Blue Devils’ defense starts up front
Coming off the school’s first bowl appearance in 18 years, expectations continue to shift for Duke football.
That’s as true off the field as it is on.
With a fan base hoping to see back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school history, Duke’s defensive coaching staff is shifting the bulk of its hopes from back to front.
While the secondary, particularly the safeties, carried a large burden in previous seasons, it’s the guys up front that the Blue Devils will count on to produce as Duke seeks to match or top the six-win total of the 2012 season.
“We will hope to be more multiple with the veterans we have in the front six,” Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said Tuesday. “It’s certainly a year when we are counting on our front six, whereas in my previous two years, we were adding safeties. Our safeties were our leading tacklers.”
Over the past two seasons, guys such as Matt Daniels and Walt Canty were counted upon to come up and make tackles for the Blue Devils. Daniels completed his career with a 126-tackle season in 2011 and now is with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. Canty led Duke with 109 stops last season.
That plan, Knowles said, was by design in Duke’s 4-2-5 alignment.
“We felt like we had to do that because we were really mismatched up front,” he said.
This season, the plan is for that to change.
Duke returns three starters along its four-man defensive line in senior defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento and redshirt senior defensive ends Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx.
Jamal Bruce, a redshirt junior who has played in 19 games with one start, is the top nose guard.
At linebacker, redshirt junior C.J. France is back after starting a year ago, and redshirt junior Kelby Brown, a starter in 2010 and 2011 before missing last season with a knee injury, will start fall practice healthy on Monday.
Now it must be said that those guys, with the exception of Brown, were on the field this past season when Duke finished last in the ACC and 107th nationally by allowing 36 points per game.
Knowles doesn’t hide from that fact. But he believes all the snaps those players have taken in games will pay off.
“It’s experience,” Knowles said. “It really is. It’s growing up. It’s being able to handle yourself physically against the competition. We’ve got some grown men out there. We’ve got Kenny Anunike. We’ve got Justin Foxx, Sydney Sarmiento.
“These are guys who have fought a lot of battles and at times may have been undersized or behind the eight-ball. Now we are expecting them to be able to take control of the game.”
Knowles said getting Kelby Brown back in the lineup is a “huge” factor for Duke. When healthy, Brown has shown playmaking ability.
In 2010, he made seven starts and recorded 5.5 tackles for loss and four fumble recoveries to finish third in the balloting for ACC defensive rookie of the year.
In 2011, he was named Duke’s top linebacker after netting 65 tackles with seven tackles for losses in his 10 games.
“Kelby is a productive player,” Knowles said. “When we talk about getting more from our front six, those guys have to make tackles. They have got to be productive. Kelby is a guy who can tackle.”
Behind the projected starters, Duke has experienced players in defensive ends Dezmond Johnson, a redshirt junior, and nose guard Carlos Wray, who saw some playing time as a true freshman a year ago.
At linebacker, Kyler Brown (Kelby’s brother) and David Helton have seen playing time over the past two seasons.
For a change, the production level of that group will go a long way toward answering the questions about Duke’s defense this season.
“I’m not confident — I know we’re going to be better than we were a year ago,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “It’s got to compute to good enough. But we’re better. We’re better physically. We’re more experienced up front where it all starts, and I like what our defensive staff has done in preparing this team.”