When news hit yesterday that Jamal Atofau was moving from his safety position to SAM linebacker, I started questioning the motivation. At 5-9 180 lbs, Atofau is well undersized, even for an outside linebacker. Yes, that was his position at Bellevue High, but playing linebacker at the college level requires much more physicality.
The Cougars likey lost Louis Bland for the year and did lose Andre Barrington, weakening the depth at linebacker. At the same time, the safety spot saw LeAndre Daniels and Jay Matthews go down with injuries.
Was Atofau's move to SAM made to shore-up the depth now and in the future, or is there something else at play here?
I'll be up front and say I don't buy Atofau as a SAM. He's still not a sure tackler and goes for the helmet-jarring hit more often than not. He's too small to play that close to the line of scimmage right now, almost ensuring he wouldn't see the field this year outside of special teams. It doesn't make sense for the present.
Everything we've heard so far indicates Atofau is ready to play right now. After taking a year to redshirt, he was running with the second-team at safety and had seen plenty of action during the spring and fall camps.
Instead, I don't think Atofau is actually practicing as a SAM. While the official line is that he's changed positions, a look at the non-conference schedule tells me all I need to know about this move. It's my opinion that Atofau will play as a rover during the first three weeks of the season, or at the very least against Oklahoma State and SMU.
Both SMU and Oklahoma State play variations on the spread that utilize high-powered pass-first attacks. They're going to spread the field out and use short routes while peppering the secondary with quick passes. In that regard, it makes sense to throw the base 4-3 defense out the window and run a 3-3-5 (Edit: As newportcoug said, A 4-2-5 is also a possibility), with Atofau in coverage as a fifth defensive back.
It's no secret that a 3-3-5 is a better way to defend the 'Air Raid' than sitting in a base defense and allowing the opponent to pick it apart. Adding an element of speed in the defensive backfield and being able to match-up with the multiple receiver sets a run-and-shoot throws out there is key in stopping the high-powered offense. Atofau can take the principles he's learned as a safety, and apply them to coverage against the run-and-shoot.
Don't be at all shocked if this move is temporary and a scheme-based position switch. The rover spot fits Atofau's skill set and gives the Cougs a much better shot at slowing down OSU and SMU.