TEMPE, Ariz. — Following Arizona State’s annual spring game April 13, linebacker Chris Young spoke cautiously. His position change had been one of the more prominent storylines of spring practice, and Young didn’t want to generate unreasonable expectations for himself at a new position.
Young had been moved from spur linebacker, where he thrived in 2012, to will linebacker to replace Brandon Magee, whose graduation left a void of talent and leadership in the linebacker corps.
"I’ve definitely got big shoes to fill," Young said.
As it turns out, Young filled those shoes and probably outgrew them, proving a quiet lynchpin to ASU’s often-dominant defense and a leader at a position that needed it dearly.
"It was a great move," coach Todd Graham said Sunday. "I don’t think we would’ve had the success we had defensively without him there at will linebacker, because that position is pretty important."
With one game still to play — the Holiday Bowl against Texas Tech on Dec. 30 — Young leads the team in tackles by a huge margin. The closest any other player comes to Young’s 103 tackles is safety Alden Darby’s 66. Young’s 16 1/2 tackles for loss trail only Carl Bradford’s 18, and his 7 1/2 sacks are second only to Bradford and Davon Coleman with 8 1/2 each.
Those numbers leave him just 11 tackles short of eclipsing Magee in all three categories. Still, Young laughs and downplays his success when asked if he lived up to the task of replacing Magee.
"I feel like I did all right," Young said. "He’d probably be proud of me. I tried to mimic everything he did."
I feel like I did all right. He’d probably be proud of me. I tried to mimic everything he did.
Chris Young on replacing Brandon Magee at will linebacker
Graham, meanwhile, says Young did "an unbelievable job" replacing Magee. The move was one Graham debated a great deal in the spring and fall, unsure of what kind of ripple effect it would have on the defense as a whole. Rather than a replacing one starter at will, ASU would have to replace two.
Graham went back and forth on whether the move would stick, but between injuries and a talent disparity, Young proved by far the best option.
"The move was more about, ‘Are the other guys ready to step up?’" co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Paul Randolph said. "We knew Chris could play the position. He put on the size, the girth to do it and ended up doing extremely well at the position."
As well as Young did at will, the defense felt his absence at the spur position almost immediately. Though senior Anthony Jones provided a stable presence at the position, he could not match Young’s production and was mistake-prone. With the Sun Devils’ run defense floundering, they tried moving Young back to spur.
The return to spur was short-lived, though, as ASU realized Young was needed at will and his physical development over the offseason — he added more than 20 pounds — made him less of a fit at spur. Young didn’t mind moving around but was happy to stay at will permanently.
"That definitely made it a lot easier for me to get better at that position," Young said. "I’ve done way better than what I expected from myself."
Young was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection for his performance. He made perhaps the biggest play of the year on Nov. 23, sacking UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley on third down for a 13-yard loss that pushed the Bruins back to the 20-yard line and led to a missed field goal, which kept ASU ahead 38-33 in the game that clinched the Pac-12 South title.
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While Young more than succeeded at replacing Magee as a player, he also replaced Magee’s leadership in the linebacker corps, though in a different way. While Magee was a vocal leader, Young leads by example.
"Chris doesn’t say much, but he garners respect from his teammates because of the way he plays and the way he practices," Randolph said. "We knew to get us this year where we needed to be defensively, we had to have a linebacker that would lead. For us, that was major, and Chris was that guy."
Young admits his reluctance to be vocal on the field but says he stepped out of his comfort zone to do so more than ever this season. Even a little vocal leadership was a stark difference from the quiet linebacker who arrived in the fall of 2012.
ASU almost missed out on Young. Coming out of Arizona Western Community College, Young initially committed Oregon State and had stopped paying attention to other schools before a personal visit from Graham and a visit to Tempe swayed him to the Sun Devils.
Looking back, Young appreciates his decision even more and has a hard time believing how far he has come.
"It’s shocking," Young said. "My growth and everything I’ve been able to do as a student, as an athlete and just as a well-rounded person just feels great.
"I couldn’t have predicted any of this would happen. I essentially just took it and ran with it."
Young has played himself into position for a shot in the NFL, perhaps via the draft. Graham believes Young may have to slim down a bit from the weight he’s played at this year but has the intelligence and fundamentals to succeed in the pros.
With as much as Young was a part of the Sun Devils’ best season in 13 years, they may have an even harder time replacing him than they did his predecessor.
"He’ll be one of the toughest guys to replace," Graham said. "Chris is a great football player and a great Sun Devil."