Arizona State linebackers D.J. Calhoun and Christian Sam are set to be a vital part of the Sun Devils' 2017 defense — not only because of their veteran experience, but their newly established communication duties.
With new ASU defensive coordinator Phil Bennett in charge this year, the linebackers on the field are tasked with not only calling out adjustments and checks to each other, but to the players up front.
“In our system now, guys go through a pre-snap thought progression,” ASU inside linebackers coach Keith Patterson said. “(They are) identifying backfield sets, identifying formation structures and then getting all the communication so they got to be into it to get the call quick and go through a pre-snap thought process, which to me, allows you to play and make plays. Knowing how offenses are going to attack you in certain formation structures, backfield sets, the adjustments are sound and simple.”
Patterson said he likes the change in player responsibilities because it “creates ownership” for the players and it challenges his players to raise their level of preparation when it comes to game day.
“You can’t just know what your assignment is,” Patterson said. “You have to know the whole scheme. What’s happening in front of you, what’s happening with the linebacker inside of you, outside of you and along with the coverage responsibilities. I think it’s been great. I think it has brought in a lot of energy with all of our kids, putting a lot of their shoulders.”
Sam said that overall, the scheme is more player-based, allowing linebackers to read and react. Last year, the players were scrambling on defense trying to get lined up properly with the multiple adjustment calls coming from coaches before the snap, but that's not the case anymore.
“(Now) we get the play and move around based on how the offense comes out,” Sam said. “I feel like that helps us get lined up quicker.
“Coach Bennett said it like that like I told you. Players are going to make the plays and it’s going to be on us instead of the coaches so I feel like it’s good.”
At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, Sam is currently the Will linebacker in Bennett’s scheme, with Calhoun, at 6-foot, 229 pounds, playing in the Mike linebacker role. Sam said the Will will mostly line up to the boundary, but will change depending on offensive formations. Last year, Calhoun started at Will for the Sun Devils and ended up leading the team in tackles with 77.
“Obviously D.J., this being his last year, Christian's still got two, but they get a little more older and more mature and understand they have to take a different approach,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “I think both have matured.”
Sam and Calhoun will be the leaders of an ASU defense that has to fill the void left by multi-year starter Salamo Fiso, who ASU lost to graduation.
“I feel Calhoun and Sam they are what you expect because of their experience they have,” Patterson said. “Just learning a new language and a new system has been good for them. I think D.J. has had his most consistent spring of any spring I’ve been here. Christian, to me, he has a very high ceiling so therefore the expectations are very high for him so we hold him to a high standard. I see him working more consistently to improve.”
Last year, the Sun Devils were without Sam, who injured his ankle in season-opener against Northern Arizona and missed the rest of the season. He said he’s never missed a full year of football and it obviously made for a “bad year.”
Prior to Sam’s injury, he was headed into the 2016 season coming off a campaign in which he finished second on the team in tackles with 98 in 2015.
But this spring, Sam is trying to get back into the swing of things. Sam said the defense is new for everybody, but calls it a “fresh start.”
“It’s a fresh start for everybody,” Sam said. “I feel like I have to come back and come back stronger than I was last year than I thought I was last year and help the team out.”
While doing rehab on his ankle and getting back into shape, part of Sam’s training process included a more relaxed approach.
“I’m in yoga,” Sam said. “I’ve been in yoga for about two years now. I do yoga, I eat right. I eat real healthy, I probably only have one cheat day. Most of my meals are cooked by me so I have just learned if you take care of your body, it will take care of you.
“My trainer back home always told us you know I work out with a couple NFL players and they always tell you, flexibility is key. The more flexible you are, the lower risk of injury so I just try to do yoga three times a week, maybe four in this offseason.”
Sam started doing yoga during the summer before his sophomore season.
“My body feels light,” Sam said. “I had the freak accident last year, but other than that injuries don’t really come like that. I feel like it’s helped me a lot. I’m more flexible, more loose, I can move better. Hips are looser. Everything just feels, you can get into positions you didn't think you could get into before.”
“(Khaylan) Thomas and Malik Lawal and Deion Guignard, we need those guys to step up,” Patterson said. “I thought today (Wednesday) for the first time since spring ball I thought I saw some improvement and consistency out of that group so I think they have to raise their level of performance and their expectation of themselves.”
Thomas, a former four-star recruit, sat out the 2016 season after undergoing knee surgery last spring. At 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds, Thomas has been taking reps with the second team on defense.
Guignard, 6-foot-3, 197 pounds, is a junior college transfer who didn’t play any snaps on defense for the Sun Devils last year, but contributed on special teams.
Lawal, 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, was tabbed by Graham to be a third-down starter for ASU, but with the emergence of then-junior linebacker Koron Crump, Lawal took a back seat.
“One of the things, when you are a returning starter, you, we talk about every position is up for battle and it’s up for competition,” Graham said. “I think competition makes you better. I think the guys behind them, Deion Guignard has had a great spring. Khaylan Thomas made some great plays today so I think as you get more competition it pushes guys to get better.”
This spring, Lawal had been practicing with both the inside linebackers and the Devil linebackers during breakout sessions in practice. Patterson said he recruited Lawal to be an inside linebacker.
“When I recruited him that was my intention the whole time,” Patterson said. “You know losing some personnel a couple years ago kind of forced us to move him up to the line of scrimmage and so he really hasn’t had the repetition that he probably needs at this point. But he’s a team guy and is doing what is expected of him and to me, he’s got it. We just got to get him more quality repetitions in there to develop. It’s just a couple different vision. Your keys are different so he just needs more repetitions, but he can do it.”
Lawal said his coaches want him to play at the Mike linebacker position, but he's been switching around this spring and working at Mike, Spur and Devil.
“They want me in my preferred position right now to be Mike and develop as a Mike, but since we have all these injuries going around, along with guys like Deion (Guignard), we’re some of the smarter backers, so they want us to be be able to know all of the positions,” Lawal said.
Lawal said Bennett’s defensive mindset has allowed him to be on the same page with all of the linebackers on the field.
“The Devil and the Spur and the inside linebackers, we’re all thinking on the same page,” Lawal said. “It was different last year, everybody was doing their individual mindset and that type of a thing, but now I’ll talk to Khaylan Thomas, I already know what you’re doing, you know what I’m doing, let’s go.”