The linebackers in the 3-4 scheme that the Sun Devils run are expected to be incredibly athletic. Some argue it's not as difficult as playing linebacker in 4-3 because each linebacker has less ground to cover and is not expected to work sideline to sideline. However the responsibilities of the linebackers in a 3-4 are different and Arizona State calls on the linebackers to have a wider variety of skills.
In a 3-4, the outside linebacker can pass rush but must also be responsible for keeping contain on the quarterback. The inside linebackers need to have the ability to shed lead blockers in order to make a play. These lead blockers are often offensive linemen who have anywhere from 50-100 pounds on the linebacker.
The Sun Devils have a rich history of great linebackers such as Vontaze Burfict, Terrell Suggs and most recently Brandon Magee who graduated last season. He was truly the only linebacker the Sun Devils had to replace as most of the defense returned.
Carl Bradford was the crown jewel of the returning linebackers. He had an incredible 2012 campaign when he bursted onto the scene with Will Sutton. The dynamic duo combined for 23.5 sacks and 45 tackles for loss earning Bradford Honorable Mention all-Pac 12 and Sutton Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Bradford would again no doubt get the start at "Devil" backer, the Sun Devils' version of a freak athlete with free reign all over the field. The "Devil" backer can play as a defensive end in a three-point stance or drop back in coverage in the flats but in oversimplified layman's terms, the "Devil" backer's job is to find the guy with the ball and tackle him.
Bradford was the only linebacker position locked in as fall camp began. Chris Young played at the SPUR linebacker, the hybrid safety, spot in 2012 but Todd Graham was hesitant to move him over to WILL to replace Magee because he thrived at SPUR and the WILL spot is the most athletic linebacker on the field. Young earned the WILL spot and was expected to be a leader on the team in 2013.
Carlos Mendoza was expected to get the first look at SPUR but redshirt senior Anthony Jones, who had previous experience at the position, beat out Mendoza for the spot in camp. Meanwhile at SAM, Steffon Martin came in as the front-runner but redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso came on strong and earned himself a co-starter position at SAM and WILL.
Bradford and Young were expected to lead the linebackers while the roles of Jones, Martin, and Fiso remained more fluid.
The poor run defense was a talking point early in the season as the Sun Devils gave up an average 236 yards on the ground to Wisconsin, Stanford, USC, and Notre Dame highlighted by 273 rushing yards to Tre Madden and the Trojans.
Although the lack of depth on the defensive line was also to blame, the linebacking core had its fair share of issues keeping contain on Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan as well as allowing Wisconsin its fair share of sweeps to the outside edge for huge gains courtesy of Melvin Gordon.
The only key change happened after the loss to Stanford. Fiso shined in the attempted second half comeback with four tackles and seemed to be around every play. Todd Graham rewarded him with the starting SAM job the following week which he never relinquished.
The group got its act together at home against Washington holding Bishop Sankey, who came into the game as the nation's leading rusher averaging 149.8 yards per game, to just 22 yards rushing. Jones led the way with five tackles in one of the only games of the season where he truly stood out. Another big afternoon came in Salt Lake City when the linebackers played a key role in stopping the Utah Utes time and time again in the fourth quarter allowing the offense to make a slow and steady comeback to win the game.
The biggest impact game for this group came against UCLA. Carl Bradford intercepted a Brett Hundley pass for a touchdown while Chris Young was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for his effort with 13 tackles and three sacks. Two of those sacks came in the fourth quarter including a game saving sack on third down. The Bruins were driving, down 38-33 in the fourth quarter deep in the Arizona State red zone when Young's sack pushed a Ka'imi Fairbairn field goal attempt back to a 38-yard attempt that he missed.
Individually, Bradford did not reach his goal of breaking the Arizona State record of 25 sacks. Instead he recorded just 8.5 sacks and 45 tackles, 19 of which went for a loss of yardage. He only had one interception but it happened to be one of the biggest of the season for the Sun Devils.
Young exceeded expectations leading the team in tackles with 112, which was 40 more tackles than second place finisher Alden Darby. He also forced and recovered two fumbles. He was everything Todd Graham probably could have asked for at the WILL and he did so quietly without much theatrics.
Fiso finished third on the team in tackles with 71. He proved his worth after overtaking Steffon Martin at the SAM finishing with three sacks. He was a consistent force the rest of the season playing on the strong side. He made efficient reads off the tight end and was rewarded for it when the ball came to his side of the field. Only a redshirt freshman this season, Fiso has nowhere to go but up and will play arguably the largest role in next year's linebacking core.
Martin meanwhile dropped off considerably after losing his starting spot. He came in situationally for the rest of the season recording a total of 34 tackles. After finishing with 27 tackles and playing in all 13 games in 2012, it was supposed to be a standout season for Martin who was expected to take his place alongside Bradford and Young despite being a junior college transfer. However he went out with a whimper instead of a bang.
Jones outperformed Martin recording 38 tackles and did well in his time at SPUR after two seasons on special teams. He also had a sack, interception, and forced fumble to his name this season. His pass coverage left much to be desired and he was overshadowed by the play of Bradford and Young who both earned Second Team All-Pac-12 honors at the end of the season for their tremendous efforts.
Who's returning in 2014?
Salamo Fiso- Could move to WILL to replace Young or stay at SAM but will anchor next year's group of linebackers.
Chans Cox- Was expected to play but shoulder injury forced him to miss the season and redshirt. Possible frontrunner for "Devil" backer next season.
Carlos Mendoza- Had a shot at SPUR in fall camp but lost out. Has been plagued with injuries in first two seasons, only saw time in six games this year. Incredible amount of potential.
Viliami Latu- Got playing time in 10 games, impressed Graham in fall camp briefly but fell out of contention for any starting spot. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, he is another "Devil" backer candidate.
Antonio Longino-Another imposing presence at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds. Played in eight games with one sack. Will give good competition potentially at WILL or SPUR.
Who's moving on?
Carl Bradford- Declared for NFL draft
Chris Young- Led team in tackles in 2013
Steffon Martin- Junior college transfer who lost his starting spot to Fiso.
Anthony Jones- Strong role player throughout ASU career, but was a bit of a liability at SPUR.
Grandville Taylor- Played in every game recording 13 tackles. Great character player who almost had a pick-six against Sacramento State.