- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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For each of the previous three seasons under Duke coach David Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils’ leading tackler has been a senior middle linebacker, each of whom earned postseason honors.
It’s a fact that hasn’t been lost on true sophomore Kelby Brown.
“Obviously there are huge expectations for us,” Brown said of the middle linebackers. “I’m going to do as much as I can. (Abraham Kromah) last year, he had a great season, and I’m just going to do what he did -- go out there and play. I try to set goals for myself, but the No. 1 goal is to get a win. I’ll gladly have zero tackles and zero sacks if we can win.”
If Duke is going to win this season, it needs vast improvement from the defense, and more will be expected from Brown as he takes over what has recently been the Blue Devils’ most productive position. In 2008, Michael Tauiliili led the team and the ACC with 140 tackles. In 2009, Vincent Rey led Duke with 98 tackles. Last season, Kromah racked up 129 tackles. The fact that Brown isn't a senior is good news for Duke, as he'll only get better.
Despite starting only seven games, Brown led the nation in fumble recoveries (.44), ranked second among ACC rookies in tackles per game (seven), and set the school freshman record for fumble recoveries in a season with four.
“As good as I might have seemed to do, there were a lot of mistakes I made that I really need to turn around, missed tackles mostly,” he said. “I’m definitely confident I can go out there and play with just about anybody. Last season boosted my confidence a lot.”
He knows, though, that there is still room for improvement. Brown said he had too many missed tackles last season -- small mistakes he knew he made on the field immediately after the play. Brown said his pass coverage has been a main focus.
“Coming out of high school, the easiest thing to do was stop the run,” he said. “Now I have to be able to read pass, and get back in all of these different drops and whatnot. I don’t know if I did a great job of that last year.”
Progress has been slow, as Brown missed spring drills while he recovered from a torn ACL and MCL. He missed the season finale against North Carolina last season after he injured his knee the previous week at Georgia Tech. Brown’s knee injury has been a setback in his training, but he recently began conditioning with the team again and said he thinks he is “right on track” with the recovery of his knee.
Duke’s defense needs him to be. The Blue Devils ranked among the worst in the country in nearly every major statistical category.
Brown said he expects to be cleared to participate in most of fall camp, but he’s not sure if he’ll be cleared for full participation. He can lift, run straight ahead full speed and has begun some lateral and agility drills, but said he’s not 100 percent yet.
The rest of the defense made strides without him, though, this past spring.
“This spring was crucial for our defense,” he said. “We put in a new system and were able to make huge strides. We improved a ton over spring. I’m really excited about what we’re going to do this fall.”
Brown said the Blue Devils have what it takes to reach the postseason this season.
“I think this is it, for sure,” he said. “We came off a disappointing year and there was a huge class we redshirted -- my whole class. A lot of those guys should be playing. There’s a new mentality coming up. We’re all getting ready for it. We have to bring some swag back on the field, and I think we’re going to bring it this year.”