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ESPN Insider: LB Christian Sam could ‘make or break’ ASU’s season

New Mexico running back David Anaya (25) is stopped by Arizona State linebacker Christian Sam (2) and Arizona State defensive back Kweishi Brown (10) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Sept. 18, 2015, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Much has been said about the potential of the Arizona State Sun Devils’ offense, but the biggest problem area from last season was on the other side of the ball.

The Sun Devils will feature a new leader of the defense in coordinator Phil Bennett, but one reporter thinks it’s the return of an old face that could yield the biggest impact.

ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg considers ASU redshirt junior linebacker Christian Sam one of the 12 NCAA players most likely to “make or break” their team’s 2017 season.

The struggles of Todd Graham’s high-risk, high-reward defense have the sixth-year coach entering a high-stakes 2017 season in which his Sun Devils must show improvement. Arizona State has plenty of options at quarterback and enough weapons to score points under new coordinator Billy Napier. The spotlight will be and should be on defense, and Sam is a key piece. Arizona State clearly missed him in 2016 after he suffered a foot injury in the opener and missed the entire season. Sam had 98 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, in 2015 and brings good size to the weakside linebacker spot. Along with DJ Calhoun, Sam must bring together a unit that recently has had far too many breakdowns and made too few big plays. Arizona State’s defense has allowed 10 yards or more on 23.3 percent of its plays since the start of 2015, the fourth most among FBS teams. The Sun Devils also generated only 15 takeaways last year, tied for 90th nationally.

Sam joins Michigan linebacker Mike McCray and Texas A&M defensive end Michael Clemons as the only defensive players on Rittenberg’s list.

Arizona State’s defense did not perform well with Sam in 2015, giving up 33.5 points and 463.9 yards per game, which were 30th and 16th-most in the country, respectively.

However, the unit was still much worse without him, allowing opponents to score 39.8 points and gain 521.7 yards per game against them last season, the fifth and second-worst marks in the NCAA, respectively.

Calhoun filled in well as the leader of the linebacking corps with Sam out for most of 2016. He led the team with 77 tackles – including 11.5 for a loss – and 4.5 sacks and figures to team up with the 6-foot-1, 241-pound Sam to provide Bennett with a pair of experienced, talented linebackers for his 4-2-5 defense.

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