Spring primer: Arizona State Devil backers

Arizona State returns a Second Team All-Pac-12 pass rusher, senior Koron Crump, but the Sun Devils may wind up using a different player at Devil backer in 2017.

Spring primer: Devil backer

Returners (2)

Koron Crump: 37 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 9.0 sacks, three forced fumbles, one interception

Alani Latu: 22 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, no sacks, two pass breakups

Spring additions (1)

Doug Subtyl: No. 15 ranked junior college player in Scout's 2016 rankings, four-star recruit

Anticipated fall arrivals (2)

Tyler Johnson: Four-star recruit, No. 5 ranked prospect in the state of Arizona

Kyle Soelle: Three-star recruit, No. 17 ranked prospect in the state of Arizona

What to expect: Three seasons into Todd Graham's tenure at Arizona State, he had developed a reputation as a change agent, the type of coach who when inserted into a new environment, could shock the system and adapt a program in a way that lent itself to early success.

By the end of the 2014 season, Graham had served as a head coach at four FBS programs in nine years, posting five 10-win campaigns thanks in large part to forward-thinking approaches on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.

Though Graham himself coordinated and called defenses, he outlined a consistent offensive ideology of a spread, no-huddle, up-tempo approach his assistants adhered to and maximized.

On the defensive side of the ball, Graham developed a cutting-edge approach to pressuring opposing quarterbacks, sending exotic blitzes and a variety of pressure packages designed to move offenses backward and create turnovers. While Graham's defenses rarely ranked near the top of the pack in traditional stats like total yards allowed and yards per play allowed, the goal of his approach was to create chaos that led to takeaways, and in turn, extra possessions for his offense.

One of the driving forces in a Graham defense was the play of his Devil backer, or rush end, who was responsible for creating edge pressure on the boundary side of the field and serving as an X-factor along the defensive front.

When Graham first arrived at ASU, he inherited a prototypical rush end built specifically for his scheme, Carl Bradford. Though Bradford started just one game in Dennis Erickson's final season with the program in 2011, the hiring of Graham created an ideal scenario for coach and player.

Though it was defensive lineman Will Sutton who won back-to-back Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Awards in Graham's first two seasons on the job, it was the play of Bradford that made Graham's defensive front so well rounded and difficult to counteract.

In two seasons as ASU's starting Devil backer, Bradford amassed 142 tackles, 39.5 tackles for loss and 20 sacks, while adding five forced fumbles and an iconic interception return for a touchdown that led the Sun Devils to a victory at the Rose Bowl against UCLA in 2013. 

After opting to forego his senior season and declare for the NFL Draft, Bradford's departure took away much of the firepower that made Graham's unit so dynamic. 

In the years following Bradford's decision to turn pro early, ASU has slowly regressed, in part due to its inability to find an equivalent-level replacement at such an important position. 

Though the Sun Devils have found a pair of players, Antonio Longino and Koron Crump, who matched Bradford's pass-rushing prowess, the program has yet to recruit a reliable, full-service, every down player at the position who can defend the run and the pass with equivalent effectiveness.

Entering the 2017 season, though, ASU has reason to believe the fortunes of its depth at Devil backer, and the fortunes of the program, are now trending in the right direction. 

In his first season with the Sun Devils after transferring in from Fort Scott Community College, Crump led ASU with 9.0 sacks, emerging as one of the Pac-12's most explosive edge rushers. While Crump earned Second Team All-Pac-12 honors for his performance last season, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound edge rusher was too slight to align at Devil backer on an every down basis.

While Crump was dominant on pass rushing downs, he didn't have the strength to anchor at the line of scrimmage against the run, and could easily be moved off the ball by opposing offensive tackles who used their strength and physicality to offset Crump's speed at the point of attack.

As a result of injuries at inside linebacker, ASU wound up moving Crump to the SAM linebacker position during the latter half of the regular season. Though he wasn't as productive from a pass-rushing standpoint, moving Crump off the line of scrimmage to the linebacker level allowed ASU to keep him on the field on both run and pass downs. 

"He's (Crump) a unique player," ASU assistant coach Shawn Slocum said. "He's got a nice skill set as a linebacker and a pass rusher, plus some of the things he did on special teams out wide. He's tough. He's got, I think, very good instinct. I think he sees it. I think he grew as a player through the season and I look forward to seeing him do it again. We had to use him in a number of different roles last year. That's what our team needed and he responded."

