Arizona State's linebacker depth will anchor defense in 2015


Arizona State defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is confident his defense will take a step forward this season, because at the core of his group he has a four-headed monster.

Well, four players who combine to make the inside linebacker position the deepest and most versatile position on the field for the Sun Devils. Ask him about that group and he can go on for days. Each player has grown in the system and knows the duties of the inside linebacker position, but what makes Patterson’s descriptions so lengthy (and what makes him wax poetic) is that each guy brings something different to the table.

1. Redshirt senior Antonio Longino: He’s tough and experienced, which Patterson likes. When the Sun Devils moved him to inside linebacker last season, Patterson felt as though "it stabilized a lot of things. ... I felt like that solidified our defense, and it ended up getting better and better every week."

2. Redshirt junior Salamo Fiso: He’s solid, the quarterback of the defense. Patterson likes that he’s "a guy who’s not going to make a lot of mistakes, not going to be out of position very often, if at all."

3. Sophomore Christian Sam: He grew up as a defensive back, so he runs like a defensive back but has a body (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) that doesn’t exactly scream defensive back. But when a body like that runs like a smaller, quicker guy, he’s going to be able to light some guys up.

4. Sophomore DJ Calhoun: Patterson says, "he’s like a stick of dynamite" on the defense. A guy who’s up to 218 pounds, but is explosive and powerful like a 250-pounder.

"I’ve got four guys that I feel like I can put on the field at any time and don’t feel like there’s going to be a drop-off at all," Patterson said. "They all bring something so unique. They’re all very, very different styles of players."

The beauty for ASU in having this kind of depth and diversity at inside linebacker as opposed to any other position is that the Sun Devils have more of an ability to affect every facet of an opposing offense on every snap -- impacting the quarterback (which in turn, impacts the pass game), stopping the run, being involved in pass coverage and getting play calls out between the front seven and the secondary.

That’s the importance of the inside linebacker every year at ASU, but what makes this year different for Patterson is that he believes he has a core group of guys who will excel in those categories while also helping to fix the Achilles' heel of this defense from 2014 -- big plays.

Last season Arizona State gave up 72 plays of 20-plus yards, which was not only tied for the worst in the conference (with Colorado), but also ranked 111th nationally.

But even with 72 of those plays, Patterson believes three were the most important. He looks to two explosive runs against Oregon State and one against Arizona as the three plays that shut down ASU’s hopes of playing in the Pac-12 title game.

Now, Patterson has put this onus on the shoulders of his inside linebackers. They are the ones who need to impact every facet of the game and stop these plays that hurt ASU so often last season.

"I challenged those guys that it’s their responsibility to not allow that to happen one time," Patterson said.

Through the spring Patterson felt good about this group, and he knows that with how competitive each one of them is, they will return in the fall even better. Patterson said he doesn’t need to be with them to know they’re working, not only to make the defense better, but to make themselves better, knowing that snaps are going to be limited -- especially with a field of inside linebackers so deep.

"I think each and every day they know, 'If I let my guard down and I want to go take a couple of days off here, and not bring it,' you could easily be sitting there, watching someone else play," Patterson said. "I think that internal motivation, I think it creates a great environment for the competition."