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ASU’s Laiu Moeakiola embracing leadership role, switch to safety

New Mexico's Clayton Mitchem (12) fumbles the ball in front of Arizona State's Viliami Moeakiola (28) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, in Albuquerque, N.M. Arizona State recovered the fumble. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PAYSON, Ariz. — Laiu Moeakiola broke with his own tradition to uphold a Sun Devil tradition. Then he broke something else.

Allow us to explain.

Every summer, a Sun Devil player swings a hammer and breaks a rock, signaling the end of ASU’s offseason conditioning program. This year, it was Moeakiola, the Sun Devils’ erstwhile spur linebacker who is moving to bandit safety this season.

Moeakiola isn’t the talkative type. He rarely conducts media interviews because he doesn’t like to talk about himself, and his coaches had their doubts about his readiness for last week’s ceremony.

“Funny story,” Moeakiola said. “They really didn’t think I was going to talk — coach (Shawn) Gris(wold) and them. They’re like ‘are you good with your speech?'”

Moeakiola was. He addressed his teammates in an emotional, humorous and meandering speech that stunned most outsiders.

“I didn’t want to be too emotional, have guys thinking I’m soft,” he told reporters on Wednesday in Payson after the team’s first training camp practice. “It was bittersweet to know that it was my fifth year — to see the same guys I came in with and it being our last year.”

The Sun Devils will need more of that kind of leadership from their uber-talented senior in a remade pass defense that was statistically among the worst in the nation last season.

To provide that sort of leadership, Moeakiola will need to stay on the field. He had offseason surgery on his right shoulder, an injury that forced him out of the Cactus Bowl, and as he noted in the video, he’s had two surgeries and he’s played hurt the better part of the last two seasons.

“We spent a lot of time assessing and trying to keep guys healthy and we think we can keep him healthier at that (position),” coach Todd Graham said. “We’ll just have to wait and see how he adapts to that, but it’s really, really difficult when one of your smartest — if not the smartest player that you have is off the field.”

Moeakiola entered the program in 2012 as a safety so the switch back to bandit is a perfect circle of sorts. He played spur the past two seasons, a hybrid defensive back-linebacker position that lines up close to the line of scrimmage.

When he’s healthy, Moeakiola is one of ASU’s best players. When he’s not healthy, the Sun Devils have not fared well. Two years ago, despite being limited by injuries, he still finished with 72 tackles, including 10.5 for loss and five quarterback sacks. Last season, he had 51 tackles, including 6.5 for loss.

Graham likes Moeakiola’s intelligence, his ability to read and his technique. Moeakiola loves the freedom the safety position gives him to make plays.

“I love the physical part of it and the scheme that we’re running,” he said, “but getting to see the whole field, getting to roam the field — I’m really excited about that.”

Moving Moeakiola also gives Graham the option to move sophomore Kareem Orr to cornerback. Orr set an ASU freshman record with six interceptions last season at corner, but he moved to free safety to help fill in for Armand Perry, who injured his ankle and was lost for the season. Perry is back and offers another reason for hope that the secondary will be better.

“The coaches do a great job of adapting the defense to our skill sets and coach (Graham) has been coaching for 30-plus years — and as a staff they’re probably over 100-plus years,” Moeakiola said. “They know what they’re doing. We’re just trying to trust each other and trust the process and trust the coaches that they have the best ideas in mind for us.

“It’s exciting to get another opportunity to play out there.”

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