2006 Preview: Linebackers

The Duke linebackers struggled overall with their play to play consistency in 2005. Despite losing two players from last year's depth chart including 4-year starter Brendan Dewan, the Devils have much room for optimism with this group.

Leading this group into battle this fall will be sophomore MLB Mike Tauiliili. Despite starting the season as a backup, Tauiliili came in as an injury replacement in week two, and held the starting position for the rest of the season. His 92 total tackles and 10 tackles for loss were both team highs. The player he replaced, senior Codey Lowe will start along side Tauiliili at strong-side LB. Lowe has spent all of his time at Duke as a run-stuffing MLB, but has transformed his body this offseason to handle the athletic demands of playing on the outside. He reduced his body fat considerably and his foot speed gain has been evident so far this preseason. With Tauiliili and Lowe playing side-by-side, the Duke run defense should become much stouter than the unit which gave up over 200 yards per game a season ago.

Replacing the departed Brendan Dewan on the weakside is senior Jeramy Edwards. Like Tauiliili, he was also a reserve that was elevated to the starting lineup because of injury. He responded to his increased role by improving his play every week culminating with a 12-tackle, 2-sack effort in the season-finale last year. At a mere 220 lbs, Edwards is one of the strongest members of the team. He is also a converted safety and should be an asset in pass coverage.

If, and when, Duke lines up in a 3-4 set, DE/OLB hybrid Pat Bailey will become the 4th backer. Despite being injured in mid-season, Bailey finished the year as Duke's 4th leading tackler and led the team in forced fumbles.

Competition for the backup jobs is fierce. Returning lettermen are finding a few fresh faces that are pushing for playing time. Senior Alex Williams will probably be one of the top reserves. He is undersized at less than 6 feet and barely 220 lbs, but is a sure tackler and is surprisingly good against the run.

Sophomore Charles Robinson had a great offseason and is slated to be the top backup to Edwards at OLB. He combines good speed with a reckless attitude to be a good backup as well as a performer on special teams. Junior Zach Smith might be the smallest LB in the conference at 5'10", 215 pounds. He is however a fearless warrior that excels on special teams and is probably, pound for pound, the strongest player on the roster.

True freshman Vince Rey is probably the favorite to win the backup MLB job. At 255 pounds, Rey is a wrecking ball against the run and has good speed to go along with his size. Converted RB Tim Ball and junior strongman Brandon Tapps will compete for playing time at OLB. Sophomore Alfred Williams will battle Rey for the backup job in the middle. Expect freshman OLB Andrew Holoman to spend the year learning the position and will in all likelihood redshirt.

The Good News:
The Devils have 5 different players on the roster that have started a game at linebacker (Tauiliili, Lowe, Edwards, Alex Williams, and Patrick Bailey). All of these players will be in the rotation this fall and know what to expect during game situations. The younger players will be able to rely on the veterans for guidance and leadership. Tauiliili and Lowe are formidable run-stuffers who are both technically sound. With improved defensive line play ahead of them, they should have more freedom to track down ball-carriers.

The Bad News:
Despite the wealth of experience, there are no superlative athletes in this bunch. Edwards has good speed and strength, but is only 220 pounds. Tauiliili and Lowe are in the 230-240 range but do not have the overall speed needed to cover the faster backs in the ACC. If Duke goes with a 3-4 alignment, Bailey offers great size and good pursuit speed from the outside, but is also not the best coverage guy. If they are no disciplined and have trouble deciphering their keys, teams will be able to exploit the apparent lack of coverage ability by using tight ends and backs out of the backfield.

Is this group Not Ready, Can Compete, ACC-ready, or Good as any team? Can compete.

Preseason Superlatives:

Most important player:
After leading the team in tackles as a true freshman, Mike Tauiliili is poised to take a giant step forward and become one of the ACC's best middle linebackers. He made some outstanding plays last season, but struggled at times with his consistency. He has also become a leader on and off the field with his fearlessness and dedication to the program. For Duke to be successful on defense this fall, Tauiliili must elevate his game and become a gameday leader with his play.

Biggest surprise:
Despite not having played a snap in college, MLB Vince Rey has all the size, tools, and moxie to play in the ACC. His practice performance so far has earned praise from his position coach, Larry Kerr, as well as fellow MLB Mike Tauiliili. Having Tauiliili taking Rey under his wing will prove invaluable, as Tauiliili can pass on his experience playing lots of snaps as a true freshman. Duke has not had a physical intimidator in the middle since Ryan Fowler. Hopefully, Rey will be that large strong run-stuffing presence Duke needs.

Ready to break out:
After losing his starting position because of injury last season, no one could have faulted Codey Lowe for packing it in and coasting his way to graduation. Instead, Lowe met the challenge head on, got into the best shape of his life, and will now be the starter at strong-side backer for Duke. In his last season of eligibility, Lowe wants to prove he can be the LB the coaches envisioned he would become after being the Houston area defensive player of the year his senior year in high school. If he can elude the injury bug that has dogged him for much of his career, Duke will have a fine linebacker on its hands.

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