Improvement along the defensive line was a major focus this offseason for the Blue Devils as they hired away coach Ben Albert from Boston College. From the time Albert stepped on campus in Durham, his impact has been a major talking point from players to fellow coaches. The newest coach will have to mix in some talented upperclassmen with potential breakout underclassmen in as he searches for the better results up front.
The starting point for the line will be fifth year senior A.J. Wolf who could contend for All-Conference honors in 2016. A year ago Wolf started all 13 games and was the top producing lineman, posting 54 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 0.5 quarterback sack and three QB pressures. He’s clearly the most experienced tackle on the roster and with his production, he’s a lock to start.
Beside Wolf will be either fourth year junior Mike Ramsay or third year sophomore Edgar Cerenord. Ramsay started four games last year and earned four starts, playing twice as much as Cerenord. Both players are capable of stepping in alongside or even in relief of Wolf and will likely be the major contributors inside. It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Ramsay and Cerenord playing interchangeably which could also include starting assignments varying.
Perhaps the quickest lineman off the snap is Brandon Boyce. However, Boyce has been suspended by the program for the first three games of the season. In his place, look for sophomore Quaven Ferguson to gobble up any remaining snaps left over by Wolf, Cerenord, and Ramsay. A potential dark horse to move inside at times could be 6’6, 260 pound defensive end Trevon McSwain.
On the perimeter of the line you can likely count on sophomore Marquies Price on one side. Price played as a true freshman and saw action in 10 games (217 snaps). He was productive in those appearances, posting 11 stops and 3.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks. Throughout the offseason and camp there’s been nothing to suggest that Price won’t maintain his starting spot.
The other side of the line, however, is far less certain. Coming out of Spring Practice it was a former walk-on, sophomore Danny Doyle, who was charted as a starter and through the preseason scrimmages Doyle got a lot of first team work. Doyle has a fantastic motor, but at 6-foot-1 and just over 220 pounds, you have to wonder if his size won’t eventually be a limiting factor when it comes to playing time.
Should Doyle not be the long term answer, there’s fifth year senior Allen Jackson and fourth year junior Dominic McDonald as potential options along with true freshmen Chidi Okonya and Terrell Lucas. McSwain should also factor in on the outside.
Duke hit a recruiting grand slam in the class of 2015 when they landed Scout 300, 4-star linebacker Ben Humphreys. Though he didn’t immediately start last year (he was on the third team line in camp) Humphreys continually progressed as the season moved along and eventually ended up taking over as a starter in the final week of the regular season. His best performance of the season came in the biggest game of the year as he recorded 11 tackles against Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Humphreys told TDD he’s added 20 pounds since last year and is “just as fast” when we spoke to him during camp. That’s no surprise given that he led the LB group in power clean lift (275 lbs.), vertical jump (33.5”) and broad jump (9’10”). All told, there’s little doubt that the sophomore will be the starting middle linebacker this year and beyond. He’ll likely be backed up by Zavier Carmichael, who also played as a true freshman and who excels against the run.
The battle for the weakside linebacker spot is likely to be won by redshirt sophomore Tinashe Bere, who was the part-time starter last year as well. Bere played in 11 games in 2015 and started six of those. At 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, Bere is a tremendous athlete who showed well against run-heavy opponents. He followed up a strong freshman season by taking home the “Most Improved Defender” award out of spring practice.
Backing up Bere could be redshirt freshman Joe Giles-Harris, a player singled out by Humphreys as having improved dramatically over the last year. While the two are roommates, this wasn’t just a case of residential harmony as Giles-Harris showed out in the Spring Scrimmage by recording six tackles and returning an interception for a touchdown. We’d expect Giles-Harris to get some early snaps in the season opener.
Without a ton of depth at linebacker, Duke brought in a number of prospects this year including three stars Alexander Gagnon and Koby Quansah, and four star, Scout 300 member Brandon Hill. Each player came into college physically ready to play and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see at least one of the three avoid a redshirt.
While the rest of the defense is very young, the secondary could very well start four seniors in five positions this year.
It starts at cornerback where Duke will return both Breon Borders and redshirt junior Bryon Fields who returned after missing the entire 2015 campaign due to a torn right anterior cruciate ligament. Throughout camp it seemed as though Fields had returned healthy and impressive, and had taken back his starting gig. For his part, Borders returns after starting the last 26 games in Durham and playing move than 1100 snaps a season ago.
The return of Fields will likely give DeVon Edwards a chance to return to the safety position he’s occupied throughout his career. If the CBs don’t perform, Edwards could certainly move back to the outside as he did during the off-season. The move back to safety makes even more sense when you factor in the loss of projected starter, Phillip Carter who was suspected along with Boyce.
Senior Corbin McCarthy and Deondre Singleton are expected to start the year at the other two safety positions, giving Duke a wealth of experience and proven production in front of a number of talented underclassmen who will push for snaps and, eventually, their own starting gigs. Chief among these young players is true freshman Dylan Singleton, a former four star, Scout 300 prospect who chose Duke over a who’s who of college football royalty.
Joining Singleton in the highly rated recruit category is Mark Gilbert, a former three star cornerback recruit who was considered the best DB in the state of North Carolina by Scout.com Gilbert enrolled early and went through the spring practice and off-season conditioning programs. He is expected to push to keep the redshirt off. Gilbert will eventually team with sophomore Jeremy McDuffie who played in all 13 games a season ago behind Borders.