Arizona State linebacker DJ Calhoun is tired of the mentality that has plagued the Sun Devil defense. It’s been a time for focus, starting with his own.
“You don’t want to be like last year,” Calhoun said. “Even if you do good, you want to be better the next year. I think everyone’s ready to stop being losers. We need to be winners, that’s what it is.”
Calhoun is entering his senior season at Arizona State, with him and defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood becoming the veteran presences on the Sun Devil defense. The two are the only two players to have played in each game during the last three seasons.
While Smallwood has primarily occupied the “TIGER” defensive line spot during his career, Calhoun has proven his value through his versatility. Calhoun started his ASU career as a “SPUR” linebacker, and has spent time at Devilbacker before adjusting to his current role ping-ponging between inside linebacker spots.
Calhoun firmly took hold of the starting “WILL” linebacker spot last season, taking over for Christian Sam when he went down with a foot injury following the season opener. Calhoun would wind up leading the team with 77 tackles, including 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
Sam, now a redshirt junior) has returned this spring, sliding over to the “SAM” linebacker slot and giving the Sun Devils a competent duo in the middle between him and Calhoun.
“There’s more chemistry,” Calhoun said of playing with Sam. “Me and him, we’re like brothers. We’ve been working so hard together, on and off the field. It helps a lot (that we’re interchangeable). We’ve come from our freshman year, not knowing anything, sophomore year learning, junior year step up and now it’s our (fourth) year.”
Calhoun said he’s grown immensely from the time he burst onto the scene as an early enrollee in the spring. Now, he’s in his fifth and final year of spring sessions. He said that his time in Tempe has passed quickly, but now he has a firm idea of the change he needs to make.
Some of it is in the weight room. Now, he’s able to see what he’s doing on film and immediately adjust. He said he’s able to evaluate himself better as a player and make tweaks to his game when necessary. This season, he says, the goal is closing speed. He’s consistently been one of the program’s harder hitters, but his coverage skills need to take a step up.
Then there’s the off the field aspect, which Calhoun said he’s taken more seriously.
“I feel like I’m growing up as a man,” Calhoun said. “I’m going to be 21 soon, and I have to stop with all the petty stuff outside of football. I need to focus. I’m a senior now, I’m not a freshman anymore. It’s gone, just like that. It just hits you.
“(The work ethic) grows into you. You want to take charge, you want to be a leader.”
Even with Sam and Calhoun having four years of experience under their belts, there’s a young feel to the group as a whole. A pair of redshirt sophomores, Malik Lawal and Khaylan Thomas, have produced well in the spring and should figure into the linebacker rotation in the fall.
ASU head coach Todd Graham said the young talent has only served to improve Calhoun and Sam’s performance.
“Depth is great, but my focus is on the one-deep,” Graham said. “There’s competition there. Every position is competitive, every position is open for guys to compete. What I’m looking at is the guys who are doing things the way we want them done.”
Calhoun doesn’t see the young approaching talent as a threat. Instead, he looks to play a similar role that veterans such as Salamo Fiso, Antonio Longino and Jordan Simone played for him. Calhoun wants to be a teacher and a leader like them and pass on the lessons he learned quickly.
There’s no doubting Thomas and Lawal will see the field this season, Calhoun said. It’s just a matter of how ready they’re going to be.
“I’m not going to be one of those seniors that doesn’t want them to play or anything like that,” Calhoun said. “I just tell them that you’re going to get yelled at freshman, sophomore year like I did. You have to play special teams, you’ve got to work your way up. They’re the future. If I go down, I’m coaching them up. It doesn’t matter, it’s all the team.”
Calhoun said he’s tired of the losing, and how the reputation of the defense has fallen off after a 6-6 2015 and 5-7 2016 season. Last season ended in an embarrassment for the defense, with the unit allowing more than 500 rushing yards in a loss to Arizona.
The senior linebacker said he’s been encouraged by the progress of Phil Bennett, who is in his first season as the defensive coordinator after coming from Baylor. Calhoun is still close with Keith Patterson, who held the position before being demoted to linebackers coach this offseason, but said change has come with Bennett.
“It all starts with (Bennett), and they all just rally off of him. They all have chemistry. They all knew each other way back when. When he came, all the coaches felt more confident in themselves and it just feels like we’re having more fun, honestly.
“He’s going to keep it real. He won’t be (BS’ing) anybody, excuse my language. He’s always the same guy. We’re being real. We’re not trying to put up a show and focus on anything else. We’re focusing on our team.”