Sun Devils sorting out Devil backer position

There are many options for Arizona State at one of its key defensive position, Devil backer. But is there anyone who can do everything they'd like at the position?

PAYSON, Ariz. – It only makes sense Arizona State’s hybrid defense end and linebacker position is called the “Devil” backer.

It is a position unique to ASU. The player assigned to play Devil must be a large, strong and athletic player for his size, someone who bends and moves extremely well.

Since Carl Bradford departed for the NFL in 2014, the ASU coaching staff has been trying to find a replacement over the last year.

As the Sun Devils finish up their time at Camp Tontozona, it appears ASU still has not found an athlete to be an all-around Devil backer.

The ASU coaches have a plan to adapt their defensive scheme to the talents of their current players.

“We’ve got a great group with a number of guys that can play,” first-year Devil backer coach Shawn Slocum said. “We’ve got some good young talent. They’re battling right now, a lot of competition, great environment, we’re going to have a good player there.”

The Sun Devils' first game against Texas A&M in Houston quickly approaches on Sept. 5, the ASU defensive depth start has started to flesh itself out. One true freshman might be the starting Devil this season.

According to coach Todd Graham, the Sun Devil defense will look very similar to the way it did toward the end of last season. The base defense will be a 4-man front with the Devil backer playing more like a defensive end with his hand in the ground on the boundary side of the field.

The starting Devil backer might be true freshman defensive lineman Joseph Wicker.

“When JoJo’s in there, it’s a 4-man,” Graham said. “That’s what our 4-man is going to look like…I’m just trying to watch and adapt to them. But, it looks like it will probably be more 4-man stuff.”

Every practice at Camp Tontozona, Wicker has received the first team reps at Devil. Standing at 6-foot-3, 275 pounds it hard to believe he is a true freshman and still has a set of braces on his teeth.

Graham did not recruit Wicker to play the Devil backer but said he can place him there to help the team.

“JoJo has been a stand out,” Graham said. “He’s athletic enough to play end. He’s going to be a 3-techinque. But, he’s athletic enough to play end and doing a good job for us. He’s just got to learn.”

Wicker has to learn very quickly.

Since he is a large, talented freshman, Wicker has had the entire defensive scheme thrown at him because the coaches want him to make an immediate impact.

Wicker said he just started learning the Devil position on Wednesday.

“It’s a little bit simpler right now for me,” Wicker said. “The defense has a lot of stuff. It’s a little difficult or a freshman just to come in and learn it. So they really put me out there, it’s an easier spot. Not necessarily easier, but it’s just more simpler for me.”

Wicker went to say that he likes the responsibility of mainly the “C” gap. Right now Slocum said he only wants Wicker to worry about that gap outside of the offensive tackle.

“In football words, it’s about gap control and containing,” Slocum said. “It’s really that simple.”

Wicker should receive the first team reps at Devil Saturday in the scrimmage. The players that have come on to the field to replace Wicker have been different every day at Tontozona.

When Wicker is not playing at the Devil, the ASU defensive coaches have liked bringing in a quicker, leaner, stand-up, rush end in a 30-front defense featuring three down linemen.

The players who have played the stand-up Devil at Tontozona have been sophomore linebacker D.J. Calhoun, redshirt freshman linebacker Ismael Murphy-Richardson, true freshman defensive lineman Bo Wallace and true freshman tight end and defensive lineman Jay Jay Wilson.

All of those players have received second team reps at the Devil except for Wilson. Friday was the first time Wallace got in with the second team defense.

On first and second down, the ASU defensive coaches have called the base 40 defense with Wicker at Devil defensive end. On third down and obvious passing downs, the coaches have called a nickel or “Okie” package with a thinner stand-up Devil.

In the nickel package, Wicker has either been called off the field or bumped down to the nose tackle or “G” position, as ASU calls it. The coaches have then either brought in Calhoun or Murphy-Richardson to blitz up the middle or off the edge.

Calhoun has been getting the first team reps at the WILL linebacker position. Senior linebacker Antonio Longino should earn again back the starting WILL position soon and be the team's starter at the position.

