ASU Football: Experimenting at DevilBacker


In preparing for his fourth season, head coach Todd Graham is apparently still searching for the next Carl Bradford.

That may be a strong statement, but it rings true.  In his first two years, coach Graham had Carl Bradford to play the position of DevilBacker.  It’s a hybrid defensive position that requires a little bit of everything; rushing the passer, dropping in to coverage and stopping the run.  In a sense, Graham got lucky by inheriting the perfect athlete in Bradford for that DevilBacker position.  Bradford leveraged his success by leaving early to play in the NFL.

Last season, coach Graham experimented with several players at this complex position.  He ended up using a “committee approach”, utilizing several players based on down/distance and time/score.  The results were mixed.  Coach Graham and the defensive coaches were clearly frustrated that they couldn’t get the production they desired from their DevilBackers.

It appears that the pursuit for a true DevilBacker continues.  Last week, the coaching staff actually used sophomore-to-be running back Kalen Ballage at DevilBacker.  Apparently, his primary purpose is to rush the passer.  According to Ballage, he’s gotten reps there before and will continue to do so next season.  This scenario is similar to last season’s use of TE De’Mariyea Nelson as a DevilBacker on passing downs.

Ballage is a promising young running back.  He got a decent amount of touches for a true freshman.  His specialty was short-yardage and goal line situations.  However, he was also used to return kicks.  ASU fans will remember that Ballage was the MVP of the Sun Bowl last winter.  His 96 yard kickoff return led to the winning touchdown against Duke late in that Bowl Game.  But with the emergence of fellow running backs DeMario Richard and De’Chavon Hayes, Ballage is available for this extra duty on defense.

Tinkering with personnel and chemistry is normal for Spring Football.  It’s also normal for training camp in the fall.  Every position on both sides of the ball is literally up for grabs and the coaches want it that way.  Competition drives excellence.  But there is no doubt that searching for an every down DevilBacker, (like Bradford) is vexing coach Graham and his staff.

Incoming JC transfer linebacker Davon Durant was supposed to be the perfect fit for the DevilBacker spot.  Durant has been suspended indefinitely while a legal issue is being resolved.  Whether Durant is available or not next fall remains to be seen.  Even if he is, he’ll have a lot of catching up to do to learn that position and break into the lineup.

So, ASU fans can probably expect a similar situation this coming season pertaining to the DevilBacker position.  Unless somebody emerges with the ability to play that spot every down, there will probably be a carousel of players lining up at DevilBacker, depending on the situation.

In such a crucial position in Graham’s defense, everyone in the program is hoping that the defensive coaches figure it out and get the production that Carl Bradford provided in his two seasons under Graham.