Despite the graduation of strong safety Terrell Smith, the Devils return a wealth of experience here. Two-year starter Alex Green returns to play free safety. Green has led or tied for the team high in interceptions each of his three college seasons. No Duke player has accomplished this feat for four years in a row, but Green has that chance in 2004. Despite his team-leading interception rate, Green needs to develop more consistency and not get beat deep as often. With the new defensive coaching staff on board, expect the best from him this year.
Replacing Smith at strong safety is former staring cornerback Brian Greene. Despite his 20 career starts in two seasons on the outside, Greene is much better suited for safety. He doesn't have the top-flight cover skills needed to guard the best ACC wide receivers. What he lacks on coverage, however, he makes up for in run support ability. Greene is a solid open-field tackler, and can come up into the line of scrimmage to tangle with the big boys.
Junior C.J. Woodard is Greene's primary backup. While best known as a special teams standout, Woodard action saw action in all 12 games last year at safety, and should be a solid contributor this season. Sophomore Jerramy Edwards is the top backup at free safety. Edwards started one game last year, and played enough to earn a letter as a true freshman. Redshirt freshman Brandon Tapps could also push for playing time at either safety spot. For his six tackles in the spring game, walk-on Matt Rising deserves mention here, though his chance at playing time will likely be restricted to special teams. Incoming freshmen Chris Davis and Andreas Platt will be hard pressed to play their way on the field in 2004.
Good News: There is a wealth of experience at safety for the Devils. The "Green Machine" safety combination has 44 total career starts at Duke. Strong safety Brian has plus coverage skills for the position and also offers a size upgrade from last year's starter, Terrell Smith. Free safety Alex is a ballhawk, who has the skills to vie for all-ACC honors. Depth at both positions is also solid.
Bad News: Terrell Smith had lots of intangible qualities that will be difficult to replace. He might have been, pound for pound, the best hitter in the ACC. He also was a locker room leader, not to mention the ACC's second leading tackler in 2003. While Greene offers a size and speed upgrade, he still has a big leadership void to replace, which won't be easy.
Bottom Line: Despite Smith's departure, Duke should be much better at safety than in 2003. Brian Greene is bigger, faster, and a better coverage guy than his predecessor. Coaching will also be a key here, as new assistant Glenn Spencer will get maximum output from the players here. The Green & Greene combo should be one of the ACC's better duo, and the reserves give the unit quality depth.
Duke has one of the conference's most experienced players here in senior Kenny Stanford. He has seen action in every game Duke has played the last 3 seasons (35), and has started 27 of them. He needs only 3 more pass breakups to become Duke's all-time leader in that category. Stanford has good speed and is a tough competitor. Sophomore John Talley is the odds on favorite to start at the other corner spot. Talley saw action in all 12 games as a true freshman last year, and recorded two interceptions, both coming against Clemson. He was a freshman all-ACC performer and has great potential. He will be pushed for playing time by redshirt freshman Cedric Mason. Standing at 6'1", Mason is the tallest CB in the regular rotation, and will surely see lots of action this fall.
True freshman Evalio Harrell enrolled in January after a season at prep school. He showed that he could immediately contribute, by recording 7 tackles during the spring game. The staff will also take a long look at the incoming freshmen here. Three of them, Jabari Marshall, Daniel Charbonnet, and Rodney Ezzard, will compete for immediate playing time. Incoming freshman Adrian Aye-Darko has great physical gifts and good size (6'2"), but will most likely need a year to get acclimated to the nuances of cornerback play. Safety Brian Greene can slide over to corner as well, as he has 20 starts at corner in his first two Duke seasons.
Good News: In Kenny Stanford, Duke has one of the most experienced players in the ACC. His opposite, John Talley, is bigger and has better natural instincts than Stanford. The freshmen can all really run, and should give Duke lots of solid corner play for the next 4-5 years.
Bad News: Stanford is the only corner on the team who has more than one year's college experience. The rest of the players are either true sophomores, redshirt freshmen, or true freshmen. There will be a few rookie mistakes along the way. Also, Duke does not have a proven shutdown corner who can match up with the best receivers in the ACC.
Bottom Line: This will, in all likelihood be the most talented group of cornerbacks that Duke has trotted out on the field in quite some time. Stanford and Talley will be a solid starting duo, and, Mason and Harrell are youthful yet talented backups. What would really help is for one of the freshmen to come in and assert themselves as a good cover corner right away. If that happens, Duke will have one of the better secondaries in the conference.