If there’s been one snag in David Cutcliffe’s grand plan to build Duke into a consistent winner, it’s been the big boys up front on defense. The recruiting has improved in nearly every corner of the Duke locker room, but snagging highly-regarded defensive linemen has remained an elusive goal.
And so during the spring when Cutcliffe is busy looking for a starting QB, replacing a record-setting wide receiver and finding the heir apparent for the league’s leading tackler, it’s the defensive line that is the Blue Devils’ top concern.
“There are guys who have played a lot of football around here, but the question is, will they be able to replace the production we had?” coordinator Jim Knowles said. “D tackles are our plus and D ends are still a wait and see.”
It’s one issue that three of last year’s four starters on the line — not to mention both starting linebackers - graduated, but turnover on the line isn’t necessarily the biggest issue at Duke. Even through the unprecedented success of the past three years, when the Blue Devils went to bowl games each season, the D line has been more of a patchwork system than a well-oiled machine.
Since 2012, Duke ranks 51st among Power 5 schools, allowing 4.81 yards per carry to other power conference teams. The Blue Devils are 56th in sack rate, dumping the QB on just 5 percent of his passing attempts. Only Iowa State has recorded fewer tackles for a loss or no gain against the run than Duke among Power 5 programs during that span.
In other words, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
On the inside, Knowles is actually quite pleased with what he’ll have to work with this season. Senior Carlos Wray is the defensive front’s lone returning starter from 2014, and he’ll be flanked by a chorus of developing talent. Junior A.J. Wolf and redshirt sophomore Mike Ramsay have seen some playing time already, and Knowles is thrilled with the development of redshirt freshmen Quaven Ferguson and Edgar Cerenord.
“Those guys are guys we haven’t had around here -- big and strong and agile,” Knowles said. “You can see how the recruiting has gotten better. Duke’s always going to be challenged to recruit defensive linemen, and those two guys and Ramsey represent a different type of player. Overall, inside, we will be better and that has shown up this spring. Our defensive tackles are really controlling things inside.”
It’s on the edge that things are more complicated.
Last season’s three most productive ends have moved on, and their replacements are largely a handful of converted linebackers. Duke even shifted responsibilities for assistant Jim Collins, who will now work heavily with the defensive ends.
“We put Jim Collins with those guys exclusively because you have a bunch of former linebackers there,” Knowles said.
At Duke, the game plan generally involves taking some disparate parts and trying to find a few bodies that fit the mold on the line, but the moves didn’t stop there. Safety Dwayne Norman will shift to linebacker, and the plan -- once he’s healthy -- is to frequently use linebacker Kelby Brown as a much-needed edge rusher.
“[Brown] is going to have to become more of a pass rusher for us in the mold of Scooby Wright at Arizona,” Knowles said.
For that to happen, Norman needs to fill the hole on the weakside and the secondary has to be strong. Norman had made a name for himself among Duke’s coaches by playing both physically and aggressively at safety during his first two seasons on the field, but with the safety position well stocked, the move to linebacker seemed a natural fit.
So far, the spring has been a learning process for Norman, and while he’s added about six pounds to his frame, he’s focused on bulking up more for his new role.
“Learning the plays, learning the schemes, recognizing plays -- as the spring goes on, I’m getting better,” Norman said.
If he can fill the job, that should free Brown up to rush the passer more often than he has in years past, and that, Knowles said, could help erase some of the deficits at defensive end. Still, Brown has his own concerns. During fall camp last year, he tore his ACL and missed the entirety of the season. He’s been working out with the team this spring, but he’s not participated in drills or been subjected to contact since the injury. There’s ample optimism about Brown’s recovery, but he still has some significant barriers to overcome before he’s 100 percent.
“Kelby Brown in the middle helps solve a lot of problems,” Knowles said. “He’s a guy who understands the defense, knows the ins and outs and makes tackles. So he can make a lot of people right.”
For now though, there remain a lot of moving pieces. It’s a work in progress, Knowles said, but the picture is starting to come into focus, even if a few parts still don’t quite fit.
“Every year it’s gotten a little bit better,” Knowles said. “But it’s not an overnight process. Nothing around here has been. When you do things the right way, it takes time, and that’s what you’ve seen.”