ASU Football: Bradford's loss gives young players big opportunity

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona State will wish Carl Bradford well in the NFL and turn the page with a group of young players looking to fill the void he leaves.

On Monday, Arizona State received the news it was hoping to avoid this offseason. Redshirt junior linebacker Carl Bradford decided to forego his senior season and declare for the 2014 NFL Draft.

Bradford's loss means that Arizona State will practically begin anew on defense in 2014, as he joins eight other Sun Devil defensive starters moving on from the program. After recording team-highs with 19.0 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks last season, Bradford's level of production is virtually irreplaceable.

And unfortunately for the Sun Devils, there's no candidate with a wealth of experience waiting in the wings.

Bradford's skill set afforded Arizona State a unique advantage in Todd Graham's 3-4 scheme. The Norco, Calif. native played nearly every defensive snap as the "Devil" linebacker on defense and showed off his versatility by lining up all over the field in 2013.

The "Devil" linebacker position is technically the weak side linebacker in the 3-4 defense, but in Graham's world, it's a hybrid linebacker/defensive end who serves as the puppet of the defense. Graham pulls the strings from the sidelines, and the "Devil" linebacker goes wherever and does whatever the team needs of him.

Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing just north of 240 pounds, Bradford has a rare mix of size and speed that made him a special player at the college level and the ideal candidate for the position. In all likelihood, Todd Graham could search the country for recruits and he would be hard pressed to find a better fit than he had with Bradford these past two seasons.

So with Bradford officially gone, where does Arizona State turn?

Instead of turning to just one player, the Sun Devils will use spring practices as an open tryout for the position. The Sun Devils have nine starters to replace, but there is no position where finding a replacement is more dire than the "Devil" linebacker spot. Even defensive tackle, a spot vacated by two-time All-American Will Sutton, has a number of players the Sun Devils believe can meet the demands.

The first player likely to get a shot at filling Bradford's void is freshman linebacker Chans Cox. Cox is not a prototypical "Devil" linebacker in his body type, but the Sun Devil coaching staff has praised his athleticism and pegged him as a possible replacement to Bradford before a season-ending injury curtailed his development.

Cox will be a redshirt freshman next season, and quite frankly, the coaching staff knows it has to find a spot for him. A local recruit out of Blue Ridge High School, Cox came to Arizona State because he was promised the opportunity to compete for playing time early on in his career.

Cox doesn't fit the Sun Devils' offensive scheme, and his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame doesn't exactly lend him to an inside linebacker position. A 4-star recruit out of high school, Cox needs to beef up quite a bit if he wants to project as a defensive end. So if he's not quite a linebacker and not really a defensive end, then he's sure to get a look at the "Devil" backer position.

In an ideal world, Cox will pan out, take ownership of the position this spring, and add muscle under strength coach Shawn Griswold. The coaching staff would love to make Cox an integral part of its plan for the future, and the Sun Devils are eager to show off local talent on the playing field. The match makes sense, but a lot has to fall into place this spring.

Another player Arizona State will give an extensive look to at "Devil" backer is freshman Viliami Latu. Latu and his twin brother A.J. hail from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. and were part of the same recruiting class as Cox.

Graham spoke highly of Latu throughout the season as a valued member of the Sun Devils' special teams units and he registered an appearance in 10 games. Latu wasn't able to keep his redshirt, which means he'll be a sophomore entering next year.

At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Latu committed to Arizona State as an inside linebacker out of high school. One of the main issues with trying both Cox and Latu at "Devil" backer is that the Sun Devils would be using two of their most highly touted recruits at the same position. Latu might actually be a better fit at the "Will" linebacker position left open by Chris Young.

Latu seems like a more natural fit for the "Will" position, but if Arizona State can get consistency out of a Carlos Mendoza-type at "Will", then Graham will surely look at Latu for "Devil" because it's a position of high priority.

If the Sun Devils can't get either Cox or Latu to make them feel confident at the position, there's an off chance that Arizona State could always adjust its defense based on personnel and situations. The Sun Devils don't want to give away their hand, but if they have to use both a defensive end and an outside linebacker at the position based on the down and distance, it's a feasible option.

A few candidates to line up at the "Devil" backer spot as a defensive end include Marcus Hardison and Corey Smith, although both of those men will be competing for a starting defensive end role on the other side of the defensive line. If Arizona State chooses to use a linebacker at the spot in a true 3-4, perhaps Matthew Rowe or Antonio Longino could step in.

Of course, the Sun Devils still have time to recruit incoming players to take over for Bradford. The "Devil" backer position requires a very specific type of athlete, and Todd Graham might have a better shot at landing an elite player for the spot now that Bradford is gone.

Clearly, Arizona State has its hands full in replacing Carl Bradford because he gave so much to the program over the last two years. No matter who plays the position in 2014, the Sun Devil faithful will always remember what could have the way Bradford dominated the line of scrimmage during his time in Tempe.

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