Star of the defense: Senior DE Patrick Bailey
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Leon Wright
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Vincent Rey
Best pro prospect: Sophomore DT Vince Oghobaase
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Bailey, 2) LB Michael Tauiliili, 3) Oghobaase
Strength of the defense: Safety, tackles for loss
Weakness of the defense:
Projected Starters: Is this the year the defensive line lives up to its potential? It starts on the ends with senior Patrick Bailey and sophomore Ayanga Okpokowuruk. Maybe. The 6-4, 255-pound Okpokowuruk could end up playing on the nose as a smaller, quicker option inside. He was a top prospect for the program for a few years ago, considered to be a top pass rusher with a great blend of speed and toughness, and was a decent reserve in his first season with 16 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. He'll be moved around where needed, while the 235-pound Bailey will start again on the rush end after finishing third on the team with 77 tackles to go along with three sacks and 14 tackles for loss. Moved around over the course of his career between linebacker and end, he's a tackling machine and the team's most disruptive defender.
Starting again on the inside will be 6-6, 310-pound sophomore Vince Oghobaase, one of the biggest recruits to ever come to Durham. Originally slated to start as a true freshman, he suffered a knee injury and was out for the year. With 28 tackles and eight tackles for loss, he had a good first season, but now he's a year removed from the injury and is expected to shine as even more of an interior pass rusher and a bigger factor against the run.
If Okpokowuruk doesn't start on the nose, it'll be 275-pound junior Clifford Respress, a reliable reserve last year who made 14 tackles. He started in 2005 when Oghobaase went down, and while he's not a rock, getting pushed around way too much, he's good enough to be a decent part of the rotation at either tackle spot.
Projected Top Reserves: If and when Okpokowuruk plays on the inside, sophomore Ryan Radloff will get the start on the other side of Bailey. He's 6-4, 260 pounds, and always working. He only made eight tackles as a reserve, but now he's fully healed from a foot injury that cost him in 2005. He should be far more productive.
Watch Out For ... lots of movement. Oghobaase is a sure-thing at tackle, but everyone else can move around along the four spots, and Bailey might see time at linebacker to get him in space.
Strength: Quickness. The front four is built to get into the backfield, and it'll do it on a regular basis. This is a hard working group that does what it can to make plays behind the line.
Weakness: Stopping the run. Oghobaase can't do it along. This isn't a big line, outside of Oghobaase, and it has a hard time staying effective as games go on. It would be nice if there was a bit more beef.
Outlook: Bailey is a potential All-ACC star, while Oghobaase and Okpokowuruk could play for just about anyone in the conference. It's a good line that'll be active, but it needs to develop some backups to form more of a rotation to make up for the lack of bulk, and more sacks need to be generated from the ends.
Projected Starters: The Blue Devils have questions on the outside, but are set in the middle with the return of 5-11, 235-pound junior Michael Tauiliili. The team's leading tackler with 94 stops, and with 186 in the last two years, he's in on just about every play. While he can tackle, he has to make more meaningful stops at the line, and has to keep short plays from being long ones. Expect him to have to do even more with the two new linebackers being broken in.
Junior Charles Robinson will get the first look on the strongside, even through he's more suited for the weakside at 214 pounds, while 255-pound sophomore Vincent Rey, who'll start on the weakside, is more of a prototypical strongside defender. Robinson is a good athlete and a fine special teamer, but he has to prove he can be an every down defender. Rey was a top prospect a few years ago, and showed glimpses of being a playmaker with 12 tackles last season. It'll be his job to be a contributor in all areas, and that includes getting to the quarterback.
Projected Top Reserves: Robinson is neck and neck with Marcus Jones for one of the starting jobs, and each will see plenty of time. Jones moved over from quarterback, where he was the number two man last year completing 8 of 14 passes for 82 yards, but the 220-pound junior appears to be physical enough to handle himself on the defensive side.
Behind Rey will be 225-pound junior Tim Ball, a good reserve who made 18 tackles. The former running back bounced back from a knee injury that cost him all of 2005, and showed he could be a key defender at either outside spot.
Watch Out For ... Tauiliili to make even more plays. He was a master of the unassisted tackle as a freshman, helped everyone else out as a sophomore, and now will do a little of everything.