This offseason, Crump is attempting to add bulk to his frame in hopes of being able to hold up against the run more consistently, and to give ASU the flexibility to play him in a variety of different roles.

Crump's ability to align at Devil backer or at one of ASU's inside linebacker positions may turn out to be critical this season, because the Sun Devils have high hopes for mid-year enrollee Doug Subtyl. 

A four-star junior college signee in ASU's 2016 recruiting class, Subtyl was not an academic qualifier last year and took last season off from football as he prepared to boost his academic profile. In December, Subtyl signed with ASU again, and is now enrolled at the school and preparing to take the field for the first time since 2015 this spring.

While the layoff will certainly impact Subtyl's assimilation to the Pac-12, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound prospect has as much potential as any player the Sun Devils have added in recent seasons to finally fill all the roles Bradford was able to in ASU's scheme.

The No. 1 junior college rush end in the country in 2016, Subtyl possesses an incredibly rare combination of athleticism and flexibility that allows him to uncoil and unload from a three-point stance with relative ease to beat opposing tackles off the ball at the snap. As a pass-rusher, Subtyl has even more upside than Crump, but whether or not he adjusts as quickly to the college level is going to determine how ASU deploys him this season.

"Well (Subtyl) brings, I think, really good pass rush ability and great effort," Slocum said. "Now, he's behind a little bit in his physical conditioning and that process. He's a large, long guy. He's got the structure, the body type you want in that position. He's going to be a growth in progress I think the whole time he's here. He's talented and a fine young man and we're lucky to have him here." 

The Sun Devils will likely have a handful of options in determining their personnel groupings if Subtyl acclimates as expected this spring. 

If ASU believes Subtyl possesses the physicality to anchor against the run and play on the field side as a defensive end, then the Sun Devils may look at shifting Subtyl to that spot which would allow ASU to use junior Joseph Wicker as a defensive tackle.

Moving Subtyl from Devil backer to defensive end would allow the Sun Devils to deploy Crump as a Devil backer and put their two highest-ceiling pass rushers on opposite ends of the line of scrimmage, while also keeping Wicker, the team's best defensive linemen, on the field in the same personnel grouping. 

However, such a grouping may also prove to be too light on an every down basis, so the 'Subtyl at end, Crump at Devil, Wicker inside' unit may wind up turning into a subpackage ASU saves for obvious passing downs.

Against pro-style and run-oriented opponents, ASU may be best served aligning Subtyl at Devil backer and using Crump as a linebacker, because it keeps both players on the field and gives the Sun Devils a heavier defensive front to work with against the run.

Another possibility ASU may explore is finding a personnel grouping that allows Subtyl to play at end, Crump to play at the linebacker level, and for senior Alani (A.J.) Latu to stand in as the team's Devil backer.

Though Latu isn't much of a pass-rushing threat, his frame is more ideally suited to hold up against the run than Crump and he could wind up proving serviceable as a boundary side defender against the run. 

"Yeah, A.J. is a guy who I think has good football instincts, good I.Q., and what we've got to decide is what he can do to help us the most, and in fact we had that conversation today," Slocum said. 

The Sun Devils like Latu's motor and his mental capacity for playing the position, but in the past, he's struggled against downhill rushing attacks and hasn't demonstrated the ability to anchor on the edge against the run. 

The emergence of Subtyl this spring and into fall camp is critical for creating flexibility along the defensive front, because ASU likely doesn't want to find itself in a situation where it's relying on Latu for extended stretches.

While Latu's positional flexibility -- he too played inside linebacker at times -- helped ASU at various points last season, he's not the type of explosive defender who possesses the ability to change the game by consistently dominating one-on-one opportunities on the edge.

Last season, Crump clearly demonstrated he has the right combination of explosiveness and speed the Sun Devils are looking for in a pass-rusher, but this spring, it's going to be crucial for the program to attempt to find a full service option who provides ASU with more schematic flexibility.

As new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett takes over the unit, the rush ends in ASU's scheme will likely no longer be referred to as Devil backers. At ASU's spring media day, Bennett indicated he planned on implementing his own terminology, and said in the past, he's referred to rush ends as "Buck" linebackers.

Regardless of the moniker ASU chooses to label its rush-ends with, though, the Sun Devils are hoping this is the year when the program finally breaks through and discovers a player, or a combination of players, who can fill the obvious void ASU has been searching to fill since Bradford departed for the NFL. 

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