Spring football is right around the corner. House of Sparky will be providing you content previewing Arizona State’s units ahead of offseason practices. Next we take a look at the linebackers.
Our positional preview series for the 2017-2018 season continues with a look at a unit that struggled mightily with injuries and a concept known as tackling last year: the linebackers.
As we mentioned before, the pass rush seemed decently effective in conference play last year, but it was the rush defense that really hurt the Sun Devils down the stretch.
Luckily for Arizona State however, the linebacking core is healthy once again, and will play a key role in the effectiveness of ASU’s defense moving forward.
Versatility is the name of the game in modern college football defenses, but with ASU, it seems to be a bit of an understatement.
The Devilbacker is one of four specific types of linebacker in the Sun Devil defense, largely responsible for aiding the rush defense and getting after the quarterback.
In a 4-3 defense, or even with Bennett’s likely 4-2-5 scheme, the Devilbacker (which may be re-termed as “Buck” under Bennett) can be in a three-point stance on the line or standing up on the edge.
ASU has a bit of a decision to make in terms of who will start here, but Latu seems to be the most likely option. In his junior season in Tempe, Latu participated in all 12 games, tallied 22 total tackles and was a force in the blitz-heavy scheme.
At 6-foot-2, 254 pounds Latu possess the ideal frame for a flat-coverage defender as well, so it’s possible he competes for time at the SPUR position this spring.
Crump got his first major action as a Sun Devil in 2016 and didn’t waste much time making an impact. The junior from St. Louis, Missouri lead the team with three sacks through the first four games, and finished the season with nine -- a team high.
Crump is much smaller than Latu, so it’s unlikely he starts out the season at devilbacker, as he makes a bit more sense in the SPUR position, that is, if he can prove an ability to cover. Either way, he’ll find a lot of playing time in his senior season.
Before sitting out all of last season due to academic reasons, Subtyl was the ninth-ranked overall JUCO prospect and the second-ranked JUCO defensive end prospect, and rated as a four-star recruit among all major recruiting services.
At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds Subtyl profiles very similarly to Latu, making him a logical fit for the devilbacker position. While we have yet to see his performance in Division-I football, scouts have consistently praised his smoothness, athleticism and arsenal of moves on the line.
Look for the Sun Devils to give the redshirt junior every chance he needs to succeed next season.
At Saguaro High School in Scottsdale,Soelle impressed recruits with his ability to create pressure with his speed on the outside and ranked as the number five overall prospect in Arizona.
Soelle was a very important part of an impressive recruiting class for the Sun Devils defensively this past season, but will likely have to add a bit of wight to be considered for time at any linebacker position.
Soelle will only see time this season if the Devils are hurt by injuries again this year, which is always a possibility.
The SPUR linebacker is a linebacker-safety hybrid that has the ability to rush the passer and help with the run, but is also required to fall back into coverage when needed. It’s essentially the “spacebacker” position, written about here.
The position is a bit of a question mark for the Sun Devils, as whoever becomes the starter here depends on a few different conditions. Let’s take a look:
While Crump is being considered for the Devilbacker position as well, a starting spot at SPUR is on the table. The senior is a natural pass rusher and is as athletic as they come on ASU’s defense, but has yet to prove he can cover.
If Crump has an impressive spring camp and demonstrates an ability to cover both in the flats and downfield, the position should be all his. If he doesn’t however, the Devils will be forced to split their best pass-rusher’s time with Alani Latu as a Devilbacker.
Ball played primarily at the safety position last season and emerged as one of the only bright spots in a troubled secondary. As of now, it’s unclear who will be in the safety role, and it’s possible that Ball takes over to fill the whole at spur. His size and coverage skills will be good enough to make the transition, permitted he is healthy.
Whiley is a quiet contender for the SPUR position and should have a solid opportunity to snag it come fall. As a redshirt sophomore last season, Whiley played in four games last year and added an impressive performance against NAU in which he finished with three tackles and the team's only sack.
If Bennett decides that Crump fits better at devilbacker, Whiley is a logical, if unexciting, choice for the position.
The Oklahoma City native is one of the most exciting prospects to join the Sun Devils this offseason. At 6 foot 1, 186 pounds Fields is admittedly small, but size isn’t crucial at SPUR. As mentioned before, the SPUR has a reliance on being able to cover downfield and act as a safety at times, which is what Fields excels at.
It would not be surprising if the true freshman worked on gaining weight this spring and competed with Whiley for a chance to grab the position from Crump. His ceiling is the highest of the bunch.
The SAM, or strong-side linebacker is an outside linebacker that lines up on the side of the field with more offensive players. Last year, this was D.J. Calhoun.
During his junior season in Tempe, the El Cerrito, California native was second on the Sun Devils with four tackles for loss and 30 total tackles. Calhoun has played in at least 12 games each of his last three seasons, and will likely be the guy for the Sun Devils as he heads into his final season.
Though a four-star prospect coming out of Southern California two years ago, the redshirt sophomore has played in six total games, primarily on special teams. Thomas has a great chance to play next season, despite there being so many talented upperclassmen in the unit.
The WILL is a weak-side linebacker that lines up against the side of the offense with less players. When healthy, this was Christian Sam’s spot.
Sam may very well be the best linebacker Arizona State has. During his first full season in 2015, the Texan finished second on the team in tackles and was on pace to become one of the premier linebackers in the conference before an injury derailed his 2016 campaign early.
According to the coaching staff Sam has shown a very focused and motivated mentality heading into Spring, which bodes well for his starting candidacy. As long as he can stay healthy, Sam should not only start, but be in contention to lead the Sun Devils in tackles by the end of the season.
It is entirely possible that Sam can’t stay healthy, however, and that’s where Lawal steps in. He played in ten total games last year and was able to fill in at multiple linebacker positions over the course of the season. At 6 foot 1, 215 pounds he is on the smaller side, but has shown to be athletic enough to cover the outside.
So that wraps up a very lengthy review of the Sun Devils entire front seven unit and the guys that can fill in if the starters go down. Of course, Arizona State has yet to step on the practice fields for Spring ball, so a lot could change between now and fall.
The unit is decently deep, but may require a couple of transitions in Koron Crump and Marcus Ball to completely fill all of its positions. If the defensive line and Christian Sam can stay healthy, look for ASU to have a bounceback season on the defensive side of the ball.