TEMPE, Ariz. -- "I'm a hitter," said D.J. Calhoun. "That's who I am."
That's exactly why so many people think that the true freshman linebacker will be a perfect fit for the Arizona State defense that is in dire need of playmakers.
The Sun Devils lost nine starters from last year's defense, including standout WILL linebacker Chris Young. Last season, Young led the team with 112 tackles (17.5 for loss) and finished second with 7.5 sacks. So pervasive was Young's presence that his 79 solo tackles where more than the combined tackle total of any other Sun Devil in 2013.
Needless to say, Young leaves quite a hole in the lineup, and a high standard to reach for a player who just weeks ago reached the legal voting age. Knowing that an opportunity was present, Calhoun enrolled at ASU a semester early to get a head start on his collegiate career
“It means a lot," said Calhoun of becoming a Sun Devil earlier than normal. "It’s really family here, and I think it was really beneficial for me to come here early."
The early arrival allowed Calhoun, a consensus 4-star recruit, to get to work with the team's strength and conditioning program. More importantly, he was able to participate in spring practice, where he faced significant expectations despite his true freshman status.
“The coaches are expecting me to start, and they would be surprised if I didn’t," Calhoun said.
He wasted little time in living up to the hype, as he soon assumed the No. 1 spot at WILL after a few practices and never gave it up. Calhoun remains the listed starter at the position as the team heads into fall camp, and remains the favorite to stay there when ASU opens the season on August 28.
Throughout the spring, the 6-foot, 205-pound Calhoun displayed a relentless drive, great range, and a beyond-his-years football IQ—in addition to his self-acknowledged hitting prowess. While still assimilating the playbook, Calhoun repeatedly flashed his playmaking potential. In one particularly strong spring session, he made a key interception in the endzone, and followed that up with a massive hit on star running back D.J. Foster that caused a fumble. The blow drew did not sit well with Foster, who provided some extracurricular shoving. Unfazed, Calhoun did not back down.
“I like it a lot, because this defense is mainly about blitzing," Calhoun said of his role at WILL. "I want to come in, take their spot, and impact on it.”
"D.J. is a guy that possesses great blitz ability, and is very, very smart," said head coach Todd Graham. "Obviously that's key in playing in our system. I think he's one of the best linebackers in the country."
So far, the kid has proved he belongs.
Beyond his physical talents, Calhoun is already helping to fill the leadership void left by so many departures on the defense. An Army All-American selection this past January, so respected was Calhoun and his leadership ability among the nation's elite recruits that he was selected as a team captain. He feels that he can help lead his Sun Devil teammates in many ways.
“I’m not just an outspoken leader, I’m a silent leader," Calhoun said. "I listen to the coaches. I talk to the players. When I play on the field, that’s when my whole head changes. I scream, yell, everything. I show it, based on my talent."
"The thing that stuck out to me more than anything recruiting him is his character and his leadership," said Graham. "We're excited about D.J. and his leadership, and he's a guy I think is going to be very impactful in the fall."
While every expectation is that Calhoun will play a major role in the rebuilding ASU defense as a true freshman, he is taking nothing for granted, despite his initial successes.
“I want to be No. 1 in everything I do, and put all the effort I have into it," said Calhoun. "From now on, I’m going to keep working harder and harder. You can never stop working. I just want to take it one day at a time. I can’t wait."
Neither can Sun Devil fans.