TEMPE, Ariz. – When the Arizona Cardinals called Alani Fua after the linebacker didn’t get drafted this spring, they had a request.
They would sign Fua if he moved to inside linebacker.
Fua wasn’t quite sure what to do. He’d just completed a five-year career at Brigham Young University at outside linebacker, where he complemented 124 tackles with nine sacks and five interceptions.
But this was a chance at the NFL.
“At first I was kind of like, ‘What the heck? No way,’” Fua said. “After talking to coaches and learning about the defense, I kind of warmed up to it.”
Four months after making the transition to inside linebacker, the move paid off. Fua made the Cardinals’ 53-man roster on Saturday, one of two undrafted rookies to survive the cut.
His ascension from undrafted free agent to NFL player had almost everything to do with his size.
At 6-foot-5 – extremely rare height for an inside linebacker – Fua was labeled as “intriguing” by coach Bruce Arians during training camp. And Fua is. Last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, there were 12 linebackers in the NFL who were 6-5 or taller. Only four were inside linebackers, and none played more than 16 snaps.
“I think the biggest thing is his length gives him range, whether it’s chasing the ball or whether it’s being able to play tight ends or match up on a back,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “As he grows, as he gets better, you gain more confidence and comfort in calls that put him in those positions as he learns how to use the skill set he has.”
Where Fua’s size will benefit the Cardinals most is defending tight ends. Last season, there were 61 tight ends who stood 6-5 or taller, including four in the NFC West. Even though he matched up against tight ends in college, Fua still has to learn the intricacies of defending a receiver, Bettcher said. Inside linebackers coach Larry Foote worked with Fua on understanding and maintaining his leverage and how to defend the ball down the field.
For now, Fua rates his coverage skills as “pretty good,” but he hasn’t been tested against wide receivers yet. Bettcher won’t allow that to happen until Fua develops more. But Fua’s need is greater against tight ends, who caught 182 passes for 2,312 yards and 25 touchdowns against Arizona the last two seasons. They’ve accounted for 49 percent of the total touchdowns allowed by opposing quarterbacks.
Fua understands his value.
“It definitely helps being pretty much the same size as the tight ends,” Fua said. “A lot of times they try to throw it over the inside linebackers but with me, it’s a little tougher. I’m a little longer and pretty much the same size as them. It definitely creates a little more of an even matchup than usual.”
Which helps Bettcher sleep better at night.
“It allows you not to worry as much about some of the matchups that calls create,” Bettcher said. “As you’re making a call, you’re thinking, ‘OK, I got this, this and this. Sometimes you've got to live with those matchups to get what you want. But as much as you can in the National Football League, you’re trying to create the best matchups possible as well as the best scheme possible.”
There are parts of his transition inside, such as figuring out his new responsibilities on every play, that took months for Fua to learn and develop.
For the first time, he’s making calls and checks at the line. He’s also engaging the interior of the offensive line, so he has to read where guards and tight ends are pulling. Instead of setting the edge and figuring out the best way to beat a blocking tight end or a tackle off the edge, he now sees the offensive line as a whole.
Then there are areas of being an inside linebacker that are old hat to Fua, such as blitzing, which has become a pillar of Arizona’s defense.
“I actually feel a little more free inside,” he said. “I can kind of use my speed and my length to my advantage.”
There are certain qualities that can’t be taught to football players. Instincts, speed and height are three of them. As long as he’s 6-5, Fua will be an intriguing – as Arians said – option for teams. But Fua wasn’t just fighting for a job in training to make an NFL roster.
He fights to take care of his wife, Malaysia, and two sons at home.
“I definitely think it brings a little edge in there, being a young guy with a family,” Fua said. “I have a little better perspective of how big this is.”