ASU LBs energized after departures of Sam, Calhoun and Latu
Malik Lawal didn’t really want to look at the depth chart during his freshman year.
That was in 2015 when Lawal was still just an unproven recruit from Southern California. Ahead of him in the linebacker rotation was a group of established and talented veterans: Antonio Longino, D.J. Calhoun, Christian Sam and Salamo Fiso.
Lawal’s feeling at the time: “It’s like, ‘Whoa, how am I going to fit in?’”
But now, thanks to the arrival of a new coaching staff and an open competition for starting spots, Lawal and the rest of ASU’s linebackers have a different outlook. The circumstances have re-energized a group of players that have been anxiously awaiting their chance to impress.
“Now it’s like, ‘Bro, it’s your choice. If you want to have (the starter’s job) or not, you better go get it,’” Lawal said following ASU’s Saturday night practice in which he took a majority of the first-team reps at outside linebacker.
“It’s refreshing to have that opportunity. It’s a clear road.”
Lawal and Khaylan Thomas, both highly-regarded three-star prospects in ASU’s 2015 recruiting class, knew this year would be their chance to move up the pecking order with 2017 starters Christian Sam and D.J. Calhoun and A.J. Latu having all departed at the end of last season.
Neither can claim much experience. Thomas has started only once in his first three years on campus, taking just 96 defensive snaps in that time. Lawal, meanwhile, has come off the bench in all 23 of his career appearance and has tallied only 29 total plays on defense. He’s been one of the team’s better special teams players, particularly on kickoff coverage.
Even as primary backups last year, the two were chained to the bench thanks to former defensive coordinator Phil Bennett’s reluctance to substitute players.
“It was a grind, an uphill battle coming in,” Lawal said.
But more than the openings created by roster turnover, it’s the philosophy of a new coaching staff that has spurred renewed excitement at a new-look linebacker position. Everyone there is getting a fresh start.
“The minute they said (there would be a) coaching change, everything is different. All positions are up for grabs,” Lawal said. “It’s like a green light. You’ve got to go off to the races.”
New defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales and linebacker coach Antonio Pierce are giving a lot of players a shot. In the first two practices of fall camp alone, six different linebackers have taken first-string reps. The coaching staff wants to get a good look at as many different players as possible.
“There’s a lot of different guys running with the ones right now so that we can see who can make plays and who can’t,” Gonzales said. “… We will do it until we determine who is good enough to play.”
For the first time in their careers, Lawal, Thomas and the rest of the linebacker corps have the opportunity to impress new sets of eyes. Any preconceived notions about their abilities have been wiped away.
“It’s a lot of competition,” said Thomas, who is battling with junior and converted running back Nick Ralston at the middle linebacker spot. “Everybody has a fresh slate, whether it be guys that never played or guys that just got here. It’s a lot of competition, it’s really good.”
Another side-effect of all the personnel change: new faces were needed to step up and lead. Senior outside ‘backer Jay Jay Wilson has been at the forefront, despite the fact that he only switched from his original position of tight end to defense in the middle of last season.
But in the last year, he’s become the position’s top leader, both from an emotional and intellectual perspective. This weekend, he spent a lot of time mentoring freshmen Merlin Robertson, Kyle Soelle and other youngsters. He can sense the optimism permeating through his position group this year.
“It’s a different type of vibe,” he said Saturday. “It’s a different type of atmosphere here. People know that they’re going to get a fair shot … A lot of guys didn’t really have that because minds were set and stuff like that (in prior seasons). But right now you’ve got a fair opportunity to prove yourself and if you don’t do that, then the next guy up.”
Wilson made clear he isn’t trying to bad-mouth the previous coaching staff. But it’s only human nature for people to get stuck in their ways. Now, everything is being done from scratch. Only Wilson and senior Koron Crump, who is returning from an ACL injury and hasn’t practiced fully through two days of camp, have a lot of experience.
“(We’re) understanding the new defense as a whole,” Lawal said. “Just making sure we’re always on the same page together because there is more communication that’s needed with the ones and twos because if one person is doing one thing, you’ve got to make sure you’re doing that (expletive) right or we’re both off.”
Thomas called the new mix of linebackers a “fun” group and said their film sessions with Pierce are “hilarious.” Even as they jockey for playing time, a tight bond has been built in the room.
“We’re all close,” Thomas said. “We just joke about (who is winning the position battles), we make fun of each other. It’s all fun.”
Gonzales said the defensive staff isn’t close to making any final decisions regarding playing time or the depth chart. But as long as guys are playing hard, they’ll keep getting a shot to prove themselves.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” Thomas said. “With coach (Pierce), he’s doing really good with all of us. We’re learning everything. Starting over.”
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