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Utah State safety Devin Centers has the NFL in his blood

By Jeff Hunter

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 19 2014 3:05 p.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, Aug. 19 2014 3:10 p.m. MDT

Utah State defensive back Devin Centers celebrates an interception to the cheers of his teammates during fall camp in Logan.

Jeff Hunter

LOGAN — After a large portion of their secondary moved on to try to forge professional football careers, it seems only natural that one of the players the Aggies are counting on this season already has the NFL in his blood.

After turning heads during the spring, sophomore safety Devin Centers has continued his impressive play during the first two weeks of Utah State’s fall camp and has his coaches feeling a bit better about losing four starters from last year’s secondary unit. Safety Maurice Alexander (St. Louis Rams) and cornerback Nevin Lawson (Detroit Lions) were both selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft, while cornerbacks Tay Glover-Wright (Atlanta Falcons) and Quinton Byrd (Kansas City Chiefs) ended up signing free-agent contracts.

Centers certainly hopes to follow in the footsteps of his former teammates in a few years, not to mention those of his father. Larry Centers played 14 seasons in the NFL, primarily as a fullback for the Cardinals. The three-time All-Pro, who also spent time with Washington, Buffalo and New England, holds the NFL record for most receptions by a running back (827) and is generally regarded as the finest pass-catching fullback in league history.

“I don’t think most people know,” Devin Centers said of his NFL heritage. “But after they see the number and the last name, they kind of start piecing it together. But I don’t go around bragging about it. I just try to worry about myself, and know that aspect.”

Centers, who wears No. 37 like Larry Centers did for most of his career, grew up in Chandler, Arizona, with his mother, Vada Lonnie. He said the last few years “things have been kind of rocky” with his father, “but we’ve worked on our relationship.”

A standout track star at Chandler High School, Devin Centers said his dad encouraged him to continue to play football, but he didn’t have many offers coming out of high school and strongly considered trying to go to college as a track athlete. While on the fence, Centers ended up calling current USU linebacker Michael Okonkwo, who also played at Chandler High School.

“I asked him what it was like up here, and he said it was nice and that I would like it,” Centers recalled. “So, I asked him to talk to his coaches, and they ended up coming to talk to me. After that, I was set on it. I said, ‘OK, Utah State it is.’ ”

Centers redshirted during the 2012 season, then saw action in 13 games last year, primarily on special teams where he blocked a team-high two punts. With the loss of the four starters and two other veteran safeties in Clayton Christensen and Cameron Sanders, there was no shortage of opportunities during USU’s spring practices, and Centers responded by being seemingly everywhere.

“That guy made a play every time the lights went on, whether it was corner, safety, nickel, blocking a punt. I’m excited to watch him,” USU head coach Matt Wells said at the start of fall camp.

Just to make sure no one forgot about him over the summer, Centers ended snagging three interceptions during the Aggies' first two practices, including two that he took back for would-be touchdowns.

“He’s just picked up where he left off and been a really, really good playmaker back there during fall camp,” USU defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said of Centers. “He knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s actually playing multiple spots, which is kind of refreshing. He can play into the boundary, he plays the field and he can play nickel and he can play dime.

“You usually don’t get a guy that can do that and still play at a high level, so it’s a credit to him and the amount of football that he knows.”

When asked how Centers has been able to take on so much so fast, Orlando declared: “He works at it, and he’s very intelligent. If you ever talk to the kid one-on-one, you’ll realize that he’s very, very bright. And he comes from a background of football. He understands it and picks up things extremely fast.”

Fortunately, the Aggie defense has another similar player in Brian Suite. The senior safety started all 14 games in 2013, totaling 77 tackles and a team-best five interceptions. It’s become obvious during fall camp that the Honolulu native is not only the leader of the secondary, but one of the most respected players on the team.

“Brian’s a vet back there in every aspect; he’s been through the battles,” Orlando said. “He knows how to get lined up, and he’s a great communicator. People respect him and he made a lot of plays for us last year, so that makes him even more valuable.”

Like Centers, senior safety Frankie Sutera also had a good spring that has carried over into the fall. A graduate of Juan Diego High School, Sutera started for USU during its win over No. 24 Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl while also shining last year on special teams.

But while the Aggies look pretty solid at the safety positions, senior Rashard Stewart (14 tackles, two pass breakups and a sack in 2013) and sophomore Marquan Ellison are all the experience the Aggies have back at cornerback this season. Daniel Gray is expected to be in the mix, but the sophomore has been slowed a little bit by a knee injury suffered during USU’s first scrimmage of the fall.

Freshman Jalen Davis garnered some attention after making a couple of big plays with the first-team defense in last Saturday’s scrimmage, and junior college transfer Tyler Floyd was also all over the place. But since USU regularly plays five and six defensive backs, there are plenty of spots still left to be won before the season opener at Tennessee on Aug. 31.

“We brought in a bunch of guys and it’s been a great battle,” Orlando said. “They have great attitudes, and they love to compete and fight and scratch for every ball. It’s a wide-open competition, and they know that.”

Suite said he’s also been impressed with the competitiveness of the newcomers and feels like the secondary will be able to provide the answer to “everyone’s big question mark.”

“What I see are the young guys stepping up with established guys like myself, Frankie Sutera and Devin Centers playing how we should play,” Suite said. “I mean, we still have more work to do, but the young guys are putting in a lot of work.

“Everyone’s looking really good, so I’m not worried about it.”

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