Tale of two Viliami's: Moeakiola, Latu thriving in new positions under ASU football

Sophomore linebacker Latu Viliami blocks another defensive player in practice on Sept. 10, 2014. (Photo by Alexis Macklin) Sophomore linebacker Latu Viliami blocks another defensive player in practice on Sept. 10, 2014. (Photo by Alexis Macklin)

They share the same first name. They both had to switch positions on defense from what they started from their careers. They both have done enough at their respective positions to catch ASU coach Todd Graham’s attention.

Redshirt sophomore Viliami “Laiu” Moeakiola has been playing at Spur after switching from field safety in the middle of last season. Moeakiola has nine tackles and a fumble recovery two weeks into the season and Graham promoted him as a team captain Tuesday.

Sophomore Viliami Latu spent his first season, spring camp and all of fall camp practicing at Devilbacker, but the coaches moved him to the defensive line the week of ASU’s opener against Weber State. Latu recorded four tackles against New Mexico last Saturday, including one that resulted in an eight-yard loss. It’s only been four days since the team returned from New Mexico, but Graham continues to praise both players in several occasions.

“Ami is really stepping up. … Laiu has been perfect technique-wise,” Graham said. “If you could have ten other guys that are conscientious, have the character, discipline and dedication that guy has, he’s flawless. He’s cramping all over the field and continues to play. He’s the guy I make the most adjustments with and he just does it. I like that.”

Moeakiola said the adjustment from safety to linebacker hasn’t been too difficult. He immediately bought into to switching roles last October, and the coaches told him playing Spur is “70 percent linebacker, 30 percent safety.” The coaches liked his 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame, so he didn’t have to bulk up to play the part.

On his tireless work ethic, Moeakiola said he’s trying to be a leader, especially due to the fact the defense lost nine defensive starters from last year.

“I’m just trying to lead by example in everything I do, whether it’s on the football field or in the classroom, just try to show the younger guys how we do things here.

Co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said Moeakiola had to strengthen his base, be more physical and be more explosive to adjust to being a linebacker.

“If you look at everything coach Graham talks about, he comes to mind,” Patterson said. “He just does things right 100 percent of the time.”

Latu’s switch to the 3-technique, the position that Will Sutton thrived in late in his ASU career, is slightly similar, though a bit more extreme.

Latu was taken off guard when the coaches told him on Saturday to line up at defensive tackle instead of Devilbacker, though Latu took reps at the line.

“I was confused a little bit but got the hang of it in the second half,” Latu said. “It got me off guard because coming into fall camp, I thought I was going to play linebacker."

Although freshman Tashon Smallwood starts over Latu at the 3-technique, the coaches play Latu in several different packages because of their differing styles. Patterson praised Latu for bringing in a unique boost.

Redshirt sophomore linebacker Viliami Moeakiola pushes past the offensive line in a practice on Sept. 4, 2014. (Photo by Alexis Macklin) Redshirt sophomore linebacker Viliami Moeakiola pushes past the offensive line in
a practice on Sept. 4, 2014. (Photo by Alexis Macklin)

“The thing with Ami is his mentality,” Patterson said. “He’s a tough football player and a guy that has that mentality that takes the play up front and really brings an energy level to our guys.”

Even if he didn’t switch positions, Latu said he had always worked to bulk up and improve his technique. Latu missed most of his freshman year due to injury and wanted to do more this season.

“I had to gain a lot of weight to fit the other lineman,” Latu said. “Just practicing, getting off the ball, shooting your hands, it’s a whole lot different [area] for me. But I’m getting better. [I’m] just practicing at it.”

Graham bothered by critical, mental errors

Anyone familiar with Graham’s coaching philosophy knows he takes pride on playing disciplined football, whether it’s eliminating penalties or limiting errors.

Graham said Wednesday that the team committed nine critical errors and 21 mental errors against New Mexico last Saturday. Graham explained that mental errors are when players are just a couple steps out of position, whereas critical errors are when players miss their assignment and are completely out of the picture.

Graham doesn’t recall ever winning a game that his team committed double-digit critical errors. ASU was near that threshold Saturday.

“Every touchdown we gave up last week was a critical error,” Graham said.”

It’s mainly the newcomers that are making those mistakes in contrast to most of the veterans, who Graham has praised for their leadership. Graham said the team has done a “good job” of addressing those errors, but it should be a “great job” as the team goes deeper into the season.

Graham praises MacIntyre

Graham said Wednesday Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre is “one of the best coaches in the Pac-12.” He gave MacIntyre a lot of credit for inspiring the Buffaloes in a tough situation as they finished near the bottom of the conference the past two seasons. Graham expects Colorado to be the best team ASU has played to this point.

2014 season in photos

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Reach the reporter at jnacion@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @Josh_Nacion

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