At safety, last year's starting strong safety, Chris Davis, has moved to his natural free safety position. He will be much more involved in coverage and playing the "center field" of the defense. Duke gave up plenty of yardage over the top with deep passing. Davis's natural instincts will hopefully give the Devils a dependable last line of defense.
Strong safety is the only starting position in the defensive backfield that is up for grabs. Right now, there are two candidates for the job: Sophomore Adrian Aye-Darko provides good size and superb athleticism. Sophomore Glenn Williams is a bit smaller, but a better coverage safety than Aye-Darko. Regardless of who wins the starting nod, both will play significant minutes.
The backup positions are a bit more unsettled than the starting lineup. At corner, sophomore Evalio Harrell seems to be on the verge of locking up one of the backup slots. Sophomore Rodney Ezzard will compete for playing time as well.
The Devils will also have help from the incoming freshman class. Leon Wright has been one the stars of the preseason. He has shown great natural instincts for the position and when he has a play on the ball, he makes things happen. If he continues to impress with his play, Wright could quickly move up the depth chart and compete for some serious playing time.
Duke has also seen a freshman position himself for playing time at safety. Catron Gainey was a lightly recruited player out of Georgia that most though was going to struggle at the college level. He has adapted to pace of college football very well, and will most likely end up as the top reserve at free safety. Former walk-on Matt Rising, who was granted a scholarship for his senior season, could also figure in to the safety rotation.
The Good News:
Duke has a true All-ACC and possibly All-American caliber corner in Talley. His counterpart on the other side, McCormick, has a bevy of experience and should be markedly improved in 2006. While not nearly as much experience exists at safety, Duke will be much more athletic as a unit, and actually has a chance to match-up with the best the ACC has to offer.
The Bad News:
Much like the linebackers, the Duke defensive backfield is not filled with top-shelf athleticism. Teams with great athletic talent, such as Florida State and Miami, will give the Devils all sorts of coverage issues. Also, the backs need some work in run support. The corners are on the small side as a group and are not physical tacklers. Last season, Duke also did not have a feared hitter in the secondary; a guy that causes opposing receivers to hear footsteps going across the middle. Improvement in these two areas will result in a much more productive secondary in 2006.
Is this group Not Ready, Can Compete, ACC-ready, or Good as any team?
Most important player: Usually the best player at a position is also the most important. With the Duke defensive backs that axiom holds true. CB John Talley will probably be on ever preseason all-conference team and will probably garner some national attention as well. Talley is the ACC's active leader in career interceptions and with a good season will hold most of Duke's all-time defensive back records, including career interceptions, interception return yardage and passes defended. When at his best, Talley is a dangerous foe for opposing offenses. He has good ball instincts, great hands, and the speed to turn an interception into a touchdown. His game-changing abilities offer the Duke safeties freedom to help out against other receivers. Going into this season, Talley has three question marks about his game. One, his somewhat short stature (5"11) caused some problems for him against the ACC's bigger receivers and in 2005 he was beaten on a few jump balls. Two, his penchant for big plays also causes him to occasionally bite on double moves. And third, some has questioned his run support abilities. If he can improve in these areas, Duke might have its first consensus All-American since Clarkston Hines.
Biggest surprise: Duke was originally expected to line up with Jabari Marshall as the nickel corner. Marshall was moved to offense this preseason because of his elite speed and because of the impact made by true freshman CB Leon Wright. Despite his small stature, Wright has quickly proven to be a solid cover man with a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Because of his small stature, he was not recruited by most of the elite programs. Offers from Big East powers Louisville and West Virginia, who often recruit playmakers without the prototype builds, indicates that Wright is a guy who does not look the part, but can sure play the part. Expect Wright to see lots of game action as the nickel corner. Ready to break out: Last season, Glenn Williams earned himself playing time at corner as a true freshman. After a year in the weight room, Williams is now much bigger and stronger, and has been moved to safety. He will battle redshirt sophomore Adrian Aye-Darko for the starting strong safety slot. Williams showed that he could cover wide receivers last season. This year, he must prove that he is a reliable run-supporter and hard hitter. He does not have prototypical safety size (5'10", 185), however his experience as a former running back indicates he is not afraid of contact. Duke's safety play was quite disappointing in 2005. With his combination of coverage ability and speed, Williams should provide an athletic upgrade to the safety position and very well could wrestle the starting position over the more experienced Aye-Darko.
Needs to step up: After breaking on to the scene in 2004 as an exceptional special teams performer and reserve safety, Chris Davis was primed to have a breakout 2005 season in his first year as a starter. Instead, Duke showed to be vulnerable to the pass, especially over the top and the deep middle where corners usually have safety help. While much of this blame does not lie at the feet of Davis, he did by many standards have a poor season. With three returning starters and most of the depth chart returning in the defensive backfield, there is much continuity and familiarity with his fellow DB. Davis has also moved from strong safety to free safety, which should allow him better opportunity to read the offense. He has natural coverage ability and has shown a knack for closing on the ball. With the disappoint 2005 campaign behind him and a great offseason, all signs point to Davis turning in a quality performance this fall.