Heading into the 2013 season, the Arizona State defensive rotation seemed to be fairly well set, especially along the front seven, where the Sun Devils expected to rely heavily on their core of veteran returning starters. But redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso had other plans. A strong performance in spring practice quickly evolved into an equally impressive fall camp for the linebacker, and before most fans could realize, Fiso was making a push for more playing time, even at the expense of his veteran teammates.
By the time Arizona State was set to face USC in week four of the season, Fiso had wrestled the starting SAM linebacker position away from incumbent starter Steffon Martin, officially announcing his arrival as the next big time playmaker for the Sun Devil defense.
"I feel pretty comfortable but I'm still learning each day," said Fiso after practice on Thursday of his new role in the defense. "I still have Steffon coaching me, which has been a big help. That's the thing I've got to do, is just ask him all my questions. If I don't understand something, I can't be afraid to ask questions."
For the season, Fiso ranked third on the team in total tackles with 62, including 45 solo tackles. He also recorded 5.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. But still, the Long Beach native insists he can do more for the defense.
"It wasn't up to my expectations," Fiso remarked. "I mean, I want to be in the triple digits for tackles. I want to lead the team in tackles, but I did my job and I've just got to keep learning from here and just keep progressing."
Last week, it was announced that Fiso and fellow freshman Zane Gonzalez had been elected to the College Football News All-American Team. Gonzalez, who set a school-record for kickers by accounting for 127 points in 2013 while converting 22 of his 26 field goal attempts, was named to the Freshman All-American Second Team, while Fiso earned a spot on the Freshman All-American Honorable Mention team.
"I was surprised," said Fiso. "I didn't even know until Zane came up to me and showed me the tweet. I was like, 'What?' And then when I took a look at it, I was like, 'Dang.' I couldn't believe it. It felt good. It's a blessing, man, and very humbling."
"He did a great job for us this year," Graham stated. "He's a Freshman All-American and with how he's grown and matured, he's going to be a great one. I love his character, love his attitude. He's a guy that's very well respected and he's a guy that, with Steffon (Martin) coming back as returning starter, was able to step in and play and to become the starter is pretty impressive.
"He's our kind of guy. He's a character guy who works his tail off and does a great job. We've strained him and trained him and he's going to be a great one for us."
With eight graduating seniors on this year's defense, the Sun Devils will most likely look to Fiso to lead them again in 2014 as they look to rebuild and repeat as Pac-12 South division champions. While he may not be a verbal leader by trait, Fiso eagerly awaits the challenge.
"It impacts us a lot," Fiso commented. "It means that spring camp has to be harder. It means summer training has to be harder. Recruiting, we might need some JUCO kids to come in that won't need to redshirt and take on the role. I mean, we'll have Jaxon (Hood) on the line and Marcus Hardison coming back, but we'll need some guys to fill in.
"I've just got to be a leader. I've got to show by example because I'm not much of a verbal leader. I feel like I'll have to lead by my actions."
With just two practices remaining before the Sun Devils break for the holidays, Fiso admits he's anxious to return home to his hometown of Long Beach, Calif. Yet, the season isn't over and the talented linebacker knows the Sun Devils still have one more game to win to close out the year strong.
"I feel like I haven't been back home in, like, five months, so it's going to be good to go home for a few days," Fiso said. "But then we've got to come back here and prepare some more and then go win in front of the Sun Devil crowd."