“He’ll be a starter this week.”
With those words from Arizona State head coach Todd Graham this past Monday, a move long anticipated by many seemed to have finally been made. Redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso appears to be taking over as the team’s starting SAM linebacker for this week’s matchup against USC.
Fiso had been seeing time behind Steffon Martin, the starter since the beginning of 2012. Yet despite Martin seeing the bulk of the reps thus far, Fiso has had greater production and been largely more effective.
During the final minutes of the Sun Devils’ loss to Stanford on Saturday, Fiso was particularly impressive, logging three of his four tackles—including one for loss—on one drive. Fiso shot the gaps with authority and speed, showing off the type of skills that ASU’s defensive scheme is built upon.
That stretch was the culmination of a growing movement in Fiso’s favor. Over the course of fall camp and the early parts of this season, the coaching staff had been looking for ways to get more reps for him.
“He really stepped up and is a guy who in the second half showed a lot,” Graham said of Fiso.
Looking at his potential breakout performance against Stanford, Fiso thinks that he left some plays on the field.
“It was pretty good,” Fiso said of his performance. “I could have been better. I could have shed blockers a lot. I was holding onto blockers a lot. Other than that, I think I played well.”
Fiso’s rise is further proof that ASU is the meritocracy that Graham says he has established. While some programs may scoff at the idea of elevating a redshirt freshman over a senior with 13 career starts, Fiso believes that Graham’s competitive atmosphere has helped the entire team.
“You just have to compete. We have a whole bunch of good players at linebacker,” said Fiso. “Me and Steffon compete every day. He’s another main reason of why we are so good. We compete every day.”
Another major factor in Fiso’s development has been defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Paul Randolph, who has taken a direct and hands on approach.
“He’s on my butt constantly,” Fiso said of Randolph. “Getting me film, coming in one-on-one. I need to grow up, and he’s always reminding me to grow up. He’s a big part of why I’m here.”
For some players, being elevated into the starting lineup for the first time in their collegiate career could create some added pressure, but Fiso is not letting it influence his preparations for USC.
“I’m just going to prepare the same as I do every week,” said Fiso. “USC is a big game. It’s exciting to start.”
Looking ahead to the Trojans, Fiso believes that they will follow a game plan similar to Wisconsin and attack ASU at the edges. The Sun Devils have been vulnerable to the run this year, allowing an average of 174 yards-per-game, tied for 78th in the nation.
With the Trojan passing game still struggling with new quarterback Cody Kessler (108th in the nation in yards-per-game), USC figures to run the ball often on Saturday. Stopping it, Fiso believes, is all about preparation.
“Film work. Knowing where to be is discipline,” said of the keys to shutting down the run. “It’s knowing how to fit and where to fit. I feel like they are going to do a lot of speed sweeps to Marqise Lee. They’re going to do a lot of tug, trying to get to our perimeter outside.”
So with his first start looming, what should ASU fans expect from Fiso?
“Speed. I’m pretty physical for my size, and I lay the hat.”
If Fiso can lay his hat on enough Trojan ballcarriers on this week, he can help lead his team to a crucial South division victory.