2006 Preview: Defensive Line

The Duke defense is looking to improve their performance from a year ago. In 2005, the Devils gave up a staggering 37.1 points per contest, and were the conference worst rated rush defense. The performance of the defensive line was partly to blame.

Lack of depth compounded by injury and fatigue kept the line from sustaining a high level of performance. 2006 brings new hope, as veteran performers are joined by a host of talented newcomers that could provide Duke with one of its best defensive line units in a decade.

Three defensive starters return to anchor the line. The unit is led by senior defensive end/tackle Eli Nichols (6'4", 265). Despite posting modest numbers in 2005, Nichols is turning heads of opposing coaches and pro scouts with his ability to defend the run as well as rush the passer. Fellow senior Casey Camero (6'5", 280) will man the strong-side defensive end position. After being forced to play tackle the past two seasons, Duke finally has enough depth to move Camero outside to his natural end position. He brings great size and experience to the mix. Junior Patrick Bailey (6'4", 235) will line up opposite Camero at rush end. Bailey spent played end as a true freshman, but was switched to linebacker last year. He actually was the team's leading tackler for part of the season, before an ankle injury forced him to the sideline. Bailey will play with his hand down in the base 4-3 defense, but also has the versatility to back off the line of scrimmage at linebacker should Duke switch to a 3-4.

While the veterans offer Duke a solid core, the younger players will provide Duke depth and athleticism that has not been seen in Durham in quite some time. Leading the youthful charge is redshirt freshman DT Vince Oghobaase (6'6", 315). He possesses the innate football talent that most at Duke just do not have. He will line up as the fourth starter on the line. Playing alongside Nichols should provide Duke with a markedly improved defensive interior. Besides Oghobaase, the Devils will also frequently use three other second year players in the DL rotation. DE Ayanga Okpokowuruk (6'4" 255) will serve as backup at strong-side end. He possesses great strength and straight-line speed and is a stellar special teams player. Fellow redshirt freshman Ryan Radloff (6'4, 260) will backup Bailey at rush end. Radloff had earned his way on the field as a true freshman a season ago, but left the field after only a few plays with a season-ending injury. DT Clifford Respress (6'4", 275) was the only player among the second-year bunch that did not redshirt in 2005. Thrust into action after a string of injuries along the line, Respress was a bit overmatched against the older, experienced ACC linemen, however, made some brilliant plays at key moments that displayed his innate talent. After an offseason of practice and weight room work, Respress will make some noise backing up both Nichols and Oghobaase. Redshirt freshman Kinney Rucker (6'3" 295) will fight for playing time at DT. He is still filling into his body and might be a year away from being a regular contributor.

A couple of incoming freshman could also figure into the mix. Georgia strongman Brandon Harper (6'3", 290) has the size and strength to help out right away. He does not have the ideal experience level, having only played football for three years. If he does not play offensive line, Swedish import Pontus Bondesson (6'6", 280) was also slated see time along the defensive front. Early word is that he's very strong and an exceptional athlete for his size. He would have been difficult to keep off the field, despite not having played football in America. Unfortunately (or fortunately in the long term scheme) an injury will send him to the sidelines for a redshirt season.

The Good News:
Duke finally has some quality depth in these positions. For the past several seasons, the staff spent many a might trying shuffle players around to cover injuries along the defensive front. In each of the past two seasons, no less than half of the projected two-deep DL has been injured. Things were so bad last seasons, reserve guard Garrett Mason had to convert to defensive line in mid-season. This year, however, the young guys have allowed Mason to move back to OL, and Duke has talented backups at all defensive line slots.

The Bad News:
The reserves, while long on talent, are short on experience. Oghobaase, Okpokowuruk, and Radloff have played very little if at all. They all have bright futures at Duke, but until they prove themselves on the field, they are unknown quantities. This position has also been quite injury prone the past two seasons. Nichols and Respress are the only players on the DL depth chart not recovering from some sort of 2005 injury. The overall health of the unit will be worth monitoring in the opening weeks.

What will happen:
Led by the upperclassmen, Duke will get the best production out of the defensive line since the days of Chris Combs in the late 1990's. Oghobaase will have a tough time living up to the impossible expectations that are being placed on him, but still will be a force in the middle. Bailey and Radloff will lead the team in sacks, and the overall pass rush will markedly improve. Duke will also be better against the run with Oghobaase, Nichols, and others leading the way. If the offense can hold the ball long enough to give the defense a breather, Duke will be able to compete up front with just about anybody.

Is this group Not Ready, Can Compete, ACC-ready, or Good as any team? Right now, Can Compete. If the youth performs like they are capable, ACC Ready.

Preseason Superlatives:

Leader of the Pack: As one of only three fifth year seniors, DT Eli Nichols has emerged as one of the true team leaders. On the field, he was Duke's leading sack man from last year, and has been a consistent force against the run during his two season starting at defensive end. Because of his run defense and his ability to play in traffic, Nichols will line up mostly at defensive tackle in 2006. He has consistently added weight during the last three years and now is up to 270 lbs. While this might be on the small side for your average DT, Nichols is also the strongest member of the entire team, not to mention one of the fastest players on the defensive line. His move to the inside will make Duke much stronger up the middle; a weakness from last season Duke is looking to correct.

Most important player: Though expectations might be too high, DT Vince Oghobaase has the rare size, speed and football strength that is coveted by all D1 football programs. No other team on Duke's schedule will have a defensive lineman with more natural ability than the 6-foot-6, 315 pound Texan. Still, Oghobaase has not played football in two seasons, and has been recovering from a serious knee injury for over a year now. He will undoubtedly be rusty, but his size and talent alone make it highly likely he will be an impact player the moment he steps on the field. If he can love up to half of the hype heaped on him, Duke will have its best defensive line in quite some time.

Biggest surprise: One of the biggest problems plaguing the Devils in recent seasons is the complete and utter lack of a pass rush. Opposing signal callers will often have all the time they need to scan the field and wait for their receivers to come open. If Duke is to take a step forward on defense, they must be able to generate a pass rush without blitzing. DE Ryan Radloff is a cat-quick defensive end that came to Duke with a big-time pass rushing reputation. With Nichols, Oghobaase, and Respress inside, the Duke ends will often face single blocking on passing downs. Radloff has the speed and moves to give opposing tackles fits. He is also a good enough athlete to drop into coverage as well as play outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment. He will probably not play on first and second downs, but will be featured in 3rd and long packages and other obvious passing situations. Expect Radloff to spend plenty of time in opposing backfields this fall.

Ready to break out: After shuffling positions each of his first two years in the program, DE Pat Bailey is primed to have a breakout year. So far in his Duke career, Bailey has shown a good nose for the ball and excellent closing speed. Those are two qualities that will serve him well while rushing the passer. He will need to get used to playing with his hand down again. If he can learn a few pass rush moves, however, a double-digit sack total this year is not out of the question.

Time to step up: DE Casey Camero has been a true team player the past three seasons. He lined up for battle as a true freshman, even starting a few games at defensive end. The last two seasons, however, he has been playing out of position at tackle out of necessity. Duke just has not had many other options until now. Much was expected out of Camero last season; however, several minor injuries really hampered his effectiveness. Now 100% healthy, he will move back outside to his natural end position. Camero has the size and quickness to be a formidable match-up against a tackle. With 25 career starts to his credit, Camero has the ability and experience to be a valuable member of the 2006 Duke defensive line.

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