Much like Arizona State has struggled to replace defensive lineman Will Sutton since his graduation following the 2013 season, the Sun Devils have been hard-pressed to come up with an answer at Devil backer since Carl Bradford departed for the NFL Draft the same offseason.
Considered one of the most demanding, important positions on the ASU defense, Bradford's early success at Devil backer within head coach Todd Graham's defense helped the Sun Devils to a 10-win season in 2013 as the former fourth round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers notched 8.5 sacks.
Bradford's early departure fro the draft forced the Sun Devils into an uncomfortable reality, as Graham and the rest of ASU's coaching staff slowly realized they didn't have an athlete to handle the responsibilities associated with the position.
In Graham's defense, a successful Devil backer must be able to torment offensive tackles with speed off the edge on passing downs, hold steady and frequently serve as a contain defender by setting the edge on rushing downs, and perform occasional stunts and twists to aid ASU's pressure packages.
When Bradford, the prototypical Devil backer for Graham's scheme, departed the program, the position group turned into the island of misfit toys.
Instead of recruiting a player who could handle all of the responsibilities of the position, ASU tried to make do with athletes who couldn't handle any of the responsibilities of the positions they already played. In a desperate search for a Devil backer in 2014, ASU converted the likes of Marcus Washington, De'Marieya Nelson, Chans Cox and Edmond Boateng to the edge-rusher role, and none of them fit the bill.
After deciding to do away with a Devil backer midway through 2014 and play a heavier front featuring two defensive ends, Graham pursued a junior college transfer to step in and make an immediate impact at the position the following season.
In the Sun Devils' 2015 recruiting class, ASU thought it had an answer for the position in the form of 5-star linebacker recruit Davon Durant, whose rare combination of size and speed was much more in the mold of the style of player Graham likes for the position.
However, ASU dismissed Durant from the program before fall camp even began following a guilty plea to a misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct stemming from a March 2015 arrest.
With Durant out of the picture, the Sun Devils moved one of their productive inside linebackers, Antonio Longino, to the Devil backer position, and Longino wound up providing an impressive stopgap for ASU. The former junior college transfer led the Pac-12 in sacks with 10.0 and added 19.5 tackles for loss, but Longino was a bit undersized for the position and could only man the spot for a single season.
In 2016, the Sun Devils once again raided the junior college ranks, and signed 4-star linebacker Dougladson Subtyl, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound Haiti native whose pass-rushing capabilities jumped off the screen on film. Once again, however, ASU's junior college gamble failed to pay off, as Subtyl didn't qualify academically.
Forced to come up with an on-the-fly solution during fall camp, ASU tried sophomore Joseph Wicker and junior Alani Latu at the position, before settling on another junior college transfer, Koron Crump.
By the end of September, Crump emerged as ASU's best option at Devil backer, but like Longino, Crump didn't possess the requisite size to hold the edge against the run.
While Crump finished the year with a team-high 9.0 sacks and a Second Team All-Pac-12 honor, he only played on a fraction of early downs as ASU couldn't afford to have the 6-foot-3, 220-pound linebacker up at the line of scrimmage against the run.
While Longino and Crump brought the passing down production back to a position that so desperately needed it after Bradford's departure, ASU has still yet to find a long-term solution with a full-service, every-down player at one of the defense's most important spots.
What we learned
As college offenses have evolved to feature more spread schemes and Pro-style offenses have adapted to incorporate more spread concepts, defenses have had no choice but to tailor the personnel they use to combat these schemes and concepts accordingly.
While much of the focus of the changing nature of defenses is tied to hybrid players who float between the linebacker level and the defensive backfield --like ASU's Spur position does --Graham's defense relies on the effective play of a Devil backer at or near the line of scrimmage to counteract against zone read plays and run-pass options.
The importance of a full-service Devil backer cannot be understated, because a player strong enough to contend with offensive linemen at the point of attack and fast enough to dominate them in pass-rushing situations has the potential to change a defense the way no other position can.
The issue for ASU, as it has learned in the past three seasons, is that there just aren't very many Carl Bradfords out there.
