After DeVon Edwards introduced himself to the college football world in 2013 with a 100-yard kickoff return and back-to-back interceptions for touchdowns against N.C. State, he celebrated in his own way: a quiet dinner on campus with his girlfriend and uncle.
The Edwards party of three was sitting at The Loop, a standard American fare restaurant then in the middle of Duke’s campus. Above them, a TV played ESPN’s SportsCenter. It didn’t take long for Edwards’ accomplishments to play on the screen. A man walked up near them and started to watch.
“This guy was like, ‘Man, that guy, 27, DeVon Edwards, he is a great player. Where did he come from?’ And we all just looked at each other and started laughing,’” Edwards says more than a year later, sitting in Duke’s equipment room. “And she was like ‘that’s him right there.’ And he was like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you serious, I’m sitting next to DeVon Edwards?’ And I was like, wow. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.
“Ever since then, a lot of people have kind of noticed me and taken me into account when you talk about Duke now.”
Later that week, Edwards – an unassuming 5-foot-9, 180 pounds – was working at Quenchers, the fruit and smoothie bar in the main campus gym. People started to recognize him behind the counter there, too.
“He came into the store one day and asked if there were any openings,” said Jack Chao, the owner. “Excellent employee. Always on time. Very courteous to the customers.”
Geographically, Edwards is from Covington, Ga., 35 miles east of Atlanta, but football-wise, he was completely off the map in high school. Duke was his only scholarship offer, and it didn’t come until two months before signing day. By the end of his redshirt freshman year, he was a second-team all-American. Now he is a redshirt junior expected to lead the secondary, which should be one of the strongest units on the team.
Not bad for a guy who almost didn’t even play football his senior year of high school.
Duke takes chance on ‘basketball player’
Valerie Edwards knew from the time her son was about 8 that he had an athletic gift. Others saw it, too.
“I even had a high school coach ask me what district I lived in and to see if there would be a way I would move into his district for high school,” she said with a laugh. “We didn’t go to that school.”
Neal Grier also noticed Edwards early.
“I remember DeVon was so talented that he would run the ball – but he was a little skittish,” Grier said. “I remember one of the games, I stopped him and said, ‘If you’re the player I think you are, you don’t have any business being scared. I expect more out of you.’ From that day on, every time I challenged him, it was like he raised his game to another level.”
Grier became a father figure for Edwards, and Edwards became family. Grier’s youngest son, D.J. Hill, was a year older than Edwards, and went to a nearby high school. And while Hill racked up several Division-I offers before ultimately choosing Virginia, Edwards stayed off the radar at Alcovy High.
No one from Edwards’ school, which opened in 2006, had received an FBS offer. A broken collarbone cost him his junior season, a prime time for recruiting. Edwards, just 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, figured he would just concentrate on basketball. His AAU team, the Southern Kings, featured several players with major Division-I offers to nearby SEC schools like Auburn and Georgia.
“Other people had different opinions, but I always felt that football was his ticket,” Valerie Edwards said. “I told him that I didn’t want him to give up. I told him that football is his sport, and he should continue to pursue it his senior year and see what happens.”
But even after a senior year with 1,009 rushing yards on 135 carries (7.5 yards per rush), 13 touchdowns, an average of 41.1 kickoff return yards on 16 returns, and 57 tackles, seven pass break-ups and two interceptions on defense, Edwards’ season ended without any scholarship offers.
But Duke was at least aware of him. A football relations assistant, Ethan Johnson, saw film from Edwards’ sophomore year on Hudl, a software system and online platform that allows players and coaches to access game films and highlights. Johnson told the coaching staff, and coach David Cutcliffe asked to see film from the first four games of Edwards’ senior year. The Blue Devils reached out to Edwards right before Thanksgiving 2011, after the end of his senior season. Edwards and his mother made an unofficial visit to Duke the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
“What I liked about Duke off the bat was right after talking to him, they asked to talk to me,” Valerie Edwards said.
Edwards met with several Duke coaches, and the trainer looked at his repaired collarbone. But when he left campus without an offer, he figured that was it.
Duke couldn’t see him play football because the season was over, but Edwards was still playing basketball. Defensive backs coach Derek Jones and Cutcliffe made separate trips to Covington to watch him.
“I was coaching (2014 fourth-round NFL draft pick) Ross Cockrell at the time, and what you always want to do is judge athleticism by what you are already playing with,” Jones said. “I was just watching DeVon play basketball, and just saw how quick he was. Then he went up and dunked the basketball at 5-foot-8, and I thought to myself, ‘I don’t have a guy that can do that right now.’”
Cutcliffe was similarly impressed, and he gave Edwards a call while on the treadmill one day in December.
“Coach Cut told me, when you invest money in something, you want to see it in real life before you buy it,” Edwards said. “And now that he had seen me and saw what he was getting into, he said he wanted to offer me.”
Edwards asked if he could call his mom, and he did. He then called Cutcliffe back and accepted the offer. The time in between the two calls?
“Maybe about 10 minutes,” Edwards said with a smile.
Edwards did collect offers from a few smaller basketball schools – Jacksonville University and Tennessee Tech – but Grier bluntly reassured him that he made the right decision.
“No one is going to draft you when you’re 5-foot-9, and they can get a 6-foot-6 guy that can do the same thing,” Grier told him. “You can take football, and you can go write your own check.”
Remaking himself into star defender
Still, the transformation from unheralded recruit to All-American wasn’t automatic. Edwards and his mother were frustrated when he didn’t play his first year on campus, but the coaches saw a player who had focused on offense in high school and needed time to learn how to be a defensive back.
“Never a possibility of him playing,” Jones said with a laugh. “It was basically just a complete project situation with him.
“He had a nickname when he got here. I called him Happy Meal because he always smiles. He has the most radiant smile you would ever want to see in this life. But he actually gained 15-20 pounds like over the course of a month, month-and-a-half. He was kind of plump.”
Edwards took the year to learn and refine himself in the weight room. But his patience was tested again the opening week of the 2013 season, when he was moved from cornerback to safety a few days before the first game. Countless hours in the film room with coach Matt Guerrieri helped him learn all the checks and hand signals he would need to learn to quarterback the secondary from the middle of the field.
Edwards caught a fortuitous break when Johnell Barnes broke his hand, opening the kickoff return position seven games into the season. He returned his first kickoff 40 yards against Virginia, solidifying that role. The next week, an injury opened up a starting spot at safety, too.
“It was at practice one time, I was just kind of in the same motion, and he (Guerrieri) snapped on me,” Edwards said. “He was like, ‘You’re going to start for us this week, I need you to have more intensity.’ And that’s when it hit me. That’s the first game I started, against Virginia Tech.”
That 13-10 win over the then-No. 16 Hokies put Duke on the national map. The next week came N.C. State and Edwards’ breakout performance. Two interception returns for touchdowns on consecutive snaps had only happened once before in NCAA history (Duke’s Leon Wright did it in 2009). The 100-yard kickoff return score gave him three non-offensive touchdowns, a first since in the college game since 2003.
“Just a quiet assassin,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “He is always going to smile, no matter what happens. He is always going to tell me that he’s got it, everything is okay, don’t worry about it, coach, I got it. He’s a calming presence.”
Everything fell into place perfectly for Edwards that night against the Wolfpack, and he capitalized with one of the best individual performances college football has seen. His whole football career has been an exercise in patience, working hard and waiting for a break that’s hard to see coming.
“All that did was make me more hungry and make me a better player in the long run, staying humble and keeping everybody involved,” Edwards said of his career night, “And just playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played, because you never know when there is going to be that opportunity.”