PRESEASON DEPTH CHART
*Brown (out for season with torn left ACL)
Not having All-ACC performer Kelby Brown on the field is clearly a big deal, but he’s not coming back any time soon. We all know his production value (114 tackles, including 11 for a loss last season) and what he means in terms of leadership, but what about the guys who will need to pick up the slack in his absence?
It all starts with David Helton. Helton led the ACC in tackles last season (133 total, 9.5 per game) at Will linebacker, and he now moves to Mike linebacker with Brown out. Helton says he possesses all of the necessary knowledge, but now all he has to do is vocalize it as the quarterback of the defense.
Helton moving to the middle means there will be a few players up for the starting spot at the Will position. It looks like it might be C.J. France. France racked up 60 tackles in 2012 when Brown was out for the season following surgery on his right knee. Head coach David Cutcliffe said he has great trust in France as a senior with his level of preparation.
Look for Deion Williams as well as freshmen Tinashe Bere and Zavier Carmichael to fit into the mix. Williams was slated as the backup Mike to begin the year, and both Bere and Carmichael have made an impact in scrimmages this month.
Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles likes the progress redshirt freshman Chris Holmes has made. Holmes converted from safety to linebacker during spring practices, and Knowles likes his speed and athleticism in the Will spot.
Knowles also mentioned using redshirt junior safety Jeremy Cash and junior safety Dwayne Norman at Will linebacker in certain situations such as third down and against offensive sets attempting to open up the field. There should not be too much of a drop off with these players defending the run either, as Cash finished last season with 121 total tackles, and Norman displayed a knack for landing big hits in both of Duke’s scrimmages (even knocking a wide receiver’s mouthpiece out on one play).
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN IN 2014
Helton has to become a leader for the defense. He is the key communicator in yelling out pre-snap reads and adjustments between the defensive line and the secondary. He has already shown his ability and intelligence, so now it’s a matter of using that to make his teammates better.
Knowles should utilize a rotation of experience and young talent at the Will spot. France is a reliable option having played more than one thousand snaps in his career. Holmes may emerge as a special player if he ends up getting significant time on the field.
It’s a smart move to put a guy like Cash closer to the line of scrimmage at critical times. The All-ACC safety can match up with wide receivers or tight ends in passing situations and attack the line of scrimmage as part of blitz packages. Cash is also one of the more vocal Blue Devils, and he should be able to help with diagnosing offensive plays.
The success of the linebackers (and really the defense as a whole) may come down to how quickly Duke can adjust to new roles and fitting comfortably within the scheme of the defense.