DeVon Edwards plays unlikely hero for Duke football
DeVon Edwards was supposed to be a basketball player.
As a senior on Alcovy High School’s varsity team, Edwards was ranked as the 12th-best player in Georgia. He only chose to pursue football further because of his height—Edwards himself is not hesitant to admit that he can only reach 5-foot-9 while wearing shoes.
Yet it was basketball that led him to the Duke football team. Edwards went largely unrecruited in high school, but head coach David Cutcliffe knew there was something special about the cornerback. It was confirmed when Cutcliffe first saw Edwards on the basketball court.
"I went down and watched him play basketball, and that's when I knew," Cutcliffe said. "I put a lot of stock in that, and when I saw him on the court... he had a mentality about him and I loved it."
But nobody foresaw Edwards’ explosive performance in Duke’s 38-20 victory against N.C. State. With 3:45 remaining in the third quarter, Edwards returned a Niklas Sade kickoff for 100 yards, tying the record for the second-longest kick return in Duke football history.
But on the Blue Devils' next defensive drive, Edwards made a mistake that went largely unnoticed in his breakout performance. After Wolfpack wide receiver Quintin Payton beat Breon Borders down the left sideline, Edwards ran Payton down and had a chance to keep him from reaching the end zone—but missed the tackle.
One quarter later, Edwards intercepted two consecutive passes and took them back to the house.
"I knew I made a mistake, and I knew I had to give everybody respect," Edwards said. "So I knew I had to come back stronger. I couldn't put my head down."
With kicker Ross Martin’s successful PATs, Edwards singlehandedly beat N.C. State 21-20. But if it weren’t for a series of events that whittled down Duke’s depth chart, Edwards would most likely have not been on the field against the Wolfpack.
Edwards was primarily a running back in high school. He was named the Offensive Player of the Year for his school’s league and set school records for all-purpose yards, total touchdowns and kickoff returns for touchdowns. Cutcliffe, however, moved Edwards to defense upon arriving in Durham, and he redshirted during his first season.
He came into this spring as the second cornerback on the Blue Devils’ roster behind redshirt senior Ross Cockrell. Before the start of the season, Edwards was beat out in training camp by fifth-year senior Garett Patterson and true freshmen Bryon Fields and Breon Borders. Cutcliffe moved Edwards to safety, where he was listed behind redshirt sophomore Jeremy Cash and again faced an uphill battle to see the field.
Freshman Johnell Barnes was also named the top kick returner above Edwards, even though Edwards was named to Georgia’s all-state second-team in high school after averaging 41 yards per return his senior year.
"We're all interchangeable throughout the secondary, but it was tough in the beginning," Edwards said. "I got a little frustrated. But... they moved [Ross Cockrell] around the defense too so he coached me through everything and told me 'When in doubt, just play football.'"
Edwards registered two tackles in Duke’s season opener against N.C. Central, but didn’t make a mark on the stat sheet against Georgia Tech and Memphis. He registered two tackles again against Pittsburgh the next week playing on special teams, and returned his first kickoff for 12 yards against Troy.
But then the depth chart got dismantled.
Barnes broke his hand Sept. 29 in an altercation with a Duke lacrosse player, and Edwards was named top returner against Navy. That same week, safety Deondre Singleton was suspended for missing academic obligations, opening up room for Edwards on defense. Edwards returned two kickoffs against the Midshipmen, one for 24 yards and one for 36, and notched two tackles.
The next week, Norman, who had been already sidelined earlier in the season with a hamstring injury, sprained his MCL against Virginia. Although Edwards had been alternating between cornerback and safety for most of the season, Norman’s injury forced Edwards to move primarily to the safety position.
Edwards’ boosted playing time coincided with the Blue Devils’ most important contest in recent memory, against then-No. 16 Virginia Tech for their bowl-clinching sixth win. The redshirt freshman embraced the spotlight against the Hokies, returning three kickoffs for a total of 49 yards and registering a career-high 12 tackles.
Little did Edwards know, the light would shine brighter just two weeks later.
Edwards is now the only FBS player in the last 10 years with three non-offensive touchdowns in a game. He set the Duke freshman record for most points scored in a single game and is only the second player in NCAA history to return interceptions for touchdowns on back-to-back plays, joining former Duke cornerback Leon Wright.
"[Edwards] is a humble young man, and he had a magic night," Cutcliffe said. "It may never happen quite like that again, but it was a magic night. I'm happy for him. He's the right type of person to have that type of night."
It would have been tough to predict a player who barely saw the field until his first collegiate start one game ago would be named the National Defensive Player of the Week. But although he barely touched the field until recently, his teammates saw something in Edwards in a more familiar setting—on the basketball court.
Edwards and junior Jamison Crowder played pickup basketball often last summer, and the wide receiver saw something in his teammate he said he’s been waiting for Edwards to show on the gridiron all season.
“It’s just natural athletic ability,” Crowder said. “When a guy has that and he’s a football player, that’s something you can’t coach. I knew that he had it and he was able to be in a position to take advantage of that.”
The Blue Devils take on No. 24 Miami next week in their final home game of the season. The Hurricanes boast the third-ranked scoring offense in the ACC, tallying an average of 36.4 points per contest. It’s unlikely Edwards can duplicate his performance against N.C. State, but Duke’s defense has a new weapon they can depend on to close out the season.
“He’s a player we’ve been waiting for,” Crowder said. “He came out of his shell. We knew he had that talent… and he helped us get the win. It’s the first time I’ve ever been part of a team where something like that happened. It was crazy."