ASU Football's 14 Most Important Players for 2014: #11 - Darrius Caldwell

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- "After four great years on the campus of Arizona State University, I have decided to pursue my dream of playing in the National Football League."

With that statement, the #CBE in Tempe came to an end. Carl Bradford was going pro, and the Sun Devil defense was left with a gaping hole at Devilbacker.

"I didn't anticipate Carl going (to the NFL), and he did," said ASU head coach Todd Graham. "That (Devilbacker) was an area of big need for us."

During his two years as the team's starting Devilbacker, Carl Bradford became a terror for opposing offenses. Over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, no Sun Devil—not even two-time Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton—tallied more than Bradford's 20 sacks and 39.5 tackles-for-loss. For a defense that was built to attack, Bradford at Devilbacker was the tip of the spear.

With Bradford now a Green Bay Packer, ASU can ill afford to keep that blade dull if they hope to repeat as Pac-12 South division champions.

Nine defensive starters are gone from a year ago, and the front seven, in particular the pass rush, was an area of concern. Over 87 percent of last year's sacks left, and this year's secondary returns just one starter. Getting to the quarterback will be crucial, and to that end, Graham and staff were aggressive on the recruiting trail. On Signing Day, ASU felt they were able to sign Bradford's immediate heir.

Darrius Caldwell began his collegiate career at Illinois in 2012, playing their hybrid linebacker/defensive end position, very similar in role to the Devilbacker. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, he made three tackles and recovered a fumble in the Illini's 45-14 loss to ASU. After appearing in 12 games with 2.5 sacks that season, he ultimately chose not to return to Champaign.

He ended up at Pearl River Community College in Hattiesburg, Miss. where he made 12 tackles (four for loss) with an interception and a fumble recovery last season. This past January, Caldwell committed to South Carolina, and it appeared that the Atlanta native would continue to call SEC country home.

That was until a late-January official visit that Caldwell took, along with Pearl River teammate Dalvon Stuckey, to Arizona State, where he encountered a familiar face. Chip Long, now ASU's tight ends coach, was the primary recruiter for Illinois when Caldwell signed with the Illini years prior.

Just days later, both players were Sun Devils, and Graham was elated.

"This guy is a big-time pass rusher, and a guy that can really impact the quarterback," said Graham on Signing Day.

ASU needs that impact to come now.

Caldwell possesses the physical tools needed to succeed at the Devilbacker spot. He has a great frame at 6-foot-6 and 235 pound with the room to add strength through the team's conditioning program. A player noted for his physical play, Caldwell also has some speed to be a danger off the edge but still has work to do on his fundamentals and technique.

He'll be a work in progress, but one that will need to learn on the job. 

Despite not yet taking a snap in practice, Caldwell is the odds on favorite to earn the starting Devilbacker job. The team tried a number of players at the spot during spring, with Eriquel Florence ending April atop the depth chart, but no one was able to establish themselves in the role. Fellow 2014 Devilbacker recruit Ismael Murphy-Richardson may be the future of the spot, but at 215 pounds, he'll need some time to grow into the role with a redshirt year a possibility. 

"With Darrius and Ismael  ... we're excited about those two young men and what they're going to do rushing the passer here," said Graham.

For 2014, the Sun Devils need Caldwell to the man. If he can help keep up ASU's recent success in pressuring quarterbacks, it will go a long way to keeping the Sun Devils competitive. If not, it may be a long season.

[VIDEO of Caldwell in action]