Arizona State's Pac-12 South championship in 2013 is viewed as the landmark achievement of the Todd Graham era.
That season, the Sun Devils' defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in sacks and tackles for loss, as ASU's pressure scheme forced opponents into daunting situations. And for the second straight year, defensive tackle Will Sutton took home the Pac-12's Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year award for leading ASU's defensive unit to a division title.
Sutton's presence is impossible to understate, but even though he was hailed as the best defensive player in his conference, Sutton may not have been ASU's most important defensive catalyst.
During the 2013 campaign, Devil backer Carl Bradford surpassed Sutton statistically as ASU's most dynamic pass rusher, leading the Sun Devils with 8.5 sacks and 19.0 tackles for loss. Bradford's numbers nearly matched his dominant 2012 season, when he racked up 20.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.
Both players exited the program following the 2013 season, and though Sutton has the hardware to prove his immeasurable value, the vacancy left behind by Bradford has proved more difficult for Graham to fill.
While ASU may end up searching for years to find a defensive tackle of Sutton's caliber, Bradford's departure left the cupboard almost completely dry at the Sun Devils' Devil backer position.
In the two seasons following Bradford's departure, the Sun Devils have struggled to find a player who fits the mold of a position viewed as an integral part of Graham's defense.
In 2014, the Sun Devils tried and failed to find Bradford's successor, as the Devil backer position group served as a revolving door for players not quite big enough to play end and just too heavy to play linebacker.
In 2015, Graham found a solution in the form of Antonio Longino, but to shore up the hole at the position, Longino had to transition from Will linebacker prior to his final season with the program.
Longino took to the position well, as the former junior college transfer accumulated 8.5 sacks. Still, Longino was nothing more than a temporary stopgap to a progressing issue.
With Longino's departure and a lack of recruits in the pipeline, ASU turned to the junior college ranks this offseason to add stability to a position riddled with uncertainty.
On Signing Day, the Sun Devils finally had their man, as highly touted pass rusher Dougladson Subtyl signed a Letter of Intent to play at ASU and bring a dynamic pass rushing presence to a position where ASU's coaches desperately needed one.
More than two weeks into fall camp, ASU was supposed to know if Subtyl could step into the shoes that just haven't fit any player since Bradford quite right. Instead, Subtyl has yet to arrive on campus, and is waiting to hear from the NCAA regarding his eligibility.
Subtyl's absence had the potential to devastate the Sun Devils' outlook at Devil backer, but from the outset of camp, Graham and assistant coach Shawn Slocum have been proactive about auditioning a variety of pass rushers at the position.
The first player to earn a crack at becoming the Sun Devils' Devil backer of the future was sophomore Joseph Wicker, who earned Freshman All-America honors with 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks as a defensive end last season.
Wicker began fall camp with the first team defense at Devil backer, and the former 4-star recruit trimmed down over the summer to put his body in better position to rush off the edge. Wicker said the transition from end to Devil backer hasn't been challenging, because players at both positions typically line up with their hand in the dirt at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s similar to end, it’s just a little different stuff in certain situations. But it’s the same thing," Wicker said.
Both Graham and Slocum talked about Wicker's potential to impact the quarterback at the position. In the early days of fall camp, Wicker dominated ASU's offensive linemen and caused fits in team drills with the relative ease with which he navigated into the backfield, and Slocum said Wicker's development should transfer into increased production in his second year with the program.
“I think players make jumps, large jumps in production from year one to year two," Slocum said. "He’s (Wicker) a talented young player and can be impactful. He’s worked really hard this offseason to improve his body, and it’s showing up on the film.”
Graham said for as well as Wicker played last season, he's one of the players ASU is counting on to make significant strides this year. Much like Bradford, Wicker has the ability to be an x-factor for the Sun Devils' defense because of his knack for providing consistent pressure off the edge.
"JoJo (Wicker) is a catalyst for us, he needs to be," Graham said. "He needs to take his play to a lot higher level this year. He played really, really well as an All-American freshman last year. He’s a guy that really needs to be impactful. What we’re hoping is that we’re able to impact the quarterback with those guys, even more so than what we’ve done in the past.”
Before Wicker moved to the position, junior Alani (A.J.) Latu took first team reps at Devil backer in ASU's spring practices. Latu's skill development process has extended over time because he didn't fit in naturally at end or linebacker, so the Sun Devils began looking at Latu as a potential depth option at Devil backer.
While Latu doesn't have the same type of ceiling Wicker has as a pass rusher, ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson singled out Latu as one of the team's pleasant surprises during fall camp.
“I do think you have a great mixture of experience and talent, even some of the younger guys, the guys like A.J. Latu, who has been having a great fall camp, guys that are big, strong, explosive guys like Renell Wren who have gotten better," Patterson said.
At 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, Latu looks trimmer this season and appears to be playing with a more determined approach. Graham said Latu brings more speed to the position than Wicker, so if the Sun Devils want a faster option who's still heavy enough to compete against the run, Latu may prove a viable option.
On passing downs, though, ASU has taken a different approach at the Devil backer position in camp. Instead of using Wicker or Latu at the Devil position, the Sun Devils have attempted to create lighter personnel packages with an emphasis on incorporating speed rushers at the position.
