Defense has long been a problem for Duke. Even prior to David Cutcliffe’s arrival, the Blue Devils were competent on offense, but perpetually undermined any positives by giving up huge point totals to opponents.
Happily, Cutcliffe has proven to be more than just an offensive genius. Under his watch, the defense has improved by leaps and bounds.
Unfortunately, the numbers don’t look good for Duke’s defense going forward.
The good news is that the Blue Devils return six starters from 2013. The bad news is that only three of those returning starters are seniors. Therefore, the defense may have earned a season’s worth of experience, but the players are still fairly young and prone to mistakes.
The three returning senior starters all play up front defensively. That’s a positive because Duke’s defensive line is a serious concern.
Kenny Anunike, Justin Foxx and Sydney Sarmiento were all huge parts of Duke’s front four last season. With those three linemen out of the picture, returning starter at nose guard Jamal Bruce will need new running mates on the defensive front.
Fellow seniors Dezmond Johnson and Jonathan Woodruff will attempt to help with the pass rush from the defensive end position. Both have some game experience and should be extremely familiar with the defensive system.
All in all, there are a number of players looking to fill the vacated starting spots. Whether or not these players will generate a reliable pass rush and clog up running lanes is up for debate. None of them jump out as supremely talented or primed for a breakout year.
To be honest, Duke’s defensive line last year wasn’t particularly good.
This season, the defensive front almost certainly won’t be any better. In fact, it’s entirely possible that this defensive front will be noticeably worse than the 2013 one.
So, a weakness from last season may have gotten even weaker. If the defensive line fails to at least hassle the quarterback and slow the run game, it will put increased pressure on the defenders behind them.
Fortunately for Duke, there will be consistency, experience and talent at the linebacker position. Kelby Brown and David Helton are both returning starters from last season. Brown and Helton are also both seniors.
Most importantly, the two linebackers anchoring Duke’s defense are extremely skilled players.
Last season, Helton led the Blue Devils with 133 tackles. Brown was third on the team with 120. Helton and Brown each had one sack. Brown, who blitzed more frequently, also had 11 tackles for a loss.
Their experience and skill in the center of the Duke defense will be critical. The leadership from the linebacker position will be needed to make up for new faces on the defensive line and youth in the secondary.
The secondary is an interesting one. As with the defensive line, graduation robbed Duke’s secondary of key players. Both starting cornerbacks from 2013, Ross Cockrell and Garett Patterson, are gone.
The loss of Cockrell, who was named All-ACC twice in his career and drafted by the Buffalo Bills, is particularly devastating given his ability to take away a team’s best receiver.
Breon Borders and Bryon Fields will step in as Duke’s new cornerbacks. Though both are just sophomores, they did earn playing time last season. Ideally, that experience—limited as it was—will pay dividends because there isn’t much depth behind those two at corner.
Duke does have a bevy of safeties that logged significant minutes last season. Even though all of those players are underclassmen, their game-time experience will be crucial, as they’ll likely be called upon to help out Borders and Fields in coverage.
Jeremy Cash was second on the team in tackles and emerged as one of the premier safeties in the ACC. Sophomores DeVon Edwards, Deondre Singleton and Corbin McCarthy as well as junior Dwayne Norman will all shuffle in and out of the Duke secondary.
Such depth at the safety position should also enable the Blue Devils to come up with interesting schemes in the secondary.
Though young, those players have seen enough action to be battle-tested. Duke will need to figure out a way to use the depth at safety to cover for the inexperience at corner. If the secondary plays as a unit, it will be formidable enough to prevent big plays and give the defensive front more time to mount a pass rush.
The most troubling thing for Duke, however, is that the Blue Devils lived and died on defense by forcing turnovers last year. That’s a stat that’s difficult to maintain from year to year. Duke amassed 18 interceptions and 10 forced fumbles in 2013. Many of those changes in possession were timely.
In 2014, Duke will once again need some bounces to go their way on defense.
All told, Duke’s defense is a bit shaky in spots, but sports two reliable veteran linebackers and a variety of young secondary players with potential.
If the secondary can cohesively cover its weak spots, then the Blue Devils’ defensive line will be the only questionable cog in the defensive machinery.
So long as the front four can at least limit the run game and get some semblance of a pass rush, Duke should be able to mount enough resistance to at least slow opposing offenses.
As with 2013, the Blue Devils offense will be the star of the show. If the defensive unit can create a little havoc and prevent opponents from scoring over 30 points per game, Duke should have another fantastic season.
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