TEMPE, Ariz. -- The simple fact that Carlos Mendoza has earned a place in Arizona State's second team linebacker unit despite not participating in contact drills until two days ago should say plenty about the freshman, but there's more to it than that.
Mendoza has made a strong impression with coaches this fall, all while limited following offseason shoulder surgery.
"Its been very frustrating because he's been injured," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "He's really just had two or three days of full practice, but he's a guy that's definitely going to help us this year."
Mendoza, 6-foot-1 and 217 pounds, came to ASU from California high school football powerhouse Oaks Christian. He had offers from other schools like Air Force, San Jose State and Washington State, but ASU represented his highest-profile opportunity, and the the possibility of playing early in his college career.
"It was a goal of mine to play this year," Mendoza said. "I did not have my mind on redshirting, even with the injury. I really wanted to play."
All three of the Sun Devils' starting linebackers from 2011 graduated, leaving plenty of questions to be answered at the position. Beyond senior Brandon Magee, who missed all of 2011 with an Achilles injury, little was certain.
Mendoza said his main goal coming into fall camp was earning a starting spot on special teams. He has done that. Getting to back up Magee at "WILL" linebacker is a bonus that he has earned by impressing coaches with his instincts, awareness and ball focus.
"He's getting a great opportunity on special teams, on the first-team level, which will get him introduced to the game of college football," West said. "And then he's behind a really good football player (Magee). He's learning from him."
West emphasizes that Mendoza's primary focus needs to be special teams right now, because opportunities to get on the field behind an established player like Magee won't always be plentiful.
Mendoza said he never hesitates to go to Magee with a question about ASU's diverse defensive scheme. The pair discusses plays regularly but don't necessarily have to exchange words for Mendoza to learn.
"Every time I pay attention to him, he's always doing the right thing on the field," Mendoza said. "So I always make sure to pay attention to him. I learn a lot by just watching him."
Even though Mendoza has been limited by his shoulder this fall, West is confident he knows what he has in Mendoza, even while keeping immediate expectations in check.
"We thought he was a pretty good athlete on film, saw his coverage skills, saw how he can read routes, read off the quarterbacks eyes," West said. "He did a lot of good things in that way in the passing game. We think he has a great shot at helping us."
West believes Mendoza's quick adjustment to the college level is a product of good coaching in high school. That makes sense, as it was former NFL all-pro linebacker Clay Matthews Jr. tutoring Mendoza at Oaks Christian.
Mendoza said his current focus is on trying to stop worrying about his shoulder and making good on the coaches' decision to give him a backup job before he's even made a tackle in camp.
"I feel like the coaches are testing me, seeing what my mind-set is coming off this (injury)," he said. "I need to step up to this challenge. I have to keep this spot, I can't lose it. I have to keep working."