To say Duke struggled to defend the run last season is putting it mildly. Alabama and Georgia Tech both put up 300 rushing yards against the Blue Devils. North Carolina ran for 255, and Army for 248. Only eight teams in FBS allowed more rushing yards per game than Duke.
Not that the pass defense was much better. Only four teams in the nation put less pressure on the quarterback. Duke recorded 12 quarterback sacks in 2010. Two players—Da'Quan Bowers of Clemson and Brandon Jenkins of Florida State—had more, and that's just in the ACC.
Jayron Hosley of Virginia Tech managed to grab more interceptions than Duke's defense, and only 11 teams in the country had fewer picks than the Blue Devils.
The solution seems obvious: Get some help up front. More people crowding the line of scrimmage will plug up running lanes and cause the quarterback to sweat.
Instead, Duke is going in the other direction, and pulling a defender farther away from the line. The Blue Devils will be using the 4-2-5 defense the majority of the time in 2011, a relatively rare arrangement.
A quick tutorial: The first number refers to the number of defensive linemen—ends and tackles—at the line of scrimmage. The next is the number of linebackers, and the final number is the count of defensive backs—corners and safeties.
Most teams in college and the pros run a 4-3 or 3-4, with seven big guys close to the line—"in the box" as announcers like to say—and four defensive backs covering the pass downfield. That means the 4-2-5 will be outside the box in more ways than one.
Kelby Brown will be one of the two remaining linebackers. He doesn't seem too concerned by the reduction in number of available jobs for his position.
"We started in the 3-4, then moved to the 4-3. Now we're in the 4-2-5," the sophomore linebacker said. "It's been a smooth transition."
Brown explained that part of the reason for the switch is that you've got to play the cards you're dealt. There's a shortage of defensive linemen and a surplus of defensive backs on the Durham practice field.
"The goal is to fit our personnel better," Brown said. "Coach looked at the guys and decided we're better off putting an extra DB up there. That allows me and the other linebacker to play the run hard and let them worry about the pass."
Safety Matt Daniels won't be spending all of his time worrying about the pass, though.
"This defense was absolutely made for the safety," Daniels said. "We've got six guys up front filling gaps. That allows me to run free on handoffs and get free shots on running backs. And I'm happy to do it."
The defense also opens up opportunities for Daniels and the other DBs to surprise a quarterback on a blitz.
"There are a lot of different blitzes in this scheme," Brown said. "You can roll the safeties around and have extra guys coming at all different angles."
Coach David Cutcliffe agrees. "You have to be able to pressure the quarterback," Cutcliffe said. "Any good college quarterback can score if you let him get comfortable. We will schematically do things to bother the quarterback."
Duke quarterback Sean Renfree can attest to that. In addition to dealing with the new-look Duke D in practice, Virginia Tech runs a similar scheme.
"Elon also showed a lot of that, when we played them last year," Renfree said. "The 4-2-5 takes away a few of your plays," Renfree continued. "It deters you from running to the weak side. With the extra safety, it also seems like they've got coverage in all areas of the field. It's very different, and difficult to prepare for."
Still, the key to the scheme working is with the big men up front. If they can't win the battles at the line of scrimmage, the defense will have gaping holes in the middle of the field.
"The defensive line has come a long way," Brown said. "We had a lot of guys who redshirted last year. That gives us a whole bunch of depth, which we need, because they have contact on every play."
"The defensive linemen have to be men," Brown continued. "They have to be tough, and in great shape. A guy like (300 lb. nose guard) Charlie Hatcher is out there way too many snaps. We need to get him more rest when he's in the game."
And, strange as it may sound, the best way to reduce the pressure on Hatcher and the rest of the line just might be to back a defender farther away from him.
Duke's defense will be counting on the counter intuitive.