One of Arizona State's greatest difficulties as a defense in 2013 was stopping edge running plays, and the Sun Devils needed to address that heading into the offseason.
On National Signing Day, coach Todd Graham found players who will give the Sun Devils options on the edge in 2014 and beyond as he signed three linebackers in D.J. Calhoun, Christian Sam, and Jamal Scott.
Arizona State runs multiple schemes on its defense, and considers its Devil backer (a hybrid defensive end/linebacker position most recently held by Carl Bradford) as a linebacker, but for the purposes of this article, we'll regard the Devil backer as a defensive end.
In doing so, that leaves three true linebacker positions to evaluate on Arizona State's defense.
The WILL linebacker is the weak side inside linebacker and that position was manned by Chris Young last year. The WILL linebacker blitzes more than his counterparts, but also needs to have the versatility to hang with running backs in the passing game.
The SAM linebacker is the run-stopper at the heart of the defense, and serves as the strong side inside linebacker. Last season, redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso came into his own at the SAM spot and has three seasons of eligibility left to grow into a superstar.
Lastly, the SPUR linebacker is a hybrid between a linebacker and a safety, and lines up as the outside linebacker on the strong side of the formation. Of the three, the SPUR position is the hardest to find athletes for because it requires the physicality to stop the outside run and the quickness to cover slot receivers against spread passing games. A few different players saw action at SPUR last year, most notably Anthony Jones who struggled mightily in coverage.
With Young and Jones both graduating, the Sun Devils needed to find recruits who could step in and answer the call right away. And fortunately for Todd Graham, he may have found the next Chris Young in early-enrollee D.J. Calhoun.
Calhoun is a 4-star linebacker recruit and is one of the most bruising tacklers the Sun Devils picked up. Young was a tackles for loss machine at Arizona State, and Todd Graham believes Calhoun has the potential to become the same dependable presence at the WILL spot.
"Obviously Chris (Young) did a tremendous job for us there," Graham said. "DJ is a guy that possesses great blitz ability, very, very smart. Obviously that's key in playing in our system."
Calhoun's status as an early-enrollee will allow him to participate in spring drills with Arizona State. This gives him an upper hand in learning the complexities of the Sun Devils' defense, and gives the coaching staff time to prepare him for the fall. It would come as a great surprise if Calhoun takes a redshirt year because the Sun Devils need him to suit up and make plays immediately.
"I think he's one of the best linebackers in the country," Graham said of Calhoun. "You see he's rated that way, and a guy that ‑‑ the thing that stuck out to me more than anything recruiting him is his character and his leadership."
Graham went on to say that Calhoun is already turning heads in the weight room with Arizona State strength coach Shawn Griswold, which is a sure-fire way to earn respect from the rest of the coaching staff and his new teammates.
"Gris (Griswold) listed him as one of the most impressive newcomers or freshmen that we've had in our program from a training standpoint," Graham said. "So we're excited about DJ and his leadership and a guy I think is going to be very impactful in the fall."
If Calhoun is ready to step in as a true freshman, that could allow for the Sun Devils to experiment with the combination of Carlos Mendoza and Antonio Longino at both the WILL and SPUR positions. Mendoza and Longino have each taken reps at both spots during their time in Tempe, and both will be counted on to earn significant playing time this fall.
With Mendoza or Longino both candidates to take over the SPUR spot, Arizona State will have time to develop two other recruits that the Sun Devils added at the position.
Christian Sam, a linebacker out of Allen High School in Texas, is one of the most important signees for the Sun Devils because he fits the mold of the prototypical SPUR. Sam already weighs 220 pounds, but he excites Todd Graham because he also runs a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash which makes him an asset against a spread offense.
"Tremendous blitzability, tremendous cover skills," Graham said. "That's one of the hardest positions for us to recruit because they've got to be big enough, and he's 6-foot-1, between 6-foot-1 and 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he's a 4.4, 4.5 (speed) guy that can cover, blitz off the edge and play over a tight end."
If the Sun Devils feel confident at the SPUR position this year and Sam takes a redshirt year, SPUR could turn out to be one of the deepest positions on the roster just a few years after it was one of the greatest liabilities.
Sam is not the only recruit who will get a crack at the SPUR position. Arizona State plans on converting Magnolia High School (Calif.) safety Jamal Scott to linebacker. Scott is the wildcard of this recruiting class because he comes from a football program that traditionally lacks college talent, but his highlight film is overwhelming.
"Jamal Scott, probably the most underrated player in our class," Graham said. "Not many people knew about him. My wife looks at all the film, and this is a guy she went like, wow, who's that guy. Big‑time."
Scott's ability to track down ball carriers from all over the field makes him a natural at outside linebacker, especially at a position that is often asked to be the "contain man" on the line of scrimmage in the Sun Devils' scheme.
In adding Calhoun, Sam and Scott, the Sun Devils found young players who were highly touted as recruits, but most importantly fit the Sun Devils' defensive scheme. Sam and Scott, in particular, may not pop out to the eyes of national scouts, but for Todd Graham, each of those players projects to patch a hole on the Arizona State defense that is hard to fill.
"We've got some unfinished business, and that business is winning the Pac‑12 championship, and one of the things in that championship game that we felt like we've got to become more of a physical football team," Graham said. "We thought we were a physical football team, but we've got to increase our physicality to win the championship, not just get there."
On National Signing Day, Arizona State increased its physicality, and also set the foundation for the future of a linebacking corps that will be young but exciting in 2014.