TEMPE, Ariz. — Salamo Fiso doesn’t grant many interviews. Maybe it’s a comfort issue. Maybe it’s just a lack of ego, but the sight of the Arizona State linebacker standing before four reporters after Thursday’s practice stopped several teammates dead in their tracks.
“If I had known you were going to interview with these guys I wouldn’t have asked you,” coach Todd Graham quipped as he walked past the reporters. “Make it short, guys. He’s got people he’s got to see. He’s got his publicist waiting.”
The way Graham sees it, Fiso will need a publicist with the way he is playing. The redshirt junior leads the nation with 39 solo tackles and he is tied for 11th in the nation with 8.5 tackles for loss. He had eight solo tackles and a TFL in Saturday’s season-altering 38-23 win at then-No. 7 UCLA.
“I think he’s playing at an All-Pac-12 level,” Graham said. “The numbers he’s putting up are player-of-the-year caliber numbers.”
Fiso knew he’d have to shoulder a greater load this season as one of two returning starters on defense, but that required a commitment in two main areas — one which he has embraced; the other which he has modified to fit his personality.
“A vocal leader — it’s still not me,” Fiso said. “I just play and try to do my part the best I can. That in itself is leading.”
Fiso does have a personal touch, however, when it comes to communicating with teammates.
“It’s mostly one-on-one and talking to someone when coach is getting on someone and they’re getting down,” he said. “It’s picking them up. It’s saying one little thing; making sure they are moving off of that play and trying to stay positive.”
Second-year defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Keith Patterson isn’t asking Fiso to be a rah-rah guy.
“You can’t shun the opportunity you have to communicate but he is a vocal leader in a very unique way,” Patterson said. “His way of communicating is getting people lined up, getting people into the right adjustments and the right call, so he does communicate. It’s just not a vocal, stand- up-in-front-of-the-team, oohrah guy — which honestly, I prefer at linebacker.
“I’d rather have a guy that is going to set there and lead by his actions and do things on the field; let his play speak for itself.”
The change that Paterson focused on enacting in spring ball and training camp was getting Fiso to bring his passion to the practice field.
“I tried to get him to understand that if you’ll just start practicing that way, it will just come second nature on game day,” Patterson said. “I think that’s what you’re seeing. The way he’s approaching the week, mentally is so much different than what he did a year ago.”
Fiso was part of a Sun Devil defensive effort that limited UCLA’s high-powered offense to five three-and-outs in first half of Saturday’s game at the Rose Bowl and 62 yards rushing in the game. Part of the performance was a response to the early-season struggles ASU had faced in a 2-2 start; part of it was Fiso’s comfort level in the defense on display.
“It feels good to be a fourth-year guy,” he said. “I understand the game more and just get in the film room more. I’m just playing free.”
Patterson is Fiso’s third position coach since he entered the program so the coach understood it was going to take some time to build trust. He hopes the UCLA was a turning point in their relationship.
“Last week after that game, we both hugged each other and told each other we loved each other,” Patterson said. “I think we’re speaking the same language now.”