Last week, we examined what Arizona State loses on defense from the 2013 team, but Monday’s news that linebacker Carl Bradford would enter the NFL drastically changed the circumstances.
With Bradford’s decision to forego his senior season, ASU must fill another huge hole on a defense that now returns just two starters next season.
Bradford’s exit leaves ASU without its two best players and its entire defensive line. All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton surely will be hard to replace. But filling Bradford’s hybrid "Devil" linebacker spot may prove an even greater challenge.
ASU has options, some of them obvious, at a handful of the nine defensive vacancies. Others are more unclear, such as Sutton’s position, which could end up filled by a true freshman. Right now, Devil backer may be the least certain position.
With no clear-cut option, ASU will use spring practices, which begin March 18, as a tryout of sorts. Perhaps first among those who could get a shot is redshirt freshman Chans Cox, the top-rated recruit in ASU’s 2013 recruiting class.
Cox was expected to play this past season but dealt with multiple injuries and ultimately redshirted. ASU also had trouble figuring out where to play Cox. He wound up pegged as Bradford’s backup but, as planned, never played.
Cox brings a different body type than Bradford, whom ASU coach Todd Graham said is the ideal Devil backer, but has the athleticism that could make it work. There is some thought Cox, with added size, may end up as a defensive end instead. Either way, Cox first has to stay healthy and second must get comfortable playing with his hand down.
ASU linebacker Carl Bradford elects to head for the NFL a year early. FULL STORY >>
Redshirt freshman Viliami Latu should also get a look at Devil backer. Latu primarily worked at sam linebacker and could be needed there if returning starter Salamo Fiso is shifted to will. Latu has limited practice experience as a down lineman, the role the Devil backer commonly plays. With time to adjust and learn the position, though, Latu could be a fit.
Other options include redshirt sophomore Matthew Rowe, who got a brief look at Devil backer during bowl practices but still is somewhat of an unknown talent, and perhaps even Antonio Longino, a junior college transfer who ASU hasn’t quite been able to position yet.
But ASU’s best Devil backer option might not arrive until the fall. ASU does not have a committed linebacker recruit to fit the position but could add one by National Signing Day on Feb. 5.
A seemingly ideal target: Chandler Hamilton defensive end Qualen Cunningham. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound four-star recruit is verbally committed to Texas A&M, and getting him to change course and stay in state may prove unachievable. But the dynamic pass rusher has the potential to make replacing Bradford a whole lot easier. Recruiting services report Cunningham is considering taking an official visit to ASU before signing day.
ASU has other recruiting targets that could help as well, though none of them as likely to help immediately.
By design, Devil backer is one of the most impactful positions in ASU’s defensive scheme. To be so, though, it needs an impact player. ASU’s ability — or inability — to find one will undoubtedly be momentous to the Sun Devils’ defensive trajectory.