Transition to Devil backer Suiting Nelson

If there’s one word that best describes ASU redshirt senior De’Marieya Nelson, it’s “versatile.” In 2014 Nelson logged time at tight end, running back, defensive end, and earned All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention honors for his contributions on special teams. Now, just four days into preseason camp, he is on the move again, this time back to defense and taking reps at first team Devil backer.

When De’Marieya Nelson committed to Arizona State in January of 2013, it appeared as though the Sun Devils had found their eventual replacement for Chris Coyle, who graduated last May as the school’s third all-time leading receiver at tight end, and someone to help bridge the gap between himself and some of the underclassmen tight ends on the roster.

Rated by ESPN as the seventh-best junior college tight end in the 2013 recruiting class, Nelson collected 54 receptions for 626 yards and seven touchdowns in two seasons at San Joaquin Delta College while earning First Team All-Valley honors in 2012.

What Arizona State and Head Coach Todd Graham ended up with was a jack of all trades who became a very integral part of his team’s success 2013.

In his very first season at ASU last year, Nelson appeared in all 14 games, recording seven receptions for 107 yards and two touchdowns.

But that was only a small part of what Nelson brought to the Sun Devils. The 6-3, 224 pound proverbial Swiss knife also lined up in the Arizona State backfield in goal line and short yardage situations, rushing for 53 yards and two touchdowns - both of which came in ASU’s 58-21 rout of rival Arizona in the regular season finale - on 15 attempts while also providing some additional pass-rush at the defensive end position as the season wore on.

Nelson chipped in 15 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles both on special teams and defense, helping him earn All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention.

Coyle’s departure following the 2013 season was supposed to signify Nelson’s permanent return to the tight end/three-back position, however, it was another player’s departure that created an even bigger void in the Sun Devil scheme, one that Graham and the coaching staff looked to fill during the spring but found themselves still trying to address as players reported to Fall Camp last Friday.

Carl Bradford, another one-time offensive specialist who was rated as the seventh-best fullback in the country by when he committed to Arizona State in 2010, had spent the last two season serving as the ideal Devil backer for Graham’s attacking defense. After making the switch from offense to defense, Bradford totaled 142 tackles, 39.5 tackles for a loss, and 21.5 sacks for the Sun Devils in two seasons while earning First Team All-Pac-12 honors in 2012 before being selected 121st overall by the Green Bay Packers in the 2013 NFL Draft.

After exhausting nearly all possible solutions in the spring - which included Chans Cox, Viliami Latu, Eriquel Florence and Marcus Washington, in addition to news that junior college signee Darrius Caldwell was unable to qualify academically, Graham decided to approach Nelson once more about contributing on defense.

“Coach Graham, of course, he asked me if I’d like to play the position,” said Nelson after practice on Monday. “I tried it out some and the next thing you know I’m in a white jersey. I don’t mind it. I’ll do whatever to help the team out. I’m just trying to get my fundamentals down and my technique and just really trying to take the coaching and go as hard as I can.

“He’s just pushing me to be the best that I can be. He wants me to allow him to coach me and push me as far as I can be pushed.”

After starting camp on Friday in the traditional maroon practice jersey for the offense, Nelson found himself splitting time between tight end and Devil backer over the weekend and on Monday he only wore a white jersey signifying him as a member of the Sun Devil defense.

“Devil backer is a fun position,” he said. “I think anywhere on the field is fun. You can put me anywhere and I’ll give my full effort. I feel like, after the first couple of snaps, you’re just playing football.

“Devil backer is much freer than three-back. At three-back you have to think a lot on the run but at Devil backer, you just take your first couple of steps, find the ball, and play ball.”

Despite his limited experience at the position, Nelson spent the entire duration of Monday morning’s practice session with the first team defense at Devil backer, a sight that Graham says Sun Devil fans can expect to see more of while also not ruling out the possibility of keeping Nelson still involved with the offense.

“Un-blockable,” said Graham after practice when asked about Nelson’s first full outing. “Right now I think he’ll play there and then have a package on offense. He only played, like, 12 plays per game offensively last year, so we can do that stuff with him; 12-20 plays. We’ve just got to limit his special teams stuff but I see him being an every down guy on defense.”

While Nelson received his first exposure to playing defense last season, he admits the process has been a little more challenging this time around at Devil backer rather than defensive end. Despite his success in 2013, Nelson says there’s still more for him to learn before the season starts later this month.

“Right now I’m just learning as I go,” he said. “Coach has been helping me out but when I played defense last year, I really had very little knowledge of what I was doing. But now that I’m coming over here to the defensive side and spending the full practice over here, I’m getting the techniques and fundamentals down and that’s what’s most important.

“Honestly, it’s just two different techniques coming off the ball on offense and coming off the ball on defense. Let’s just say when I come off the ball on offense to block somebody, I’m going to lower my hands and strike, but when I come off the ball on defense, you kind of want to have your hands up and ready so you don’t allow the offensive lineman to attack your chest. It’s just a transition and learning some of those little things.”

While Nelson’s move to Devil backer provides the defense with an immediate boost at a position of great need, Graham doesn’t feel it’ll have a negative impact at tight end, where the Sun Devils have seemingly once again re-stocked their talent with the development of Grant Martinez and Kody Kohl, and the additions of Brendan Landman and walk-ons Dan Vear and T.J. Widner.

“That group is deep,” remarked Graham. “That’s one of the reasons why we feel we can use De’Marieya on defense because obviously with the depth we have at tight end having three or four guys we feel really good about is something that gives us a lot of confidence. Our tight end position is really important and has been really productive for us.”

While Nelson’s move to Devil backer coupled with also remaining involved on offense forces the two-way player to balance his schedule and practice time delicately going forward into camp, he insists that he’s ready to take on challenge and help the Sun Devil defense prove many of its doubters wrong.

“It requires a lot more meeting with Coach Long and Coach Randolph so that I can make sure I have everything down,” he said. “If I’m on defense all day, I’ve got to find time to go meet with Coach Long in my off-time because I’ve been with Coach Randolph going over the defense.

“I love it. I like how our defense is such underdogs because we lost nine starters, but I just feel like everybody is here to make a statement and everybody is just doing what they’re doing, remaining humble and coming closer as a team, especially on the defensive side. We’re very close and just pushing each other to be the best that we can be.”

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