(Photo: Allyson Cummings/WCSN)
At its bare bones, spring football provides little more than an opportunity for players and coaches to get reaccustomed to each other and any changes to the team since the conclusion of the previous season.
That being said, the spring provides invaluable exposure for players without worrying about gameplans, and they can show the work they have put into their game or their bodies during the offseason.
It also is an opportunity for players to set themselves apart in certain position battles that are up for grabs.
This spring, one such opportunity is the first-team devilbacker spot.
A staple of Todd Graham’s defense over his tenure in Tempe, the devilbacker, manned by Carl Bradford in 2012 and 2013, helped ASU rack up a total of 91 sacks as a team, which ranked second only to Stanford in the FBS during that two-year period.
Production fell off dramatically in 2014 with Bradford’s graduation. As redshirt junior Edmond Boateng and redshirt senior Antonio Longino made attempts to play the position, ASU dwindled to 91st in the nation in sacks after the first five games of the season.
That drop off led Todd Graham to do away with the devilbacker and instead used a base defense that included Marcus Hardison and redshirt senior Demetrius Cherry as bookends on the line in more traditional roles, resulting in a sturdier front against the run. The Sun Devils also ended the season tied for 13th in the country in sacks, averaging three per game.
Naturally, Graham is seeking to reinstall the devilbacker on the defensive front, and that’s where the importance of the spring sessions come into play.
Coming into spring practice, a soft assumption was that five-star JUCO product Davon Durant would come in and fill that role, but with Durant’s indefinite suspension in the midst of an alleged domestic assault case, that assumption went down the drain upon the first practice session.
With the competition more open than initially thought, redshirt sophomore Alani Latu and redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson have spent these spring practices battling for those first-team reps.
Latu has gotten the majority of the first-team reps over the last few weeks despite coming into the spring initially believing he would be playing as a defensive end.
“They told me I was going to be playing end before spring ball started, and the first day of spring ball, they told me they’re moving me to devil, and it’s been fun,” Latu said. “I like it a lot, but they told me I was going to play end, so I gained a lot of weight, and then they moved me to devil out of nowhere the first day. I got to lose a couple pounds.”
However, Latu hasn’t quite shown the explosiveness off the ball necessary to be effective at that position. Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing in at 255 pounds, his style at the position is much more one centered on strength and power rather than speed-rushing.
That is where Murphy-Richardson has been most impressive.
“That kid is fast,” Latu said. “He’s fast off the ball, but we help each other a lot.”
After redshirting in 2014, Murphy-Richardson took advantage of his time on the scout team, reportedly adding up to 30 pounds to his frame since arriving to Tempe. The 6-foot-4 product from Goodyear, Arizona is the ideal combination of speed, strength and size to wreak havoc as a pass rusher on the boundary-side edge.
However, he is still raw and sometimes has trouble staying disciplined in his role, which has led to him losing contain on the edge or blowing an assignment.
“I feel like I’m getting it,” Murphy-Richardson said. “I’m finding the medium, so it’s just I got to know when I use my ‘too-fastness’ to me thinking exactly what I need to do… It’s just really knowing what I have to do and doing it, executing and doing what I’m supposed to.”
And that execution is why Latu has the upper hand on Murphy-Richardson thus far.
“I mean he gets off the ball and does his steps right and just comes with that power,” Murphy-Richardson said of Latu. “And I got the speed, but I just need that to get it all together.”
The process of learning the position is something Latu and Murphy-Richardson know takes time to adjust to, and throughout the spring, the two have leaned on each other to navigate that process together.
“I think me and Ismael have been having a good progress every day, getting better, teaching each other,” Latu said.
As much as the two have developed and improved over time, Graham mentioned that if the season were to start today, he would shift Edmond Boateng over to the devilbacker and make a few lineup shuffles to make up for that move, but that’s likely not the ideal situation given the solid spring camp Boateng has had thus far.
Sophomore running back Kalen Ballage has also seen a handful of reps on defense in passing situations, a wrinkle that is something to look for going forward.
“Kalen is an athlete just like we all are,” Murphy-Richardson said. “We’re all competing, and it just gives us a different look. Kalen is big, and he’s strong, and he’s fast, so he can pass rush just like me and (Latu).”
With that in mind, Latu and Murphy-Richardson are both more than capable of handling those responsibilities.
Murphy-Richardson in particular projects to be more than capable of having a big-time impact given his physical toolset. His quickness and speed seems to not be affected at all by the added weight since his arrival, and his long-limbed upper body is ideal on the edge.
Of course, there’s a solid five months until ASU kicks off its season against Texas A&M, and from now until at least then, the devilbacker will remain a question mark on defense.
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org