With eye black aplenty, Devvon Gage is simply an intimidating presence as he gazes over opposing offensive linemen and into the backfield before each play.
And then there’s the snap.
It’s rather fitting that a middle linebacker, wearing the No. 12 and with the last name of Gage provides quite the punch.
It’s been that way for going on four years now.
You see, Gage has been the middle man on a defense that was one of the best in all of the NAIA last season. And when it comes to racking up tackles, he’s pretty good at that, too — and he’s been doing so ever since he was a redshirt freshman in 2015.
“The ‘Mike’ position is the quarterback of the defense, really. You have a position where, naturally, you have to be a leader,” Gage said. “If people don’t listen to you, people don’t follow you, you’re not going to be running like the machine it needs to run like. When I first came in here, my defensive coordinator at the time, Berk Brown, he always told me to take control of the defense. That’s what I’ve learned and you’ve got to control it.
“Everything I say goes on the field, but I have to be right. It’s one of those things where you are the quarterback of the defense and there’s a lot of pressure, but from a leadership standpoint it’s a big one and important one, too.”
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Gage is one of the last remaining players still on the Raiders’ roster from their national championship run in 2014. He didn’t appear in any games that year having redshirted as a true freshman, but it was that team where Gage saw firsthand that football at SOU is no joke.
“Coming in as a redshirt, (former head coach Craig Howard) told me I would have a degree and a national title under my belt by the time I left Southern Oregon. Obviously, at the time, I was like ‘Uhhhh, OK.’ As an 18-year-old kid going to college, not that I didn’t believe it, but I thought it might be a long shot,” Gage recalled. “But, coming in and seeing those guys train and practice, just being themselves and competing, that’s what really surprised me when I came in here because there is a difference between a national championship team and a team that is not a national championship contender.”
Ever since Gage first cracked the starting lineup four games into the 2015 season, he’s never left.
As players have moved on and the Raiders have made a pair of deep postseason runs following the 2014 title, Gage has been one of the constants.
“I was third string, somebody got hurt, and all of the sudden I’ve started for three years,” Gage said, referencing how one opportunity set the table for the future. “You never know in this game, so keep yourself working and motivated because that’s the only way I’ve made it this far.”
Between his first career start in 2015 and the Raiders’ final game of 2017 in the national semifinals, a span of 36 games, Gage has recorded nearly 300 total tackles.
He’s been a first-team all-Frontier Conference selection the past two seasons, recording over 100 tackles in both 2016 and 2017 while nearly hitting triple digits as a redshirt freshman three years ago.
Gage led SOU and finished third in the conference in tackles (100) and tackles for losses (13) as a sophomore, then finished second behind on the team behind fellow linebacker Tyson Cooper with 104 tackles last season.
“See ball, get ball,” Gage said when it comes to his mindset as a middle linebacker.
Of course, there’s more to it than that for somebody who has had as much individual production as Gage has the past three seasons.
“Never feeling comfortable is really the biggest key, honestly,” Gage said. “If you start feeling complacent and comfortable being a (starter), you’re never going to get better, you’re never going to get better at your job and you’re going to stay the same. So, that’s what I’ve taken pride in and what the coaches talk to me about a lot is never getting comfortable, never getting complacent at your position because there’s always going to be recruits trying to take your spot.”
As he gets set to enter his final season wearing an SOU jersey, the realization that he’s got just one more crack to get another ring is evident.
And that’s even more true when you consider the Raiders nearly got to their third national title game since Gage arrived four years ago last season, only to lose to in double overtime to Reinhardt (Ga.) in the national semifinals.
“As a senior, I’ve been through five years of college football now and being a senior you have a bunch of responsibility — you have guys looking up to you whereas when you’re a true freshman you’re not really expected to do much,” Gage said. “The responsibility and the eyes that are on you more as a senior and a leader, it’s like you are the program now and you have to lead it in the right direction. If you don’t, it’s kind of your fault, and that’s the stressful part.”
Gage’s “See ball, get ball,” mindset has worked quite well.
Same goes for the ability to get in the lineup and quickly prove to be one of the SOU defense’s most important pieces.
For somebody who arrived in Ashland in 2014 and saw his new team get to the NAIA mountain top, keeping the bar set as high as can be will always be the end game.
“Coming in here, I thought I was going to win five national championships,” Gage said. “That was my goal. I went in as a freshman, we won, and I was like ‘We’re going to win four more!’ That’s the kind of mindset you need coming in after winning a national championship because you don’t want to lose that momentum, as we say around here. We are trying build a team that is not going to be good one year, but a program that is going to be good every year.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.