What to watch this spring: Defense

The reigning ACC Coastal Division champions have already taken the field for Spring Practice 2014. Duke returns 44 lettermen including 17 starters from last year's history making group that finished 10-4 on the year. We examine the team on a position by position basis as in our spring preview. Here's a look at the defense.

Defensive Line:
The Blue Devils return seven lettermen, but just one starter from last year's group. Gone are starters Kenny Anunike, Justin Foxx, and Sydney Sarmiento, leaving only DT Jamal Bruce to man the defensive front.

On the interior the Blue Devils will rely heavily on third year sophomore A.J. Wolf as well as redshirt freshman Mike Ramsay to fill the void left by Sydney Sarmiento at defensive tackle. Duke will also hope for production from Keilin Rayner and continued production from Carlos Wray - an in-state prospect who may very well make his way into the starting lineup alongside Bruce.

At defensive end the Blue Devils must work to replace both starters. Returning letter winners Dezmond Johnson and Jonathan Jones (formerly Woodruff) will likely have the inside track on being named to the top of the depth chart while players such as Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo and Jamal Wallace. Allen Jackson, Michael Mann, and Britton Grier will also get looks.

DeWalt-Ondijo played in 10 games and produced nine stops and 2.5 TFLs and 2.0 sacks, but injuries slowed him periodically throughout the year. Meanwhile, Wallace appeared in just five games before suffering a season ending leg injury.

Projected Depth Chart:
DT Jamal Bruce
NG Carlos Wray
DE Jamal Wallace
DE Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo

Note: When the season arrives it is likely that Duke will look to some of the incoming true freshmen defensive linemen to provide depth. Both Edgar Cerenord and Taariq Shabazz are strong enough prospects to warrant avoiding a redshirt. Duke's defensive line was solid a season ago, but struggled to put any measurable pressure on the opposing quarterback with regularity.


Linebackers:
Starters Kelby Brown and David Helton return for another season and will provide Duke two of the better linebackers in the league. Brown ranked second in the ACC in tackles per game, logging 8.8 stops per contest in 2013. He also supported the defensive line in generating pressure by posting 11.0 tackles for loss, one sacks, two interceptions, two pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.

Helton was even more productive, leading the ACC with 133 stops at an average of 9.5 tackles per game. He also assisted in generating pressure to the tune of 4.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, two pass breakups and two QB hurries.

Backing up the starters will be a stable of experienced players - many of which have started a handful of games in relief of Brown and Helton over the last few seasons. Fifth year senior C.J. France played in 12 games a season ago and started one, while senior Deion Williams also logged a start while playing in all 14 contests. Brown's younger brother, Kyler, will provide depth after appearing in 11 games and recording 2.0 stops per outing.

Projected Depth Chart:
1. Kelby Brown
2. David Helton
3. C.J. France
4. Deion Williams
5. Kyler Brown

Note: The two linebacker spots are overly stocked with experienced and productive players for the 2014 season. In a year, however, some of the younger players are going to be expected and called upon to step up. Chief among those will be Dominic McDonald, the talented class of 2013 member who passed up a chance to commit to hometown Tennessee to attend Duke.


Defensive backs:
The biggest loss on the roster from 2013 to 2014 was senior Ross Cockrell. The all-ACC selection was the embodiment of Duke's rise from the ashes as a program and was often responsible for limiting opponents' best receivers. Fellow starter Garrett Patterson has also departed, meaning Duke has to replace both cornerbacks.

The rising sophomore class is a good place to look for the next wave of starting corners beginning with sophomores Breon Borders on one side and classmate Bryon Fields on the other side after he appeared in all 14 games as a freshman and recording 42 tackles. One player we expect to bump up the depth chart is redshirt freshman Evrett Edwards who many believed would actually avoid a redshirt after enrolling early in January.

At safety the Blue Devils welcome back Jeremy Cash, Devon Edwards, and Deondre Singleton. The trio recorded eight interceptions in 14 games with Edwards also making a name for himself in the return game where he was named second team All-America as a return specialist by the Walter Camp Foundation and third team All-America by Athlon Sports in the same capacity. Meanwhile, Cash was named second team All-America by USA Today.

Projected Depth Chart:
CB Evrett Edwards
CB Breon Borders
S DeVon Edwards
S Jeremy Cash
S Deondre Singleton

Note: We believe Edwards will jump over Fields before the end of the preseason in the Fall, though it'll certainly be a battle and both players will play a lot in 2014. Hard hitting sophomore Jake Kite could also find his way into the rotation along with Chris Holmes and Quay Mann.


Special Teams: Duke spent two recruiting cycles recruiting the top punter and then top kicker in the country. Now, two years later, Ross Martin and Will Monday are entering their junior years and the Blue Devils' kicking games are as strong as ever. Both Martin and Monday have earned all-conference honors while the return game has similar accolades with a pair of 2013 All-Americans return in Jamison Crowder (punt) and DeVon Edwards (kickoff).

In 2013 Martin totaled 97 points thanks to 13-of-19 on field goals and a perfect 58-of-58 on points after touchdowns. Heading into the 2014 season the Blue Devils will hope Martin will be able to improve on his performance on kicks of 40-49 yards (1-of-4) though he was 12-of-15 from every other distance including 2-of-3 from outside of 50 yards.

Meanwhile Monday was called upon 69 times and recorded an average of 42.7 yards per kick. Those numbers would have been even higher had he not locked opponents inside their own 20 yard line 21 times.

Neither player is expected to lose (or even be seriously challenged for his job) this spring, nor for the next two seasons.

Note: In 2013, Duke and Miami were the only two teams to rank among the league's top five in the following five categories: Net punting, punt return average, kickoff coverage and kickoff return average


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