Devil of a Preview: Defensive Line

As TDD's seasonal preview turns down the back stretch, it's time to examine a defensive line unit that has some questions. How will Duke deal with the loss of Micah Harris both on and off the field? Who will step up? Just how good can Phillip Alexander be this season?

Defensive Tackle:
Duke will miss the contributions of 2003 first team all-ACC DT Matt Zielenski. His 75 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, and 7 sacks all were tops in the ACC. Senior Orrin Thompson will be the anchor for the line this season. He started the 2003 slowly, but responded well after Roof took over as head coach in mid-season. A massive presence along the defensive front (6'7", 320 lbs), he will be charged with stopping up the middle as Zielenski did so well last season.

Former defensive end Casey Camero will move inside to start at the other tackle spot. Camero saw significant minutes in his freshman season, even starting three games. Having spent a full off-season at the college level, he has now added significant bulk to handle tackle duty.

Junior Demetrius Warrick will rotate in at tackle, mostly backing up Camero. Warrick has plenty of game experience and can start if needed.

Duke welcomes its first junior college transfer since the 1980's, Brian Sallee. Coming from Mendecino Junior college in Uklah, CA, Sallee brings good size to the position and will be counted on to contribute immediately.

Sophomore Kevin Wilson will also see time backing up Thompson, and will play the nose when Duke shows a 3-man front.

Good News:
Duke actually has depth at the position, which has been somewhat of a rarity in the recent past. Thompson, Camero, and Warrick all started games on the defensive line in 2003, and each player made solid contributions. Sallee recorded double-digit sacks and 75 tackles last season in JUCO and should be able to provide quality depth. Also, as a group, the Duke defensive tackles are very athletic and can move well laterally.

Bad News:
Other than Kevin Wilson who is 5th in the rotation, here are no true run-stuffers in the group. Thompson looked unblockable in the spring scrimmage, but he has trouble at times getting leverage at the point of attack because of his 6'7" frame. This is where Zielenski will be missed most.

Bottom Line:
There will be questions about how the defensive tackles hold up against the run. However, the overall athletic ability of the bunch should allow them to play the run competently. Where the advantage will come is against teams that throw the ball. Duke should be able to generate an inside pass rush with the defensive tackles, which spells trouble for the opponents.

Thompson can be an all-conference performer, if he wants it bad enough. If he does, the other tackles will feed off of his performance and make this group a defensive strength.

Defensive Ends:
After the 2003 spring game, this looked to be a position of considerable experience as two seniors sat on top of the depth chart. Returning starter Phillip Alexander was second on the team in sacks (6.5) and was first in tackles for loss (18.5) in 2003, his first full season at end. He has great speed and a knack for making big plays.

Tragedy struck on the other side, however, when returning starter Micah Harris died in a car wreck over the summer. Duke not only lost a team leader and model citizen, but a good football player as well. Taking over Harris's vacated spot is redshirt sophomore Eli Nichols. Despite not having played much in 2003, Nichols is one of the strongest players on the roster, and has good pass rushing skills. Weight has been an issue for Nichols in the past, but he is now in the 250-pound range and should be physically ready to play.

Backing up Nichols is redshirt junior David Martin, who has seen action in 19 games over his career. Martin has been hindered by injury the last two seasons, but is now seemingly back to full speed. Junior Justin Kitchen will back up Alexander at the other DE spot. Defensive tackles Brian Sallee and Casey Camero can also slide out to the end spot if necessary. Former wide receiver Derek Bryant has been moved to defensive end and could compete for playing time on passing downs. Redshirt freshman Christopher Moore is an imposing figure on the edge, but needs to be more physical before seeing significant minutes.

Good News:
In Phillip Alexander, Duke has a potential all-ACC defensive end. There are 5 players on the roster who have lined up at end at Duke, and a 6th (Sallee) who can also play the position. Both Alexander and Nichols can rush the passer and both have good closing speed.

Bad News:
Losing an entrenched starter like Harris so unexpectedly wreaks havoc on the depth chart. Nichols was slated to be Harris's backup this season, seeing spot duty on running downs and a heavier load on passing downs. Now he is the man for all downs. He will probably end up doing a fine job, but has big shoes to fill.

The defensive ends, as a group, are undersized. Alexander and Nichols will both start the season around the 250-pound mark. The main backups David Martin and Justin Kitchen are both under 250 as well. More bulk here would be desirable, however the starters both showed up for preseason practice with an extra 10-15 pounds of good weight on them.

Bottom Line:
Alexander will probably register double-digit sacks on one side, but Harris's veteran presence will be missed on the other. Nichols has a bright future, but will be hard pressed to completely fill his shoes. Teams will probably run right at the ends until proven they can hold up against the run. Still, its better to have talent than not, and Duke has talent (albeit on the small side) at defensive end. Early practice reports are saying that the defensive line is the most improved unit on the team, so things could be a lot worse.

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