When ASU has used its nickel package in fall camp, the Sun Devils have slid Wicker from Devil to end and opted to bring junior college transfer Koron Crump on at Devil backer. At this stage in his career, Crump may be limited to serving his team as a sub-package option, because he's listed at just 218 pounds.
Still, a number of players including redshirt freshman offensive tackle Zach Robertson have called Crump the toughest pass rusher to contain, and in Friday's practice, Crump raced past senior left tackle Evan Goodman to record a sack.
Crump practiced as a pass rusher and as a Spur linebacker in the spring, and the dual-training has enabled Crump to find a level of comfort within ASU's scheme heading into the season.
“I’m very comfortable right now, they’ve moved me a lot of places, a lot spots," Crump said. "I played both positions (Devil, Spur) through spring. So, as time passed, I’m comfortable now.”
The fourth option ASU has tried at the Devil backer position in camp is redshirt freshman Malik Lawal, who like Crump, has taken most of his reps in obvious passing situations. Earlier this week, Graham called Lawal a starter in third down situations, but Lawal stopped working with the Devil backers and ends and started practicing with the inside linebackers late in the week.
Regardless of where he fits into ASU's defense, though, Lawal has demonstrated impressive edge rushing abilities that can translate well to a handful of different spots in the front seven of a defense known for its blitz packages.
"I just switched to Will linebacker, so things are a little complicated," Lawal said on Thursday. "Coach Slocum, he just made it as simple as possible. For me, if you can make things as simple as possible, letting me just play my game, it makes all of that much better. For like the first two weeks, all I was doing was going out there and lining up, beating the guy off the ball. Coach Slocum just taught me the fundamentals and things to make my game better.”
Even though Lawal wants to settle in at Will, he said he's begun to model his on-field approach after other ASU pass rushers. While he eventually may fit into a D.J. Calhoun-type of role as a linebacker with a heavy blitz presence, Lawal still takes cues from players like Wicker and Latu who have more experience in ASU's scheme.
"I've got to say AJ Latu, just because of his effort," Lawal said when asked who he learns from. "The way he plays is remarkable. Every play, I try to emulate something kind of like him. He has dog in his heart, just straight going crazy on the field, and I love it. I like JoJo (Wicker), because JoJo is way more technical, the way he plays. That’s where I like learned my hands (technique). Just for fundamentals, I get a combined effort from both of them.”
Unlike the days when Graham could line up Bradford on all three downs as the team's Devil backer, ASU will likely use a different tactic with its primary pass rushers this season.
The Sun Devils have experimented with various sub-packages and personnel groupings throughout practices so far, and Graham said the position flexibility players like Wicker and Lawal have afforded ASU the opportunity to tailor their personnel to various situations.
"That’ll be our Devil backer, whatever you call it, he’s a rush guy, rush end, rush outside linebacker," Graham said. "And the ends, so I think we feel like we can play at some different combinations, based on groupings and size."
When ASU switches between 4-3, 4-2-5 and potentially even 3-3-5 looks this season, it's likely the team will swap personnel in and out for each front.
Slocum said because he's had the opportunity to coach various position groups throughout his career, he knows his focus this season is less on coaching to a position and more about coaching to each specific player and giving them the tools to be successful for their given roles.
For a player like Wicker who will be on the field more often than not, learning the intricacies of both Devil backer and end is essential to providing ASU with a broader sense of schematic versatility. For a player like Crump or Lawal who may only see the field this season in a situation where the lone objective is impacting the quarterback, the coaching points take on a different tune.
“Well, we’re a multiple front team, and we have the capabilities of doing it all," Slocum said. "I help wherever I can help. I’ve coached everything on defense, so what I’m coaching, who I’m coaching, is not as important as coaching and getting production out of the players.”
The primary benefit of rotating players in for sub-package roles is having fresher bodies who can master defined roles.
The challenge, though, is keeping tabs on all of the different players and packages, because on-the-fly substitutions are increasingly difficult to monitor in the modern game. As more offenses involve up-tempo or no-huddle schemes, ASU's players and coaches have to practice substitution opportunities to avoid penalties.
“As far as when they go fast or something, we just have to get the subbing right, but that’s just going to happen, that’s just part of the game," Wicker said. "We did a lot of different stuff with different people, so it’s kind of hectic.”
The Devil backer position itself is hectic for ASU, but it appears to be in a far better place than it was perceived prior to the start of fall camp. Even if Subtyl doesn't become eligible this fall, for the first time since Bradford's departure, ASU seemingly has a clear, sustainable approach to the position.
While Longino's success gave the Sun Devils a temporarily lift last year, ASU now has four players with at least two years of eligibility remaining in Wicker, Latu, Crump and Lawal who have provided the team with stability and a positive outlook for the future at the position.
"Obviously when it’s third down and it’s deep and they need a pass rush, they’re going to obviously have guys like me, (Koron) Crump, A.J. (Latu), JoJo (Wicker), Tashon (Smallwood), all of those guys to come in and just utilize the scheme to make it happen," Lawal said.