We know Duke has a legitimate all-ACC candidate in junior CB John Talley (5'11", 180). He recorded four interceptions last season, returning two for touchdowns. Talley is a true playmaker in the defensive backfield, something Duke has not had since the late 80s. Because of his on-field performance, he was voted second team all-conference in 2004. He will look to improve both his interception total and his consistency in coverage. If both of those happen, it will be difficult for the voters to overlook him in 2005.
Duke also has experience with 4-year starter Brian Greene (6'1", 200) at one safety spot. He is one of six ACC players to have started 30+ games in his career (Duke linebacker Brendan Dewan is also in this group). Greene spent his first two years at cornerback out of necessity, but transitioned to his natural safety spot last season. The Devils also have a rising star at the other safety spot in Chris Davis (6'0, 195). After making his mark on special teams in 2004, he will takes over full-time safety duties this season. Davis combines natural ball-hawking abilities with a knack for making big plays. These two qualities will allow Davis to become a force in the ACC for the next few seasons.
Duke also experienced depth at safety in senior CJ Woodard (6'0" 190), who is a big-time hitter and solid run defender.
What we don't know:
The biggest question in the defensive backfield this preseason revolves around the starting cornerback position opposite Talley. Going into preseason practice, junior Deonto McCormick (5'10" 190) is atop the depth chart. He switched from DB to wide receiver before last season, but was moved back to corner halfway through the 2004 campaign. He responded with a crucial interception against Clemson which set up Matt Brooks' 53-yard game winning field goal. He is a strong, physical presence on the corner that can knock receivers off their routes. Pushing him for the starting role will be redshirt freshman Jabari Marshall (5'11", 195), one of, if not the, fastest members of the Duke program. While McCormick has the experience and strength edge, it will be difficult to keep the immensely talented Marshall off the field.
Another question in the defensive backfield is the lack of proven depth. There are only two cornerbacks on the roster with game experience (Talley and McCormick). The Duke coaching staff is really high on Marshall along with freshmen Evalio Harrell (5'9", 170) and Rodney Ezzard (5'11", 170 lbs). Still, none of these players has set foot on a college field in game settings, so there will be questions until they perform in live action.
The proven depth is better at safety where Greene, Davis, and Woodard have all played considerable minutes. Two freshmen backups, Andres Platt (6'2", 195) and Adrian Aye-Darko (6'2", 205), will vie for playing time behind the top three. Platt is the more polished football player, while Aye-Darko is a great natural athlete with a huge competitive drive, which helped build an off-season buzz around the Washington native.
Cornerback Jabari Marshall - Despite his age (he was only 17 during the 2004 season), he was highly sought after coming out of high school because of his athleticism. He showed his blazing speed this spring as one of the fastest members of the Duke track team. Along with his top-flight speed, he also has the agility and instincts to be a very good cover corner. If he can capitalize on his ability, Duke will have a trio of cornerbacks that compare favorably to any in the conference.
What will happen in 2005:
Three of the four starters in the defensive backfield are almost cast in stone. The safety spots will be manned by Greene and Davis, and Talley will start at one CB spot. The other CB spot will be a tooth and nail fight between McCormick and Marshall, with Marshall eventually earning the starting role. As the top backups McCormick and Woodard will see plenty of playing time.
Duke finished 2004 third in the ACC with 15 interceptions. With a dramatically improved pass rush, along with the play-making ability of the backfield, Duke will most likely equal or improve on that number. Overall, the Duke defensive backs will be a huge asset to the 2005 defense, and will play a big role in helping Duke's rise from the bottom of the ACC.