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Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Defense marking Duke's run

By Matt Fortuna

The term is a "Gretzky." Jim Knowles uses it from time to time to describe a player who is one step ahead, who sees a play developing before it actually unfolds on the field.

DeVon Edwards is the latest player to earn this label from the Duke defensive coordinator, who has moved Edwards from corner to nickel and then to rover, a de facto third safety role that the 5-foot-9, 185-pound redshirt freshman has started in for the Blue Devils' past two games.

DeVon Edwards
DeVon Edwards' versatility and athleticism have been a big part of Duke's defensive turnaround.
"I don't go where the puck is, I go where the puck is going to be," Knowles said, relaying how Wayne Gretzky would describe his ability during his record-setting NHL career. "This kid has 'Gretzky.' He's got that ability where you line him up from behind a position to survey the field and go where the ball is going to be -- not where it is, but where it's going to be."

Never was that more evident than in Duke’s win over NC State last weekend. Edwards scored three non-offensive touchdowns, including pick-sixes on consecutive fourth-quarter plays against the Wolfpack. Duke is now riding a five-game winning streak and welcomes No. 23 Miami to town Saturday for a pivotal Coastal Division matchup. The Blue Devils have their defense to thank for the remarkable turnaround.

Duke has already clinched their first winning season since 1994, and a potential spot in the ACC title game remains up for grabs over these final three weeks.

"It has a lot to do with the confidence that our defense has," Edwards said of the turnaround. "We've been having a good season, and we think that we're doing a lot in games for our team whenever we need to be put into position. So everybody's confident in making plays and doing stuff to change the game around."

Duke has forced eight turnovers in its last two outings. The Blue Devils have surrendered just 14.75 points per game in their last four contests and are fifth in the ACC in scoring defense, giving up 22.2 points per game. They also lead the conference in red zone defense, holding opponents without points in eight of 28 trips inside the 20.

The group has come a long way since its only two losses this season, back in September, when Georgia Tech and Pitt scored 38 and 55 points, respectively.

"I think most of it's mental, to be honest with you," linebacker Kelby Brown said. "Guys on the defense, we expect nothing less anymore. Guys have grown up, guys are taking responsibility and just fighting and making plays when we need them, especially when we get in the red zone. We say that we're not letting anyone get in the end zone."

They have rallied around Knowles, the fourth-year defensive coordinator who has tried to use his playing days at Cornell to relate to the like-minded athletes. On Friday nights he will tell his players different stories about how these days will affect their futures, as he often draws from his former teammates who are now in the business world to let his guys know that they will never be able to trust others the way that they do now.

His passion is evident the next day on the field, too, as he always keeps everyone engaged on the sideline.

Jim Knowles
Jim Knowles, in his fourth year as Duke's defensive coordinators, has his unit playing the best red zone defense in the ACC.
"We're a no-huddle team, and we get all of our defensive calls from the sideline, so whenever he's acting out the calls he goes to the extreme," end Kenny Anunike said. "He might be laying on the ground acting out the call or jumping up and down and running back and forth. And it's amusing, man, it really is. But we know that when it's time to work, it's time to work.

"We have fun doing it, you've got to have fun. This game is too stressful enough by itself, so it's our job. It really is. You've got to be able to do it with a smile on your face."

Anunike knows that more than most, as he is now in his sixth year at Duke after suffering through two season-ending knee injuries, four losing seasons and one position switch, from tight end -- all after passing up more appealing offers from Big Ten programs.

He now takes heat from his teammates for being the grandpa of the team, or for being 30 (he's really 23), while serving as the signature vocal leader that seemingly marks any turnaround. Knowles has called some of his blitzes the "Kenny" or the "Nighttrain," Anunike's nickname, as an ode to his longevity in a unit that has done a 180 in his time there.

"You've seen it," Knowles said. "You know in college sports and even in the pros, you get a veteran guy who truly believes and shows that he can play against anybody in the nation and bull-rush the best tackles in America because he's strong and he's confident, and that's infectious."