Returning number: 3 (Ismael Murphy-Richardson, Eriquel Florence, (out for spring with torn ACL) Edmond Boateng*(swing player who can play as Devil or field end, where he's a better fit and where he is likely to play and we will list him)
Spring addition: 1 Davon Durant
Fall addition: Malik LawalRemaining ideal number: 0
Arizona State’s most glaring personnel limitation last season was at Devil backer, with the program’s defensive coaches eventually making a significant mid-season change that essentially took the position off the field entirely.
In a lot of ways, it was one of the best and most important decisions head coach Todd Graham and his staff made all season.
When ASU moved Antonio Longino from Devil backer to WILL backer and went with a heavier front in the middle of the schedule it really improved the run defense. The Sun Devils no longer were relying as heavily on safeties to have to make tackles in space, as the run fits tightened up on the ASU front.
It wasn’t an ideal approach by Graham and his staff but one made out of necessity that worked. Their first two years in Tempe they had standout edge rusher Carl Bradford, a perfect Devil backer. But Bradford's early-departure to the NFL left a void that was tough to fill.
Carl made it easy, he really did, because he could do a lot of things and what we had to come up with, Coach (Todd) Graham, I thought did a great job, being able to mix the personnel we had trying to create what Carl did in one," ASU Devil backer position coach Paul Randolph said.
In the year ahead, they’ll be able to go back to doing what they prefer, which is using an athletic attacking Devil backer as a pass rusher from the boundary edge. Perhaps they’ll even move that player around some, especially if it’s highly acclaimed junior college transfer Davon Durant.
Durant is a rare and special type of athletic addition for the Sun Devils at the position, in our estimation the best ASU linebacker signee since Vontaze Burfict. He’s played inside linebacker at the high school level and outside at the junior college level, and will likely play a lot of Devil backer from a 2-point stance.
You know what? Davon, I think is off to a great start (as an early spring enrollee), he's hit the weight room, he's a lot like Carl, really fast, really strong, really explosive all of those types of characteristics of Carl," Randolph said.
ASU sports performance coach Shawn Griswold told us Durant is the best athlete he’s worked with at linebacker in terms of how well he runs and his movement skills. Durant won’t necessarily be a shoo-in for the starting job, however, as redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson looks to be a burgeoning star in the making.
Murphy-Richardson was the No. 1 standout on the ASU scout team defense in bowl practices to our eye. He’s gained upwards of 30 pounds since arriving on campus last summer and has a very high upside as a full service Devil backer who can operate from a 3-point stance.
There will still of course be an adjustment phase as he takes to Division I competition for the first time, but Murphy-Richardson was one of the hardest to block players against even the first-team offense last year on the practice field.
I mean you saw [Murphy-Richardson] at practice he works his tail off, he only knows one speed, he's smart, Davon is really smart," Randolph said. "They fit our mold of being a football player. They've got high football IQs they can learn and naturally in our system being able to learn and put it and take it to the field I think we've got two guys here in the spring that can do that. I'm excited to see them both turn loose and get going.
Edmond Boateng is a swing player who spent a lot of time at Devil last year but is really better suited to be a field end in the ASU scheme and that’s what the plan is this off-season, as he’s trying to get bigger and stronger to fulfill that role. If ASU goes heavier though against pro-style teams like Stanford, he could remain an option in a heavier front into the boundary.
In the fall, ASU will add true freshman Malik Lawal, an explosive quick twitch athlete who is in the mold of Bradford from a size and athletic type standpoint. Lawal could play Devil, but also be someone who is used as an extra pass rusher on third downs.