It s safe to say that most of the season previews that I’ve read look at Duke and see their defense as a glaring weak link and the most probable reason the Blue Devils will struggle this coming season.
Those that feel that way are making sense of their assessments by looking at the youth that the Blue Devils have, mostly in the secondary. However, I think that assessment is underestimating the talent on the team and feeding into a growing misconception about this particular unit.
Looking at the defense you should see a talented and experienced group though there are some younger players. Is this the ’85 Bears defense no but there is talent here.
The defensive line is made up of mostly veteran guys. Kenny Anunike was granted a 6th year of eligibility and is arguably Duke’s best defensive lineman and one of the best in the ACC. Redshirt senior Justin Foxx is pegged to be the other starting defensive end and he has had a solid career.
Jamal Bruce is a redshirt junior nose guard who missed a number of games last year due to injury but is back healthy and a projected starter headed into this season. Another veteran, redshirt senior Syndney Sarmiento is also slated as a starting defensive tackle and yet another guy who has been around the block.
Duke gets back its best linebacker in redshirt junior Kelby Brown who sat out all of last season with a knee injury. He will be joined by another redshirt junior, C.J. France, at the other linebacker spot.
So the Blue Devils have a combined 170 games played, with 95 stars among just their starting front seven, hardly an inexperienced group. The backups include guys like Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo (22 games/9 starts), Jamal Wallace (22 games/8 starts), Jonathan Woodruff (24 games/ 2 starts), Dezmond Johnson (24 games/6 starts), David Helton (22 games/6 starts), and Kyler Brown (12 games/ 2 starts).
That is a lot of game experience from just the backups for a defense that many are expecting to suffer as the result of youth and inexperience.
The secondary is really the area, where most see some problems and most are pointing fingers. Those who feel that Duke will be toward the bottom of the ACC due to their defense, site inexperience but the numbers don’t seem to match up.
That secondary is lead by senior Ross Cockrell who has started every game he has played in (36) and is one of the most decorated defensive players, if not the best defensive player on the entire team. His projected fellow starting corner is also a senior in Garrett Patterson. And while Patterson hasn’t started a game he has played in 37 games, hardly a guy that hasn’t sniffed out the field.
The question mark comes from the reserves. True freshman Evrett Edwards is listed as second on the depth chart but was a very highly regarded three-star prospect that will likely see a lot of game action and may be a starter by the end of the year. Redshirt freshman DeVon Edwards is also expected to get solid playing time. While neither has played, both are good athletes who will have some growing pains but likely are capable of coming in and playing well.
At safety you have a bit more youth in the starters. Sophomore Jeremy Cash who sat out last season after transferring from Ohio State was a four-star prospect coming out of high school and will be an immediate impact player on defense. He is talented and his presence alone will be a stabilizing force despite his perceived youth (though he is a junior academically).
Dwayne Norman, a sophomore is another young player but he played in all 13 of Duke’s games last season, starting in five. He will only be better with a year under his belt.
The other projected starter at safety is redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy who was looking impressive in Duke’s first two games last year before suffering a season ending shoulder injury. He was granted a medical waiver and given an extra year of eligibility therefore he is still considered a freshman in terms of eligibility. Still, he has played and not new to what is expected of a regular players.
The primary back up at safety, Anthony Young-Wiseman is a senior with 29 games under his belt. Beyond him there is a lot of inexperience as freshman, Quay Mann as well as redshirt sophomore Nick Hill will fight for playing time. It is also possible true freshman Jake Kite could get in the mix as well.
So that inexperience could be a problem if Duke has the kind of struggle this year as they did last with injuries.
Still the unit plays a whole group and if they can remain healthy, this a a unit with talent and experience. The ability of the defensive line to put pressure on the quarterback will help the secondary and a healthy improved line and linebacking corp should help against the run.
This should provide a cumulative effect that could make this a unit that is actually better than last year, not worse.
While the Duke defense does have some youth, not all of it is inexperienced. Having suffered so many injuries over the last several years, many different players have gotten experience and as coach David Cutcliffe has continued to upgrade the talent, the younger players are getting closer and closer to being the quality of players who can play and contribute sooner.
Am I suggesting that Duke’s defense will be a juggernaut? No, certainly not, but I do believe there is enough talent and depth to make it a much better unit than many are given it credit for.
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