ASU football's defense is becoming a dominant menace

The Sun Devils defense is ranked first in the country in rushing yards allowed

Coming into the 2018 season, ASU's defense lost both of their top linebackers in senior DJ Calhoun and redshirt junior Christian Sam. Combined, both players finished with 479 tackles and 26.5 sacks during their Sun Devil careers. 

Following their departures, the linebacker position revolves around more underclassmen, with the team having five redshirt/true freshman listed on the depth chart. 

When defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales took the job at ASU, he not only took defensive backs/cornerbacks coach Tony White with him but the 3-3-5 defensive scheme that was implemented at San Diego State as well.

As Gonzales implemented the new defensive scheme, an area to improve from last year was the defensive run game. After two games, the No. 23 Sun Devils have stopped a spread offense in UTSA and a heavy run offense in the No. 25 Michigan State Spartans

Two games into the new season, the Sun Devils are ranked No. 1 in the country in rushing yards allowed. The defense has given up a total of 65 rushing yards with 63 coming from the upset win over MSU on Sept. 8.

“We have good players and we have a bunch of really good athletes that are playing at a high level and with a lot of energy,” Gonzales said during Wednesday’s presser. “I tell them everyday, we still have a long a way to go before we consider ourselves good.”

After the departures of Sam and Calhoun, redshirt junior Malik Lawal has had to step up as the new leader for the Sun Devils' linebackers. His first collegiate start came in the UTSA game, after making appearances the last two seasons and totaling 12 tackles.

“It gives me a sense of assurance that (I) get to be that guy now and step up,” Lawal said. “Just being that guy to keep the morale up, the leadership going and making sure that they are all on the same page.” 

The 'they' Lawal speaks of are the other linebackers, specifically the freshman at the position.

The Sun Devils invested the past two recruiting classes into bringing top linebackers from across the country to come and play in Sun Devil Stadium. The two latest recruiting classes feature redshirt freshman Kyle Soelle (Saguaro High School), redshirt freshman Tyler Johnson (Highland High School) and true freshmen Stanley Lambert (John Marshall High School in Texas), Darien Butler (Narbonne High School in California) and Merlin Robertson (Junipero Serra High School in California).

“When I'm on the field and you got two young guys, yeah they ballin', but they are still young and (it’s their) first time being in that atmosphere,” Lawal said. “You got that type of recognition and you know what's going on around you in that time.”

Lawal said an important thing for the young freshman linebackers is to not get into their own heads because they will start losing focus.

In his first year as ASU’s linebackers coach, Antonio Pierce told his young players to go out there and play football. 

“At some point we are all rookies/freshman, we all gotta start from somewhere,” Pierce said. “More importantly just play each play individually and don't worry about the last play.” 

After the first game of the season, Pierce said he was impressed with the play from the freshmen in the 49-7 win against UTSA. 

“I don't really think they tried to do too much,” Pierce said. “I know they were nervous and had anxiety just like I did before the game but as the game went on and they made their first tackle and first hit it was back to normal football.”

As the team sits at No. 23 in the AP Poll, fans have been sharing their joy on social media, but the coaches know that the team isn’t close to what they can become. 

“We still have a long way to go before we reach the standard that we want to reach,” Gonzales said. “There's a fine line between being arrogant and being confident. I don't want them to get arrogant because we haven't done anything special yet.”

As for Lawal, he wants to make sure that communication continues not only between the linebackers but the defense as a whole over the course of the season.

“Keeping that mentality, talking and communicating, playing fast paced the whole time,” Lawal said. “If we keep that up, I don’t think any offense wants to see us this year.”

Coach Gonzales said jokingly that his job becomes harder with all the publicity his defense receives.

“I tell them all the time, there’s nothing magical with what we do,” Gonzales said. “If you've got good players, you’re a good coach. Make ‘em play hard and you have a chance.”

Reach the reporter at or follow @SebastianEman5 on Twitter. 

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