DeVon Edwards thought he had said his good-byes to football and was moving on.DURHAM --
After sitting out his junior season at Alcovy High in Covington, Ga., to mend a fractured collarbone, recruiting interest from Division I schools was dissipating and his focus was shifting ever more intently to his other athletic passion, basketball. Though only 5-foot-9, he could get off the floor and dunk with two hands, and his game was beginning to attract mid-major offers.
Not only had he stopped thinking about playing football in college — he wasn’t even going to play his senior year of high school. Until his mother Valarie intervened.
“She told me, ‘You are going to finish this out,’” Edwards reports. “’If you don’t play this year you’re never going to play again and you’re going to miss it. So just have fun out there and don’t take it so seriously.’
“So that’s what I did, and I had a great year. Schools that were recruiting me my sophomore year started coming back and wanted me to come on visits.”
One of those schools was Duke. Coach David Cutcliffe paid a visit to Alcovy High to observe Edwards at a basketball practice. He planned to watch for 20 minutes but stayed through the entire two-hour workout, then became the only Division I coach to offer him a football scholarship.
“He said he liked my competitive aspect,” Edwards notes. “I wouldn’t back down from any challenge. I was the smallest one on the court getting rebounds over the bigger guys and he liked that.”
That prescient decision paid off handsomely for Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils during the recently concluded landmark season of 2013. Edwards emerged as a starting defensive back by midseason and turned in some truly remarkable performances down the stretch as Duke won the ACC Coastal Division, played for the conference title and appeared in a second straight bowl game for the first time in program history.
Edwards ranked third nationally in kickoff returns, while also making college football history with his pair of interception returns for scores on consecutive plays vs. N.C. State. The Walter Camp Foundation honored him as a second team All-America and he landed on all the Freshman All-America teams, as well as the All-ACC third team — all as a return specialist.
But Edwards’ path to rookie stardom was hardly a gilded one. The 2013 campaign was actually his second at Duke; his true freshman year was spent as an anonymous redshirt, and there were more frustrations to overcome this past fall before he reached the point where Blue Devil fans knew who wore jersey No. 27.
Duke’s most decorated defensive players the past few seasons have been safety Matt Daniels, now with the St. Louis Rams, and cornerback Ross Cockrell, a two-time first team All-ACC pick and potential pro. Going forward, the Blue Devil secondary may be stocked mostly with players who can line up at safety or corner. The recruiting approach has shifted toward a focus on DBs versatile enough to handle multiple positions, and DeVon Edwards just may be the poster child for that initiative. He was wooed as a corner and played that spot during his redshirt season, his first spring practice and throughout all of 2013 preseason summer camp. He learned both the field and the boundary corner positions and expected to provide some depth there this year — until the coaches informed him the Tuesday before the season opener that he was moving to safety.
“I was frustrated a little bit because we went all camp with me playing corner and then I had to know three whole new positions just like that,” Edwards recalls. “It was tough for me. I was frustrated. I was in the film room meeting with players trying to learn the new plays quick, just for the game plans. Every day we’d add new stuff and I was just learning the old stuff.”
Edwards picked up enough of the strike safety position to back up Jeremy Cash for the first few weeks. Just as he was becoming comfortable there, Dwayne Norman suffered an injury and the coaches had to shuffle their deck of subs some more. They needed Edwards to move over to rover to spell Corbin McCarthy, so he got up to speed for that role and saw enough snaps in the Navy and Virginia games to warrant another move — this time to the starting lineup.
Beginning with the trip to Virginia Tech in Week 8, Edwards started at rover the remainder of the year while also handling the kickoff duties. That first start in Blacksburg was chaotic with so many young players pressed into duty on the defensive side, but Edwards was all over the field for 12 tackles and somehow the Blue Devils held together for a 13-10 upset victory. That set the stage for what proved to be Edwards’ coming out party — the Nov. 9 home game with N.C. State.
Cutcliffe had been wondering aloud who might emerge as Duke’s “Mr. November” and Edwards answered the question when he returned a kickoff 100 yards to paydirt, then posted back-to-back pick-sixes in the fourth quarter to seal a 38-20 victory. Former Duke DB Leon Wright is the only other player in college history known to have returned interceptions for scores on consecutive snaps from scrimmage (2009 at Army).
“I got a lot more attention than I was used to,” Edwards says. “It was crazy. My phone was blowing up, people were telling me they saw me on SportsCenter, my teammates were proud of me and everybody had a higher expectation for me to come out and bring it every Saturday.
“I really didn’t come to terms with that game until the following week when everybody was talking about it. But I had a really good time that game. That was my first college touchdown — (actually first three) — and I will never forget that.”
Edwards was everybody’s player of the week, but he focused more on the next opponent than on his press clippings and YouTube views, continuing to deliver big plays as Duke made its run for the ACC Coastal title.
He had eight tackles and broke up three passes when Duke took down nationally-ranked Miami. And when the Blue Devils posted their record 10th win in the finale at North Carolina, Edwards had another huge hand in the outcome. His 99-yard kickoff return at the end of the first half provided a major momentum swing after the Tar Heels had taken a 15-10 lead. He also made eight tackles, and when UNC was driving at the end of the game he picked off the Heels’ final pass with 13 seconds left to halt their threat and preserve the 27-25 victory.
“My motivation was basically to not overthink everything and just play football,” Edwards recalls. “I know I had to show (the coaches) I could just play football, so they’d know they could put me anywhere around the secondary. Now I’ve just got to learn one more position (bandit safety) and I’ll know the whole secondary.”
Duke’s secondary now looms as a team strength in the preliminary 2014 analysis, with Edwards and All-America safety Jeremy Cash joined by youthful DBs Deondre Singleton, Bryon Fields, Breon Borders and others. Edwards recognizes that he and his mates still have much to learn and experience, but he now has a clearer appreciation for the decision to redshirt in 2012 that delayed the start of his career by a year.
“I kinda knew I was going to redshirt, but in the back of my mind there was this one little hope that they might see something, that I might get a chance to play,” he says. “It was rough at first. I talked to Ross (Cockrell) a lot about it. He kept my head into it because sometimes I wasn’t into it mentally, I was just there physically. Ross told me how it was the best decision he made in his football career. He was trying to explain that to me, but when you first get here you don’t really listen to that. You just see everybody on TV and you want to play. But you just have to trust the process. It benefited me a lot, but at first I didn’t like it.
“This year was great, and last year I did really well preparing myself. I wanted to play, but redshirting was best for me. I trusted the coaches, trusted the process and it got me prepared for this year. Now I know more of the defense than I ever knew before. I know why we call certain plays and what other people do rather than just my position, so that helped me a lot this year. It’s been a tremendous season — everybody trusted the process, everybody loves playing football, we work hard in the offseason and during the season to help each other play to the best of their ability.”