TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was a nice afternoon in early November, a great day for football.
He already had made nine starts on the season, and his dynamic skills had resulted in a burgeoning highlight reel growing larger every week. Scores of fallen ball carriers had been left in his wake. But it wasn’t until he leapt up to defend a pass in the first quarter of this game did he finally feel at home in the Pac-12.
“I just remember the interception,” said Arizona State senior linebacker Chris Young. “Once I got the interception, that was an ‘I belong’ moment.”
For most followers of Sun Devil football, they’d place Young’s arrival much, much earlier.
Young joined the ASU program last August as a junior college transfer from Arizona Western College, quickly winning a starting job. He burst out of the gate, racking up 8.5 tackles-for-loss over the first four games. However, despite that early success, he still felt like he was working through an adjustment period.
“At first, it was hard to get used to walking out of Tillman Tunnel and seeing the fans and stuff,” said Young. “For the most part, it was contestant repetition, and then I just got used to it.”
After his time at the junior college ranks—in which he took home the 2011 Western States Football League Defensive Player award—Young’s work ethic helped him acclimate to a Pac-12 game that was much tougher than he originally thought.
“It definitely was way better than I expected it to be,” Young said. “I came in thinking that I was just going to feel my way into this and get a feel for Division I football, and I think I got the hang of it, of how things were.”
Young finished his first season in Tempe with an impressive and varied stat line: 82 tackles (third on the team), 14 tackles-for-loss, five passes defended, two sacks, and the “I belong” interception of Matt Barkley. Yet for all of the numbers he put up, Young also sees the ones that he didn’t.
“I definitely see a lot more improvement,” said Young. “After completing my spring as a senior, I look back and see all of the mistakes that I made. I take that into consideration as I go into my second season. I’m just trying to be more explosive, more educated in my assignments, and understand what my teammates are doing on the field.”
That road to improvement has manifested itself through the program’s vigorous offseason conditioning program, as well as a lot of time focusing on the mental aspects of football, and that of ASU’s opposition.
“Working out hard and practicing what we preach, and that’s a Rose Bowl win,” Young said of the team’s summer regimen. “With our summer workouts, getting up in the rooms and watching film, looking at our competition has been one of the main things we’ve focused on as an entire football team.”
While every weight lifted and film reel watched figures to give Young and his teammates a greater edge come fall, perhaps their greatest asset is one that cannot be replicated: a year of experience in Todd Graham and Paul Randolph’s defense.
“We definitely got a feel for how the coaches want us to run the defense,” Young said. “It gives us an edge as we go into our second season. It’s going to be very exciting to play this second time around. You can expect a lot of big plays to be made.”
That full year in the Arizona State system has also had another major benefit for Young, one that figures to last well beyond his playing days.
One of the most dramatic changes that Graham and his staff have implemented at ASU since their arrival has been in regards to the culture of the program. While building a contending football team is a prime focus, the staff is dedicated to producing a team of high-character individuals. It’s an approach now commonly referred to as “Graham 360”.
“It definitely taught me a lot to be a more responsible and dedicated person on the field and off the field,” said Young says of the new culture. “Everything that has happened in order to get me here, and is continuing to happen, is everything that Coach Graham is talking about. Character. Integrity. It’s definitely helped me grow as a person. It’s helped me become a better football player and better person.”
Believing himself better equipped on and off the field, Young now figures to be among the Pac-12’s better defenders. The only question is: What position will he play?
The obvious choice would be a return to the SPUR linebacker spot where he made 13 starts in 2012. Being a hybrid of one outside linebacker and safety, it is a perfect fit for Young’s skills.
“It’s very versatile. Coverage, blitzing, covering ground, TFLs and the other responsibilities,” Young said. “For the most part, we have Anthony Jones, and Carlos Mendoza should be looking to step in to catch some reps at SPUR. It will be exciting to see who steps up and captures that position.”
While Young saw first-team reps at SPUR during spring ball, he also slid over to see action at WILL linebacker, stepping in for the departed Brandon Magee. So effective was Young during his time at WILL, that he exited spring listed atop the depth chart at both positions.
“Wherever the team needs me,” Young said of his preference. “As far as SPUR or WILL, I’m comfortable at both positions. I really like both. At the end of the day, all I look to is whether I start, whether it’s at WILL or SPUR.”
Beyond the possible need to fill in at his old position, Young is also being looked upon to help step into the leadership role that Magee held for the entire defense. Unlike bringing down ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, this is a skill that does not come naturally to Young.
“It’s definitely something that I’m working on,” said Young. “I’m trying to lead my team vocally, but I’ve not really been the leader type. I just try to lead by example, and to do my assignments, make my plays, and contribute to what the team needs.”
Whether he’s at SPUR or WILL, Young will be playing alongside longtime friend Steffon Martin, the team’s starter at the SAM spot. Martin played with Young at Arizona Western and was a part of the same 2012 recruiting class. Their friendship and mutual support has been a big reason that both have blossomed into effective playmakers in Tempe.
“It has been a long journey coming from junior college and D-I football as well,” said Young. “It’s kind of like a little love story, I guess [laughs]. It’s great playing with him. He’s a great teammate, a great brother. Words can’t explain how we came up from the bottom. We’re just two football players trying to make a name for ourselves.”
This past April, Young watched as several of his teammates went unselected during the NFL Draft. Although many eventually signed as free agents, seeing no Sun Devils selected for the first time since 1963 provided Young and his teammates with some additional motivation for this upcoming season.
“It definitely gave us a motive,” Young said. “Even though they didn’t get drafted, it was still amazing to see them get picked up by their teams. It was inspiring to see them go through that process and still make it. I want to take that and build off of that and be projected up there and be drafted.”
But to ultimately get to the next level, Young recognizes that the most important business is at hand: Win the Pac-12 South title. To do so, Young and his defensive comrades are living by a simple creed.
“Our motto is definitely the Will Sutton ‘We Eatin’’. That’s how we’re looking towards this upcoming season: Just go out there and play Sun Devil defense.”
With Young among the eight starters returning, the odds that ASU will be able to match and exceed the level of play from a year ago seems high. If they do, they are well positioned to attain their goal.
“The bigger picture is Rose Bowl and National Championship. That is the motive, the inspiration, the shrine we push for this season.”