ASU Football: Linebacker Competition Heats Up, Viliami Latu Shines

Which Sun Devils will be swarming to the football this season? - Ezra Shaw

With so many capable players competing for three starting spots, how is the linebacking core taking shape?

Depth is far from an issue for Todd Graham at the linebacker position, but getting the most of out that depth seems to be quite the predicament for the Sun Devil football coach.

On Saturday morning, Graham acknowledged the Sun Devils have a remarkable stable of capable players at linebacker. But Graham isn't looking for capable, he's looking for dominant and he has yet to find the magical combination.

"We've got a lot of depth right now at linebacker, I just need somebody to step up there with Chris Young," Graham said. "We've got a lot of 2's, I just need some more 1's."

So far, Steffon Martin is the man Graham has the most confidence in, as Martin contributed 27 tackles and played in all 13 games last season. Martin appears to have a stronghold on the Sam linebacker spot, but only Young appears to be locked into a starting role.

"He's (Steffon) a really strong character player, he has to be technically sound," Graham said. "Obviously he's athletic, but he's not like Chris is and so he can't take false steps and he has to do things the right way."

Martin has practiced with the first team defense throughout the offseason, but Graham indicates he would like to see more out of the Junior College transfer and plenty of newcomers are pushing him for his spot.

Two freshmen who have caught Graham's eye? The Latu twins, A.J. and Viliami.

"The Latu brothers, I would not be surprised five weeks into this thing if those guys are in the lineup," Graham said. "Especially Ami (Viliami), I think Ami's a little bit ahead of A.J. Very athletic, Ami's an inside guy, A.J.'s an outside guy, those guys have been very impressive."

With Viliami Latu excelling in practice, Graham sees him potentially fitting into the lineup at Sam. That means Martin will have to fight to keep his spot, because Graham doesn't appear to have any intentions of redshirting the true freshman.

"I think Ami's a Sam," Graham said. "Ami is just a physically tough kid and he does not have any freshman on him at all. He will go in there and mix it up. He's a guy that I really think has a lot of promise."

Chris Young's Role

Young is the only linebacker virtually assured of keeping his starting spot throughout the season, and that's due in part to his versatility. Graham will play musical chairs with Young's positions, but Young will always find himself on the field.

"I see obviously Chris is going to start at Will or at Spur and we're working him at both so we can do both based on the offense that we're seeing each week," Graham said.

Young should expect to play at the Will linebacker spot against teams that pass the ball more, so a better coverage player can work in space. Against running teams, Young can play Spur which will allow the Sun Devils to use his bulk and quickness on the outside.

"These offenses are very different, so it will vary each week, but he can handle that and he can do that," Graham said.

Other Names in the Mix

  • Anthony Jones: Jones was dinged up earlier this week, but he is healthy and ready to resume practicing at full speed. The lost time could hurt him because Arizona State has so many players vying for reps, but when Chris Young plays Will, Jones takes first team reps at Spur.
  • Carlos Mendoza: Mendoza reminds Graham of Chris Young, and he too will have to learn multiple positions. Of the young players, Mendoza could be the best of the group by the time they graduate.
  • Grandville Taylor: Graham is high on Taylor because of his character and leadership qualities. Taylor is a veteran, a special teams warrior, and now a guy who projects as a Sam and Will backer. On Wednesday, Graham said that if the season started today, Taylor would start at Will.
  • Salamo Fiso: Like Taylor, Fiso plays both Sam and Will, but as a redshirt freshman, he doesn't have the experience Taylor brings to the table. By midseason, Fiso could be a regular contributor.
  • Antonio Longino: Longino impressed Graham after taking reps at Spur yesterday, and with a little work, he could blossom into a surprise impact player. "Antonio Longino, I got out there at SPUR and changed some things in how we are presenting it to him and he had the best day yesterday so I think if he can get there, we'll let him try to learn that," Graham said.
As of Saturday, the Sun Devils have 12 days until they open the season against Sacramento State. The linebacking core should continue to take shape leading up the opening game, but don't be surprised if the competition for starting roles lasts well into the season.
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