'Commander' Salamo Fiso excelling as leader of Sun Devil defense

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By Brad Denny By Brad Denny

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The faces and jersey numbers around him may be different, but Salamo Fiso keeps on hitting people.

The redshirt sophomore has picked up where he left off from last season, where he entered the starting lineup in Week 4 and hasn't looked back. That ascension by a then-redshirt freshman pushed a returning senior, Steffon Martin, to the bench, no easy feat and no easy decision for the coaching staff.

"We were happy with the job Steffon was doing, but (Fiso) just kept showing up and making plays," said ASU head coach Todd Graham. Fiso proved that move to be a sound one by making 71 tackles (5.5 for loss), and his three sacks were the most of any returning player heading in to 2014.

Fiso entered 2014 as one of the few experienced players coming back to a Sun Devil defense that lost nine starters from a year ago. With so much uncertainty around him, it was critical that Fiso excel at his SAM linebacker spot. So far, thanks to his experience, he has delivered.

“I feel way more comfortable with the defense," he said. "Having a third year under my belt with Coach Graham. I just have to now get the young guys comfortable with the defense.”

That role as one of the team's few veterans on defense is one that Fiso has embraced.

“I’m just taking it day by day," Fiso said of his leadership role. "I’m focusing on getting the young kids right, being a leading example, and trying not to get too high or too low.”

Beyond being a leader for his young teammates, Fiso has also taken on more responsibilities on the field.

"He is the commander of the defense," Graham said. "He is the guy making all the checks and doing all the audibles."

With his growing comfort in the scheme, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Fiso is now able to simply read and react while on the field. That natural ability is a trait praised by his head coach.

“Salamo is just instinctive," Graham said. "You can’t teach someone how to be instinctive about seeing the ball. Some guys just never take their eyes off the ball. He is just instinctive and I don’t think you can teach that.”

Through two games, Fiso has made 12 tackles and registered one sack. That includes five stops made in last week's road win over New Mexico, in which Fiso and the rest of the defense learned a valuable lesson about not letting up.

“I feel that we did pretty good starting off, but we started getting lackadaisical and started taking it easy when we went up 22-0," Fiso said. "We can’t do that. Coming out of halftime, we did great. We shut them out.”

While UNM's unique triple option offense posed several issues early, the second half surge came as a result of a refocus on the existing fundamentals of the scheme.

“We really didn’t make any adjustments," said Fiso. "We stuck to our gameplan. We went back to our base and didn’t try to do too much. We were trying to do too much in the beginning.”

For Fiso and his teammates, that lapse and subsequent rebound provided a necessary jolt, especially with more tough road games ahead.

“Going through that adversity and that scare, everyone was nervous," Fiso said. "All we had to do was come together and stay focused. It’s great and helped us a lot."

The struggles last week also highlighted one other issue facing any defense still learning to play together: communication. Fiso realizes that the Sun Devil defense must get better in that area, and do so quickly.

“It’s going to be harder when these bigger games come," Fiso said. "Louder fans. We have to communicate. Sometimes we stray away from communication, and that’s a big thing on our defense.”

Their communication skills will face another big test on Saturday night when ASU faces Colorado up in Boulder. While the Buffaloes continue to struggle, their offense will present Fiso and the Sun Devils with an up-tempo attack that won't leave much room for error.

"They are going to try to spread us out and try to run the ball," said Fiso. "They are going to try to get to the perimeter, try to make us run and get tired. They ran 89 plays last week, so we need to be ready.”

Given the way Fiso has been playing, it is Colorado that need to be ready for him.