Duke lost All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell from its secondary, but the Blue Devils are poised to be even better this season thanks to a philosophical shift on the recruiting trail.
After the 2012 season ended, the Duke coaching staff sat down to discuss ways to make the program better. Defensive backs coach Derek Jones wanted to start recruiting a more complete and versatile player, capable of playing both cornerback and safety. That way it would be harder for opponents to find weaknesses in the secondary.
The change paid off immediately. Duke signed Breon Borders, Bryon Fields and Deondre Singleton in the class of 2013. All three came in after lettering in multiple sports in high school. Singleton was rated as both a cornerback and safety; Fields was listed as an athlete.
All three played as true freshmen. Add into the mix DeVon Edwards, who switched from cornerback to safety as a redshirt freshman, and Duke had an unprecedented youth movement in the secondary.
“I had never played that many true freshmen, and when I did it, I was very nervous,” Jones says with a chuckle. “I went into the season without a lot of depth. We only had Ross Cockrell who had starting experience.
“First game of the season, I told Ross I’m going put [Borders and Fields] in at corner on the third series of the game. We’re not going to tell them. I’m just going to throw them out there. I put them out there, and they both performed with the same confidence they practiced with. Once they got out there and got their teeth cut, that meant something to them.”
Borders and Fields both played in all 14 games last season, taking the second- and third-most snaps among all Duke cornerbacks. Borders broke the school freshman record for interceptions with four. They are the new starting cornerbacks for 2014.
Edwards started eight games last season and against NC State became the second player in NCAA history to score on interception returns on back-to-back plays. He returns to the starting lineup along with Singleton and junior safety Jeremy Cash, expected to be a preseason All-ACC selection after racking up 121 tackles and four interceptions last season while playing the most snaps of any Blue Devil.
Duke has no seniors among its most experienced defensive backs, so this is a group that can build on the steps it began taking last year.
“We had some success last year but the biggest thing is not to be satisfied,” Fields said in a recent interview. “One of the things that makes us successful as a group is the way we compete with each other. When we go into workouts and practices, we’re competing, jawing back and forth during every drill. Even off the field, we compete and that all makes us closer. That trust level we built is what makes our ceiling so high. We have the skill level, but that’s not what separates us.”
The closeness was built once they arrived on campus. Nobody knew each other in high school, but they all quickly became friends, including players who ended up redshirting last season such as Quay Mann and Evrett Edwards. Mann also has moved positions, switching from cornerback to safety.
Evrett Edwards, meanwhile, was the highest-rated defensive back recruit in the 2013 class and impressed in the spring game in March, tying for the team lead with eight tackles while adding a sack.
“We’re together everywhere we go off the field,” DeVon Edwards said recently. “If you’re not with the whole group, you’re with one person in the group. So our bond is real strong even away from football and that puts trust in our relationships on the field, allows us to get on each other.”
Bonding as young players helped, too, because they shared similar experiences together.
“I’d say it was just a stroke of luck that we all got together,” Fields said. “We all have similar personalities, we’re all competitive and that can be attributed to recruiting. Even Coach Jones has that dog-eat-dog mentality and that’s been translated down to us. We have a desire to be the best we can be.”