Strength: Tauiliili. The defense needs a rock to build around, and Tauiliili is it. The outside linebackers can funnel everything inside to him.
Weakness: Experience on the outside. While Jones has been fine in practices, if you're relying on a former quarterback to be a big-time linebacker, you're in trouble.
Outlook: There's good overall quickness and plenty of options to form a decent rotation, but there's not a whole bunch of size, outside of Rey on the weakside, and little to count on besides Tauiliili. The less this group has to do to bail out the defensive line, the better. Don't expect a whole bunch of help against the pass.
Projected Starters: With the loss of all-star John Talley, who made 42 tackles and broke up seven passes last year, sophomore Leon Wright is now the number one corner by default. While he's one of the team's fastest players, and isn't going to have a problem with the more athletic ACC receivers, he's only 5-9 and 165 pounds and isn't the toughest of tacklers. Out this spring hurt, he'll have to be healthy all season long, and improve on his 17 tackles and one interception, for the secondary to be appreciably better.
Senior Rodney Ezzard steps into a starting role after not doing much of anything over his first three seasons. A big recruit a few years ago, he has to use his athleticism, and experience in the program, to be steady on the other side of Wright.
The safeties are less of a concern with the return of senior Chris Davis at free safety and junior Adrian Aye-Darko at strong safety. Davis was fifth on the team with 64 tackles, but he didn't do nearly enough to make plays against decent passing games. He has the range to be far more productive. Aye-Darko, a physical 6-2, 210-pound hitter, was sixth on the team with 55 tackles with an interception and three broken up passes.
Projected Top Reserves: Junior Glenn Williams is a strong reserve behind Aye-Darko and can step in and start at either safety spot. While he's not all that big at 5-10 and 185 pounds, he's a good tackler with 54 stops last season and two sacks. He's extremely quick and good at getting to the ball.
At 5-11 and 200 pounds, junior Jabari Marshall is one of the team's bigger corners and one of the fastest players. It hasn't translated into production yet with only seven tackles last season, but he recovered two fumbles. He'll push Ezzard for time, while 6-0, 175-pound redshirt freshman Chris Rwabukamba will play behind Wright. He was an excellent recruit for the program last year with excellent speed and good all-around skills. While he's still a bit raw, he'll push for time right away.
Watch Out For ... the corners to be a major concern. Wright has to prove he can hold up for a full season, Ezzard would barely be a backup on most ACC teams, and Marshall and Rwabukamba are unproven.
Strength: Davis, Aye-Darko, and Williams can play. While they might not throw any sort of a scare into most offenses, they're proven enough to be good if they don't have to spend all their time bailing out the corners.
Weakness: Interceptions. Duke picked off ten last year. John Talley had seven of them, defensive end Patrick Bailey had another.
Outlook: Duke was last in the ACC in pass defense, and that was with Talley. It'll be a work in progress to become consistent, and while there aren't any all-stars to rely on, there are enough decent athletes to hope for this to not be a major weakness. While there won't be many big plays, and this won't be one of the league's better secondaries, if it can limit the bombs and come up with a few key third down stops, that might be enough to get by.
Projected Starters: The kicking game was miserable last year with junior Joe Surgan hitting just three of ten field goals and missing four inside 30 yards. Three kicks were blocked, but he didn't do anything to help the cause. He had a good freshman season hitting six of eight tries, and he has a decent leg, but he'll have to fight to keep his job. The punting game wasn't any better with Andy Feinberg averaging just 37.6 yards per kick, but he put 13 kicks inside the 20 and only put one kick in the end zone. Redshirt freshman Kevin Jones will get the first look, but freshman Nick Maggio will get a shot. He doesn't have a monster punting leg, but he has good range on field goals.
Watch Out For ... Surgan to be better. After such a miserable season, he's worked to get better and should be more consistent. Expect a big turnaround.
Strength: Jabari Marshall. The lone bright spot among the special teams was Marshall as the main kick returner, averaging 25.1 yards per try. Duke finished 15th in the nation in kickoff returns.
Weakness: Everything else. More from the punt returners is a must after finishing last in the ACC, and 110th in the nation, averaging 5.1 yards per try.
Outlook: The special teams were the biggest weakness on one of the worst teams in America. If Surgan is better and the punter, whoever that turns out to be, is consistent and accurate, that'll make up for a lack of big bombs.