Blue Devils look to strengthen defense
With only one full-time starter returning from a year ago, Duke’s inexperienced secondary figured to have ups and downs this season.
Over the first four games, there have been far more downs than ups.
The Blue Devils have allowed 10 touchdown passes, including six in Saturday’s wild 58-55 loss to Pittsburgh at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Only Idaho (13) and Akron, Air Force and Louisiana-Monroe (11 each) have allowed more.
The Blue Devils (2-2, 0-2 ACC) are back at work this week, seeking solutions in advance of their home nonconference game with Troy on Saturday (3 p.m., ESPN3).
The defensive backs — yes, even All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell — had a tough day as Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage matched an ACC record with six touchdown passes Saturday.
Two of the touchdown passes covered distances of 69 and 67 yards, and others were for 21 and 17.
All left Duke’s coaching staff looking for answers and implementing a plan to find some this week.
“How do you prevent explosive plays?” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “How do you keep the ball in front of you? How do you tackle? How do you leverage the ball and set the edge? Those are the things that we’re working on, and we obviously have to continue to work better on them.”
Cockrell is the only returning starter from the 2012 Blue Devils, who went 6-7 and played in the school’s first bowl game since 1994. He is joined a cornerback by redshirt senior cornerback Garett Patterson, who didn’t start before this season.
Duke’s starting safeties have been Jeremy Cash, a redshirt sophomore and first-time starter, sophomore Dwayne Norman and redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy.
McCarthy missed the Pitt game with a sprained ankle but is practicing on a limited basis and could return to play this week.
But in the second half of the Pitt game, after the defense had allowed 37 points, the Blue Devils showed a modicum of bite. That corresponded with more playing time for three true freshmen — cornerbacks Breon Borders and Bryon Fields and safety Deondre Singleton.
On Tuesday, Cutcliffe said their playing time will increase as long as they keep producing.
“They played real well,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re getting more and more comfortable with their comfort level with what they are doing. They proved that Saturday. You are going to see more and more of those guys. We are going to try to continue to elevate the athleticism of this team, and those guys certainly do that.”
Singleton saw the most playing time against the Panthers, taking part in 54 defensive snaps. He had played 13 snaps over his first two games before sitting out Duke’s Sept. 14 game with Georgia Tech with a leg injury.
Fields was in the game for 28 defensive snaps, plus nine on special teams. This after he’d played 13 defensive snaps the week before against Georgia Tech.
Borders played eight defensive plays against Pitt.
Cutcliffe and his staff are drilling the defensive backs about sound play and fundamental discipline.
“Systematically, people on the back end of the secondary have to be pass-first,” Cutcliffe said. “You can’t take a chance. You coach how, you coach how, you coach how, but you also coach discipline. Discipline is what you’ve got to do and when you’ve got to do it.”
Obviously, there were some breakdowns in those areas as Pitt rolled up big play after big play.
“We just have to understand the game plan,” Cockrell said. “When we are playing deep zone, play deep zone. When we are playing man-to-man, play man-to-man. It’s that simple. Don’t get caught up trying to do more than your job.”