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ASU Football: Defining linebacker position roles in Arizona State’s modernized defense

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NCAA Football: Washington at Arizona State Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Football is a very sophisticated and complex sport.

It takes a capable mind to comprehend what’s actually going on. In fact, the game’s chief architect, Walter Camp, was a medical student who attended Yale.

Throughout history—and even today—high-level football coaches range from teachers and methodologists, to practical geniuses and damn-near philosophers. Even those considered to have one area of expertise or specialization are of the most incredible minds in the world of athletics.

Regardless of whether one believes athletes and their superiors fit the “dumb jock” stereotype or not, trying to understand the intricacies of football without on-field experience will feel overwhelming and perplexing (sites such as InsideThePylon.com are phenomenal resources for easing such feelings, might I add).

The difficulty of comprehension has only intensified as the game of football itself has, as ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson says, really changed over the years.

Like a chess match, the two primary phases of football (offense and defense) have traded moves over the years in a vie for control of the board. The offense is at the forefront of dominance; as offenses evolve, defenses must attempt to counter, forcing the former to recalibrate, and the cycle continues.

In the modern era of football, specialization or even possessing specific measurements isn’t as important as it once was. For example, the prototypical slot receiver is no longer limited to being a 5-foot-9 speedster. Likewise, linebackers aren’t solely monstrous 6-foot, 250-pound tanks.

Hybrid or position-less players who would have been considered off-sized tweeners in other periods serve as great a purpose as they ever have in football.

Versatility has great value. With it comes the invention of new positions, new roles, and a surplus of heavy jargon.

Take the Sun Devils defense, for example.

Since head coach Todd Graham arrived in 2012, ASU has used a defense featuring positions with titles such as “Tiger” and “Bandit Safety,” among others, to the confusion of Sun Devils fans everywhere. The “Devilbacker” has even been a unicorn of sorts for a handful of seasons now.

ASU’s linebacker corps is comprised of four primary positions: SAM, MIKE, WILL, and DEVIL. Occasionally, the group includes a SPUR, too. Patterson (who’s served as a member of Graham’s coaching staffs since he was the head coach at Tulsa in 2008-09) said he values players who are comprehensive and versatile between these roles.

“Any time you have an understanding of every position and how (they work), I think once you go back to your home base, now I think you have an understanding (of) what the guy’s responsibility is next to you,” Patterson said.

His philosophy: “We try to be multiple, but simple.”

As similar or “simple” as they can be, fundamentally, the primary linebacker roles vary from one another, or are “multiple.” To help debunk a bit of the confusion regarding them, Patterson described the ideal attributes and roles of each linebacker spot for better public comprehension.

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House of Sparky: For our readers, can you determine (the different roles) between the WILL, SAM and MIKE?

SAM (strong-side linebacker)

Patterson:

The best way to describe it in my mind is your SAM backer has a little bit more coverage-type skill than maybe your other guys. He’s to the field a lot of times, so therefore he’s just gotta be able to play and feel comfortable in space. Obviously, when you play him to the boundary a lot of times to the weak side of the defense, now you’ve got reduced amount of grass that you have to cover in space. Sometimes (they have) the same responsibility, less grass to cover.

What he means: “Coverage-type skill” is important because strong-side linebackers play to the strong-side of an offense—the side with the most amount of players. The SAM will often guard a tight end. For ASU, D.J. Calhoun has manned this position ahead of the season.

MIKE (inside linebacker)

Patterson:

And then our MIKE is obviously an inside guy—still has to be involved. You want versatile people—can’t just have run-stoppers anymore. You’ve gotta have guys who are multiple in their skillset to be able to play the run and pass.

What he means: Think “middle” when you see MIKE. Nowadays, the prototype for the position is Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers—a player who is able to defend against both the run and pass with high I.Q. and productivity. For ASU, Salamo Fiso plays this position.

WILL (weak-side linebacker)

HoS: And then with the weak-side linebacker, do you guys use more of a speed rusher? Someone who’s able to get after the passer? Someone who’s able to play in space?

Patterson:

With all three linebackers positions we try to be able to create that pressure, whether it’s inside, outside, whatever. We expect the same thing from the skill set (of a WILL linebacker) as well as trying to get our guys to become explosive.

What he means: Since the weak-side linebacker plays the side with less space to cover, they don’t have to necessarily be as strong as a SAM is in pass coverage. However, for what a WILL lacks in coverage ability, it makes up for in explosiveness and ability to disrupt offenses. For ASU, Christian Sam starts here.

DEVIL

HoS: With the DEVIL, some people compare it to the LEO in Pete Carroll’s system, where he serves as a wide-7 or wide-9 tech. Is that what he serves as in ASU’s defense?

Patterson:

That’s another versatile guy that can do a lot of different things that we ask from him.

Without getting into the scheme aspect of it ... with defenses and spread offenses, everyone has to be versatile, even your defensive linemen. They can’t just be run-stoppers anymore because (of how) well as people throw the ball on first-and-10 and second down. You used to (be able to line up where) you could put a big guy in there to stop the run on first and second down, then third down throw your pass rushers on.

That’s where the game’s changed so much. You better be able to do it on every down without having to substitute and match because a lot of teams are doing it out of the same personnel grouping, so you don’t really have time sometimes to get the right personnel. So therefore, you better be versatile at every position.

What he means: As Adam Stites of SB Nation once wrote of Pete Carroll’s LEO, which is essentially the same as a DEVIL: “... the LEO operates differently in that the sole concern of the player is to get in the backfield and wreak havoc. Neither gap control nor pass coverage are a concern of the LEO, as the primary goal of the position is to win as a pass rusher.”

When Patterson says the you need someone who is “versatile” in this context, he means someone who can in fact be disruptive against both the run and pass on all three downs, with an emphasis on athletic pass-rush ability. JoJo Wicker has worked here entering the season.

SPUR

In passing situations, a SPUR linebacker is often included in the defensive formation. Here’s what Patterson had to say regarding the position:

HoS: Then with the SPUR (linebacker) and Bandit (safety) positions—can you explain what the difference between those two are?

Patterson:

Any time you put somebody into that SPUR category, they gotta have coverage (skills), the ability to cover. And maybe a little bit more so than run-stoppers.

What he means: A SPUR must possess some sort of athleticism and coverage skills in order to defend against receivers. For ASU, Laiu Moeakiola primarily serves in this role.

Note: Bandit Safety can be described as a hybrid position. It serves as a boundary safety, meaning the safety on the weak-side of the field. They are typically closer to the line of scrimmage, while the field safety (free safety) is positioned deeper in coverage. Moeakiola also plays Bandit for ASU.


While Patterson did his best to describe each of the linebacker roles for readers, he said the way the game has evolved has been very influential on how each position specifically functions. Ultimately, it makes it harder to define specific positions due to a growing need for flexibility.

“With all the spread offenses, with bubble screens, you’ve gotta be able to beat a block and make a tackle in space,” he said. “So you can’t just be—I wish I could just sit here and say, ‘yes, here’s the distinctive difference.’

“It’s becoming less and less (definitive) is what I’m trying to tell you.”

Patterson says it’s important for teams to not weaken themselves by rotating one-dimensional players as opposed to having versatile players prepared and suited to defend in multiple scenarios. It’s something he says he’s continuing to implement for ASU defensively.

“That’s the thing I see is that more and more I’m involved in this deal, after 30-something years, I look at it and go, ‘wow, the game is really changed,’” he said. “And you better be—at every position—you better have some form of a hybrid skill set.”