the Sun Devils' linemen have also had the opportunity to work more closely with Sale, because he's not overseeing the entire group at all times. Graduate assistant Sam Bennett and offensive analyst Josh Martin are deeply involved with the way ASU's drills are orchestrated, and this allows Sale to focus on each side of his offensive line at once. 

During most of ASU's practices, the Sun Devils will split the left side of the line from the right, and have one group working with Sale and one with Bennett before the units come together. Sale swaps his group with Bennett's as the drill is conducted so he can offer personal coaching points and get a closer look at each player, and because of the rapid-fire nature of his drills, ASU's linemen are likely taking far more reps in skill development periods than they have in the past. 

The goal at this point for Sale is to create more depth behind the six-to-seven players who are competing for starting spots, because as ASU learned last season, injury issues can tear at the seams of an offensive line in a hurry.

"To me there's no excuses," Sale said. "We've got athletic guys, we've got guys that to me, what's exciting, it's important to them. When we talk about band of brothers, I think we've got six or seven guys that can play and you're always trying to develop. I don't care if you're at ASU, U of A, USC, Alabama, we've all got the same problems. We're all trying to create and develop depth."

Throughout the spring, ASU's linemen have become accustomed to Sale's barking, but at this point, the players seem to have reached a consensus that they understand Sale's chief initiative. 

"It kind of brings out an inner fire," sophomore tackle Cohl Cabral said. "He (Sale) really motivates you to just kind of play angry almost. Play with a little bit of an edge, but at the same time, he's there to push you to be your best. Even though he's yelling at you, you have to be able to hear what he's yelling and get stuff out of it." 

For an assistant who played at LSU, worked under Saban and Pendry at Alabama and even spent time coaching at another SEC school, Georgia, Sale understands how the game is played --and taught-- in an area of the country that traditionally produces a slew of NFL-caliber talent along offensive lines. 

Now, Sale is hoping to transition that style from the South to the Southwest, and so far, ASU's players have proven they're up to the challenge and willing to work hard. 

"When I first met him, I had a feeling, you know?" Miller said. "There's certain people, you get that vibe and he's got that hard-edge vibe. He wants us to work hard, but he'll take care of us off the field. He's a great coach and a great person."

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