Confident group puts swagger, 'D' back in Duke
Once a group that shielded its eyes from statistics, Duke’s defense is able to stand tall so far in this young college football season.
The Blue Devils, who allowed an ACC-worst 36 points per game last season, have shown dramatic improvement through this season’s first two games.
In convincing wins over Football Championship Subdivision member N.C. Central, 45-0, and at Memphis of the BCS-level American Athletic Conference, 28-14, Duke’s defense has proven to be a stingy bunch.
In those eight quarters, Duke’s defense has allowed only one touchdown. Memphis scored one of its touchdowns on an interception return.
Duke is No. 6 in the country in total defense, allowing 210.5 yards per game, and is No 17 in rushing defense, allowing 85 yards per game.
The meat of the schedule lies ahead of Duke, with a tough Georgia Tech team coming to Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday (3:30 p.m., ESPNU). But the Blue Devils have a reason to feel good as they prepare for that game.
“I think it’s all real,” Duke redshirt junior linebacker Kelby Brown said. “It’s all real. This is a new defense. Every year we’ve built on guys who came in and worked hard. There’s a swagger.”
Brown, who missed last season with a knee injury, leads Duke with 14 tackles. But he points to his teammates along the front four as a big part of the defense’s improvement. Redshirt seniors Kenny Anunike, Sydney Sarmiento and Justin Foxx are joined by redshirt junior Jamal Bruce as the starters up front.
“It starts up front,” Brown said. “Those guys are just playing so hard. They are experienced. They are having fun playing. That’s something you can’t teach. It just happens. When you are playing like that you can beat anybody. You can play great defense.”
As good as the Blue Devils feel now, they know their toughest test so far will be against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense allows them to grind up yardage with ease.
Georgia Tech led the ACC and was fourth in the rushing offense last year at 311.2 yards per game. The Yellow Jackets haven’t lost to Duke since 2003.
Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles senses that his players know there is tough work to be done.
“I think they are very serious about it,” Knowles said. “There hasn’t been a lot of joking around or a lot of `look what we did the last two weeks’ It’s cold-blooded gentlemen. Cold-blooded gentlemen. Steely-eyed. These guys haven’t beaten Georgia Tech.”
Brown is able to simplify the task ahead.
“It’s really about getting your assignment and kicking someone’s butt,” Kelby Brown said. “You have to beat the man across from you. That’s why it’s a challenge because they are such a physical team. Hard-nosed. So we have to do the same thing.”
Knowles has simplified the attack this season and the results so far have been positive.
“Everybody knows where to fit and what to do,” Knowles said. “It allows them to play fast. So far it’s worked. You always want to have more defenses and more blitzes. But what we’re finding out with our guys is they play better if they know exactly what to do. Make it simple.”
Against Georgia Tech, Duke’s players say, they have to be disciplined to watch out for the cut-blocks the Yellow Jackets use to open holes for their runners. While legal when executed correctly, cut-blocking calls for the offensive linemen to hit defenders low.
“It’s huge,” Anunike said. “That’s what Georgia Tech’s offense is predicated on. They will go after your knees and will go after your legs. You have to do quick work with your hands, keep eyes up and keep feet active. You are going to end up on the ground. It happens to everybody. It’s how fast can you get up and how fast can you chase the ball down.”
Brown has worked back from two torn ACLs during his Duke career. The thought of being cut-blocked doesn’t make him happy. But he’s ready for it.
“That’s part of what makes their offense work,” Brown said. “I don’t like cut blocks. No one likes them. But it’s just something you’ve got to be able to overcome.”
For his part, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said he’s been impressed with Duke’s defense this season.
“They’re healthy,” Johnson said Wednesday. “The defensive line is a little older, played longer. They seem to run a little better. Mike linebacker is a good player, 59, the Brown kid. (All-ACC cornerback Ross) Cockrell has always been a pretty good player. The transfer from Ohio State (safety Jeremy Cash) is an impressive kid.”
The Blue Devils’ improvement allows the defense to display swagger on the field, something not present when they allowed 40 or more points in their last five games last season.
“All great defenses do have an element of swag to them,” Anunike said. “When you have results and have played like we have played the first two games, you earn a little bit of swag. Are we there yet no? We know we have a huge challenge against Georgia Tech.”