Washington has had a good run with players similarly built to Bradford, namely Hau'oli Kikaha, Travis Feeney and Azeem Victor who have started for the Huskies in the last three seasons, but aside from Washington, even the Pac-12's most prominent programs like USC and UCLA have struggled to recruit the type of player who can handle all the responsibilities of an edge-rusher against spread offenses.
Would Durant or Subtyl have picked up where Bradford left off? ASU took gambles on junior college players with a better chance of contributing immediately than a player fresh off the high school field, but neither paid off. Though Subtyl hopes to enroll at ASU in January, his absence this fall left ASU without a player recruited specifically because of their capabilities to handle the Devil backer role for the third straight season.
Though Longino showed an undersized player could still impact the passer from the position and Crump demonstrated elite edge-rushing potential, both players were giving up an average of 70-80 pounds against offensive tackles, which made them liabilities against the run.
Does ASU have a player who can begin to fill the role in a more complete way in 2017? A player waiting in the wings for 2018? Time will tell, but so far, three seasons have passed since Bradford's departure and the Sun Devils have yet to find the perfect answer.
All of ASU's options at Devil backer are expected to return in 2017.
Koron Crump: The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Crump was a revelation for ASU as a pass-rusher, frequently racing off the edge against offensive tackles who stood no chance against his initial burst at the line of scrimmage. Crump's 9.0 sacks led all Sun Devils, but Crump added just 1.5 tackles for loss this season which demonstrates the underlying issue with lining him up at the point of attack. Crump is simply too light to play against run-based opponents, and even if he spent an offseason bulking up in the weight room, it may not make a difference in his overall capabilities against run blockers. Ultimately, Crump may be best suited as a Sam, Will or potentially even a Spur linebacker, because he has the speed to play in coverage and ASU could devise creative ways to deploy him as the team's fifth pass rusher on blitzes. If ASU wanted to use Crump at Devil backer in nickel situations next season, it could certainly look at doing that, but with his current build and the Sun Devils' need for depth at the linebacker level, Crump is better off moving away from the line of scrimmage.
A.J. Latu: A 6-foot-2, 255-pound edge player, Latu is a bit of a tweener because he has the right size to contribute at Devil backer for ASU but doesn't necessarily have the right combination of speed and strength to be an every down player. Latu is the heaviest of ASU's options at the position, but when he took the field at Devil backer this year, he didn't showcase an ability to anchor at the line of scrimmage against the run and doesn't possess the speed or agility to track quarterbacks against the pass. One of the greatest challenges for a player like Latu is that he's expected to be the best run-defender of ASU's Devil backers because of his size, but he's still giving up quite a bit of weight at the line of scrimmage which makes holding his ground an uphill battle.
Malik Lawal: A redshirt freshman who showcased outstanding explosiveness on his high school film, Lawal tore his ACL during his senior season in high school and redshirted his first year at ASU. This season, Lawal earned opportunities on special teams and played sparingly as a pass rusher in the Sun Devils' nickel package, and his future within ASU's defense is somewhat uncertain. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Lawal is too slight to play as an every-down, full-service player at Devil backer, but like Crump, he could line up as an extra pass rusher on obvious passing downs. Additionally, if Lawal adds some bulk to his frame, he could wind up playing at Will linebacker down the road. Lawal still has a good quick-twitch burst, but his overall fit in ASU's scheme is up in the air.
Joseph Wicker: We wrote about Wicker in our defensive line review, but it's worth mentioning that he's a potential option at Devil backer next season if Subtyl doesn't end up enrolling at ASU. Wicker's combination of size and speed is probably best suited for the position among the current players on ASU's roster, and although he might be a bit heavy for the role, if the Sun Devils can find a capable defensive end to take his place and use Crump at the linebacker level, the team's pressure capabilities could improve next season. Wicker is an intriguing possibility at the position because he's the closest asset ASU has to a full-service Devil backer, but he still doesn't have the type of explosiveness necessary on passing downs that players like Bradford and Longino brought to the table.