That leaves Calhoun on the sidelines. Fortunately for the sophomore, he enjoyed playing the Devil early in camp.

“To be honest, I like Devil,” Calhoun said. “It’s fun. I get to blitz every time. You’re right on the line of scrimmage in the trenches where it gets down and dirty. I love it.”

Since Calhoun has the most experience he may be the blitzing Devil backer when the Sun Devils go into their nickel package during the season.

One player who has a lot experience at the 40 front Devil is junior defensive lineman Edmond Boateng.

Boateng held down the position last season when Graham decided to switch to the more traditional 40 front.

Boateng took a step in the right direction toward winning that position back today by picking up two sacks during a team drill as the Devil.

Murphy-Richardson, who had a very impressive sack against second-team right tackle redshirt freshman Quinn Bailey, said he has been performing better his second year because he has a better understanding of the defense.

“I am better at knowing my assignment, like what to do and where to be,” Murphy-Richardson said. “The biggest difference is that I am a lot stronger. I did play a similar spot in high school but there are more responsibilities and more techniques I have had to learn and play.”

Wallace had one of the best get-offs in camp Friday in the last team drill. He timed up the snap count and had a quick first step at the offensive tackle, just like Bradford used to do. Importantly, he did it out of a 3-point stance, which is a requirement for an every-down Devil like Bradford was. It's a sign of his potential at the position long term.

Wallace knows that attacking the edge is his strength but pass rushing against college tackles have proved to be a challenge.

“It’s really a big change,” Wallace said. “We have [offensive] linemen who get off the ball just as quickly as I do. It’s hard when you have guys that big when they get their hands on you right away. In high school I could play at the same speed and pretty much beat the lineman all game.”

Neither Murphy-Richardson nor Wallace weighs over 250 pounds. Wallace is only 215 on the official team roster as a true freshman and is thin but has a great frame upon which to grow into a full service Devil backer.

Wilson does hit the 250 pound mark on the scale but recently transferred to the defensive side of the ball after playing tight end. Wilson is still learning the position and has gotten limited reps in 11-on-11 drills.

Early in camp, it appeared sophomore linebacker Chans Cox was going to be another option at the Devil linebacker position.

Friday he did not get any team reps at Devil. Also during the individual position period, Cox was working with defensive line coach Jackie Shipp instead of practicing with Slocum and the Devil linebackers.

When ASU runs its Okie, 3-man front formation it has Calhoun, Longino and junior linebacker Salamo Fiso in the game at the same time.

Graham said he wants to get those athletes and starting Spur linebacker junior Laiu Moeakila on the field as much as possible.

“We’ve got some neat things at linebacker that we’re trying to adjust to, to get our best guys on the field because we think we got four linebackers that we need to have on the field,” Graham said.

Notes

  • Junior linebacker Laiu Moekiola participated in practice Friday and worked with the second and third team defense at Spur linebacker. Sophomore safety Marcus Ball continued to run with the first team at Spur.

  • Redshirt freshman safety Coltin Gerhart injured his right arm in the middle of practice Friday and walked off the field with is right arm in a sling. Gerhart also plays outfield for the ASU baseball team.

  • Junior wide receiver Frederick Gammage and sophomore tight end Grant Martinez did not participate in practice again Friday and spent the day at Muscle Beach.

  • After spending half of Thursday’s practice at Muscle Beach, sophomore tight end Raymond Epps was back fully participating in practice.

  • Junior defensive lineman Deonte Reynolds was not present at practice again Friday. Reynolds hasn't yet been cleared academically.

  • Moekiola and senior linebacker Antonio Longino were out of their Pat Tillman 42 jerseys Friday. Longino had a solid practice a day earlier in the jersey until the end when he was scolded following a miscue.

  • The ASU offense showed a double h-back look with both Epps and junior tight end Kody Kohl stationed behind the offensive tackles Friday.

  • It was an excellent day for the ASU kickers. Junior punter Matt Haack continues to put on a display early in practice. Friday he kicked two balls all the way to the back of the end zone from well on the other half of the field.

    Junior kicker Zane Gonzalez made both of his situational kicks in practice. His first one was a 43-yard kick early in practice and 42-yard kick to end practice.


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