(Photo: ASU Athletics)
Last week, many presumed the Devilbacker position to be a lost cause for the Sun Devil football team in 2014.
Against Stanford, the Arizona State defense had switched from its customary 3-4 look with a ball-hawking Devilbacker occasionally serving as the fourth defensive lineman (at which point it would become a 4-3) to a traditional 4-3 defense. Along those same lines, Graham had also tinkered with a look that featured five defensive lineman, three linebackers and only one safety.
Both formations convey a desire to shore up gaps and stop the run, and both formations effectively make the Devilbacker nonexistent.
Perhaps this was a good thing, as Cronkite Sports writer Adam Stites postulated last week.
Finding a player to fill the void of Carl Bradford at the position has been a heavily discussed storyline since the onset of fall camp. Remember when Chans Cox was considered the favorite to lock down the starting job at Devilbacker? Six games into the season, Chans Cox is not even listed on the two-deep depth chart at any position. Undoubtedly, a stigma has developed around the Devilbacker position—a stigma that essentially says that whoever is slotted as the starting Devilbacker will be destined for utter ineffectiveness.
But if there was ever a time for further experimentation to remove that stigma, it is now.
On Saturday, ASU takes on a Washington team that has been crippled by injuries at running back: senior Jesse Callier suffered a season-ending torn Achilles last month and the other top two running backs, Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman, left last week’s contest with injuries. Both are questionable for the matchup against ASU. Desperate for bodies to fill the void, there has been rumors that linebacker Shaq Thompson may be in store for an expanded workload out the backfield. Thompson has only three carries in his last four games and would obviously allow ASU to tinker with its run prevention and thus re-include the Devilbacker in these efforts.
But the Sun Devil defense has actually shown substantial improvement since its utter meltdown against UCLA. This could be attributed to the dwindling role of the Devilbacker and a subsequent increased concentration on other facets of the defense. So, why change something that is already working?
Well, we saw the added dimension that the Devilbacker can bring last year with Carl Bradford being invaluable to the defense. And, according to head coach Todd Graham, it could just have been that the Devilbacker position was not being executed by the right personnel.
In fact, in the four-week time period in which the Sun Devil defense has seen its production sky rocket, the incumbent and inefficient Devilbackers have been shifted to other roles: Antonio Longino has moved from Devilbacker to WILL linebacker, De’Marieya Nelson has moved from a situational Devilbacker to a nearly full-time tight end and Edmond Boateng has been moved from third-string Devilbacker to the fifth defensive lineman in packages that call for one.
With that in mind, it is a curious fact that Marcus Hardison has been getting occasional looks at Devilbacker during this week’s series of practices.
“Marcus has got a great heart,” said Graham. “Great character, he’s got great athleticism and he’s so consistent. We’ve done some things with him this last week or two that I think is really going to help improve his productivity.”
Though Graham would not comment on specifically what was changed to improve his productivity, Hardison provided some clearer insight.
“Just more attacking up the field,” Hardison said. “I’m not reading (the offensive line), I’m going up the field and attacking the mesh—just making the quarterback give the ball up.”
Like all the other failed experiments at Devilbacker this season, Hardison does not profile as a prototypical one. Comparing him to the model of excellence in Carl Bradford, Hardison is 48 pounds heavier and four inches taller.
But with that being said, maybe the Devilbacker position is not as highly demanding and highly specialized as people make it out to be. Could the term “Devilbacker” simply be a fancy label placed on an athletic defensive end?
“Devil[backer] and end is almost the same. I think the Devil[backer] in certain packages, I’ll just be doing a few different things—boxing the end and containing the quarterback and backing up. It’s the same thing for me, the same fundamentals.”
Maybe it takes a player with the right personality to occupy the Devilbacker position. Arguably the most crucial piece to the ASU defense, it has to be someone who can shoulder a heavy load and lead by example. Essentially, an effective Devilbacker has the perfect combination of ability and mentality.
Based on Hardison’s own comments and Graham’s follow-up comments, ASU may have found its man:
“I have to be on the field 24/7,” Hardison said. “I have to be mentally and physically ready every down and keep the guys ready to go. It’s a challenge. It gets to a point where I’m huffing and puffing and I want to look to the sidelines to come out but I can’t. I just have to suck it up and keep going.”
“I love Marcus,” Graham said. “I love coaching him, his spirit, his character, he’s a selfless guy. He’s the biggest, strongest, most athletic, most explosive guy we have up front. We need him to not be good, but to be great.”