We know that Duke cannot possibly suffer the number of injuries that hampered the unit in 2004. For most of the season, Duke played without five of its top eight linemen. Before the 2004 season started, starting DE Micah Harris was killed in an auto accident. During the initial 2004 game against Navy, reserve DT Brian Sallee injured a knee and was lost for the season. Early in the second game against Connecticut, standout DE Phillip Alexander broke his leg, ending his season. During the following week, graduated defensive end David Martin suffered an injury in practice which prematurely ended his tenure in the trenches. A few games later, DT Demetrius Warrick's season was cut short by a knee injury. The lack of depth caused the defense to tire late in games, which explained why the Duke defense was unable to maintain a constant level of play for four quarters.
There is, however, a bright side to this story. The misfortune of 2004 should pay dividends for the 2005 squad. DE Eli Nichols (6'5" 265) was forced to play nearly every snap in his first year as a starter, and should improve dramatically with a season's worth of experience under his belt. He is one of the strongest members of the team, and has enough bulk to play a 3-technique tackle on passing downs. He needs to improve his pass rush, but is stout against the run. Phil Alexander (6'5", 270) should be 100% recovered from his leg injury by the start of the season to man the other end spot. With Nichols, Duke will have a very solid starting end combo. Duke also has experienced depth in Senior Justin Kitchen (6'4", 240), who replaced Alexander in the starting lineup after his injury. Kitchen is undersized for every-down duty, but can rush the passer and drop back into coverage if needed. Reserves Christopher Moore (6'6", 260) and Derek Bryant (6'4" 225), will also compete for playing time.
The competition for backup duty will be interesting this preseason, as Duke signed several defensive ends in the 2005 recruiting class that could crack the depth chart. Ayanga Okpokowuruk (6'4", 245), a Scout.com four-star DE from Tennessee, is an excellent prospect that has the size to play rush end right away. Ryan Radloff (6'5" 225) and Norm Gee (6'5" 255) could also see time.
At defensive tackle, two-year starter Casey Camero returns. He is very agile for his size (6'5", 280) and should provide the Devils with good athleticism in the middle. Pairing with Camero will be Vince Oghobaase, quite possibly Duke's most heralded recruit ever. He enrolled at Duke for the spring semester, having graduated high school a semester early. Once on the practice field, he quickly established himself at one of Duke's best defensive linemen. He was injured during spring drills, but will be full-speed by the start of preseason practice. Despite being an 18 year old freshman, Oghobaase already has NFL size at 6'6", 330 lbs. Along with his stature, he demonstrates great understanding of technique and leverage. He will be one of the best freshmen in the country this coming season, if he can avoid re-injury.
The top backup is Junior Brian Sallee (6'4" 285). He brings good size and pass-rushing ability to the position and will rotate in regularly. Junior Joel East will compete for a reserve role behind Sallee. Besides Oghobaase, Duke will also have a few more freshmen vying for playing time at tackle. Cliff Respress (6'4" 265) and Kinney Rucker (6'4" 260) are both great athletes that should be able to use their ability to offset their current lack of size. With all of the youth at the position, conventional wisdom says Duke will get pushed around up front. This will not be the case, as Duke is probably more talented along the defensive line than at any point in recent memory.
What we don't know:
We do not know the injury status of most of the defensive line. Alexander, Camero and Oghobaase all had offseason surgeries. While Camero and Oghobaase are almost certain to be 100% by the start of preseason practice, Alexander is more of a question mark. If he is not ready, Duke must find another player to step up and provide the pass rush from the end position. When healthy, he is one of the best defensive ends in the conference, having recorded six sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss in 2003.
We also don't know how the freshmen, other than Oghobaase, will respond when the pads are put on. They are a talented group of athletes, but have not seen the strength and ability of college offensive linemen up close. If a few of them prove capable of handling the step up in competition, they will provide valuable depth for a unit that had none a season ago.
DT Brian Sallee – After transferring from a California junior college, Sallee earned a spot in the defensive tackle rotation last preseason. He was only on the field, however, for 15 plays before his season-ending knee injury. With Camero and Oghobaase seemingly entrenched as the starters, Sallee must regain the form he showed last year. If he comes back at 100%, Duke will have three reliable options at tackle and will be able to give the starters frequent rest.
What will happen in 2005:
With a mixture of experience veterans and talented younger players, the Devils will have enough skill and muscle up front to compete with anyone in the ACC. With his size and skill, opponents will quickly figure out that Vince Oghobaase need to be double-teamed. This will leave the other three linemen in one-on-one match-ups, which Duke now has the ability to take advantage of. Alexander will see spot duty until he's 100% healthy. Luckily, the Devils can plug in Justin Kitchen or Ayanga Okpokowuruk in until he returns. Eli Nichols will increase his tackle and sack totals dramatically in his second year of full-time duty. One or more of the other freshmen will step up to provide depth. When the dust settles on the 2005 season, the defensive line will prove to be a big asset in Duke's quest to ascend from the ACC cellar.