At heart of ASU football defense, Devilbacker position defines explosive unit
It’s been called the “Renegade” and the “Panther.” Terrell Suggs played it before it even existed. Carl Bradford was drafted into the NFL because of it. It’s a position that has followed coach Todd Graham since his introduction into coaching collegiate defense in 2002.
It’s the Devilbacker. Nobody quite knows how it was created. Defensive line and Devilbackers coach Paul Randolph credited Graham, then, Graham credited “probably” co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. No matter its origins, Devilbacker is the position that has defined the ASU football defense since Graham took over in 2012.
He lines up all over the field, finding the opponent’s weakest spot to attack. He can either line up with his hands on the ground or on two feet. The Devilbacker can attack you at any time, or he can drop into coverage. He has to be fast but also physically and mentally tough. To play it, you have to know what both the linebackers and defensive line are doing, precisely. “You name it, it’s just all of those,” Randolph said. But most of all:
“That guy has to be a playmaker.”
And he has both seasons Graham has been at ASU. Carl Bradford, playing Devilbacker, collected 20 sacks over the past two seasons, leading the Sun Devils over that span.
The Devilbacker embodies the quality that fuels Graham’s defense: explosiveness.
“Our defense is built on guys being explosive, being playmakers,” Randolph said. “When we talk about a hybrid, attacking defense, we’re talking about that Devil guy.”
There’s a reason why Graham is a popular coach to play for, and why recruits want to join the Sun Devil defense. It’s fun. It’s fun to get sacks. It’s fun to make explosive plays. It’s fun to have coaches to utilize you to the best of your abilities.
quarterback during a play at Camp Tontozona. (Photo by Mario Mendez)
Graham’s hybrid defensive scheme, anchored by the Devilbacker, acts as one of his most powerful recruiting tools.
“I try to create positions like the Devilbacker, where it’s easy to recruit to because people want to play it,” Graham said. “I mean, heck, here, you play three-techniques and five-techniques, getting off the ball and flying and making plays in the backfield.”
It’s the best-known position of ASU’s quartet of linebackers that also includes the Sam, Will and Spur. The Sam and Will act as typical linebackers, but the Devil and Spur are flex positions. The Devil is a hybrid of a defensive end and outside linebacker, while the Spur combines strong safety and outside linebacker.
Why does the Devilbacker get all the love? He’s made 142 tackles over the past two seasons, including 39.5 for loss and the 20 aforementioned sacks. Bradford’s replacement, redshirt sophomore Edmond Boateng, has large shoes to fill. His approach to it? “I want to strive for two or three (sacks). Once I get that third one, then it’s just a roll, and I want to just keep on getting them,” he said.
The position is such that whoever plays it is destined for success, as long as he does what he’s supposed to do. It’s part of a system that stresses having flexibility to adapt to its players skillsets, varying year-to-year. The Devil can either line up in a stance or standing up, but he’ll be lining up all over the field, either way.
“In our system, you don’t know where they’re going to be; that’s the best thing about it,” Randolph said. “We’re going to allow them to do the best they can do, so there’s no telling where they’ll be.”
It took Bradford a year to fully pick up the position, Randolph said, despite the stats saying otherwise. Because of the mental aspect of the position, there’s a longer transition period to learn it than most others. Boateng is confident that he’ll pick it up quickly, after moving to the position just last week.
“Coming in playing just three days of Devil, it’s a little wishy-washy,” he said. “But I’m definitely getting to the point where I know everything I need to do.”
Added Randolph: “(The Devilbackers have) got to hit the ground running, and they understand that.”
In 2012, it had come down to Bradford and Junior Onyeali for the starting Devilbacker position. If Onyeali had won, Bradford might not be where he is now: playing for the Green Bay Packers.
He can’t say definitively if anything would be different if he hadn’t become a Devilbacker, but he did credit the position for crafting him into the player he is today.
“I loved that position,” Bradford said. “I love the attacking part on the blitz. I love making plays. It’s a fun position to play. … It helped me transition to the NFL pretty well. I still keep those tendencies I learned from the position.”
If Bradford can have anything close to the career that the, as Randolph said, “original Devilbacker,” Terrell Suggs, had in the NFL, it will leave some lofty expectations for the next coming.
For now, at least, Boateng is ready to exceed the bar Bradford set at ASU.
“I’m just trying to strive in Carl’s footsteps,” he said. “If that meets the bar with Carl, I’m just going to reach it and climb over it.”
The Devilbacker is already gaining a reputation, due to his explosive play on the field, but it doesn’t hurt for it to have a slick name, either. Graham’s signature position has always had a name to match the school he was coaching at, but they had never stuck as well as it has at ASU.
“We’ve had it everywhere we’ve been,” Randolph said. “Of course, it wasn’t ‘Devilbacker.’ We like it here because we like the name of it.
“It means something.”
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