CAMP TONTOZONA, Ariz. – Arizona State’s Chris Young sees just two issues with his move to weakside linebacker this season: Either he can’t keep his mouth closed or he doesn’t open it enough.
“I try to stick to chicken, healthy stuff, but I pretty much eat whatever, because I like all types of food,” Young said, smiling. “I should probably stop that.”
ASU defensive coordinator Paul Randolph isn’t concerned about the additional 20 pounds Young (now at 244 pounds) has added for the move inside.
“He’s bigger and stronger, but he’s actually faster than he was a year ago,” Randolph said.
It’s the other issue that both want to work on. By moving inside, Young is essentially replacing longtime standout and vocal leader Brandon Magee, who is now with the Dallas Cowboys. Neither Young, Randolph nor coach Todd Graham is worried about Young’s ability to play the position. It’s just the vocal side of that position that sometimes challenges the senior.
“When I get tired, I get very quiet. I’m trying to be consistent, because being vocal comes with that territory,” Young said. “It’s definitely out of my comfort zone, but that comes with playing for coach Graham. He pushes you there to make you better and he teaches us how to be leaders.”
Graham is counting on Young heavily because he is taking a risk by moving him from the spur, where he excelled last season with 82 tackles, five passes defended, a forced fumble and two sacks. By shifting Young inside, Graham risks weakening Young’s former position without knowing he’ll get the corresponding returns from his new position.
“That’s a good point,” Graham said. “Yeah, we’re not as good at spur right now, but you can’t have it all. We were 81st in the country against the run (182.85 yards per game last season). We’ve got to stop the run.”
“If it doesn’t work,” Graham added with a smile, “you blame coach Randolph.”
In truth, Graham isn’t the least bit concerned about Young’s ability to make plays inside. For one, the Sun Devils play a defensive front that is designed to protect Young so he can flow to the ball and likely lead the team in tackles. But the greater reason is Young’s ability, speed and physical nature.
“He’s by far our best linebacker,” Graham said. “You put him out on the perimeter, yeah he does a great job, but I want him around the football more.”
It’s the spur that still has Graham worried. At Wednesday’s practice, he named that position and free safety as his two greatest concerns.
Senior Anthony Jones is currently taking first-team reps at the position, and Graham said he has been “solid.” There is also the possibility that safety Marcus Ball could figure at the position.
“I’d have a hard time not putting that guy on the field somewhere,” Graham said. “Unbelievable smarts as far as football knowledge and unbelievable character. This guy, you get on and strain and he looks you in the eye and it’s, ‘yes sir, no sir.’ He doesn’t blink.”
But the player the staff really wanted to win the job was redshirt freshman Carlos Mendoza, who made a big impression in limited time last year before a shoulder injury in Week 2 against Illinois sidelined him for the season.
Mendoza had three tackles and two interceptions in that game, showing off the versatility in coverage and at the line of scrimmage that is essential to the spur. The spur is a linebacker/safety hybrid in which the player may blitz or cover slot receivers.
“You’re always forcing or setting the edge, being aggressive,” said Mendoza, who didn’t find out about the switch to spur until late in spring practice this year. “The coaches said they put me here because they noticed how fast I was and how I could move side to side.”
The problem is, Mendoza can do neither right now due to a recent knee injury that he had scoped and then drained a few days ago, limiting his practice reps. Maybe he’ll get another crack at the spot when he is 100 percent, but Graham told The Arizona Republic on Thursday that Mendoza will slide back to his old position at weakside linebacker for now, while redshirt sophomore Antonio Longino will get some work at the spur.
The move highlights just how unstable that position is right now and just how much of a hole Young’s move could create.
“We’re just hoping that those guys can battle it out and one of them will mature into the player we need at that position,” Randolph said.
If none of the current options pans out, Randolph knows he can always move Young back to the spur.
“It is one heck of an insurance policy,” he said.
But that would leave perhaps an even bigger hole at will, where Magee was the unquestioned leader of the defense last season.
“Brandon was probably our second- or third-most productive player on the team a year ago,” Randolph said. “Where we’ve (coached) in the past, that’s always been true of that position, so we’re really hoping that’s where Chris stays because we think he’s an outstanding football player.”