The unquestioned leader of this unit is senior free safety Chris Davis (6'0", 205). After a stellar freshman season as a kick returner and part-time defensive back, Davis has not been able to recapture the magic of his initial year. Davis has improved dramatically in run support during his first three seasons, but has been susceptible to being beaten by the deep ball on occasion. As the free safety, Davis's primary responsibility on many plays is to make sure no receivers get behind him, so he must solidify this aspect of his play to become the player is capable of being. With the graduation of all-ACC performer John Talley, Davis must be a beacon of stability and reliability for the untested cornerbacks, so they can trust they will have support over top.
Backing up Davis is sophomore Catron Gainey (6'2", 205). He spent his first season in spot duty backing up at both safety positions. Coaches have been routinely praising Gainey's play and work-ethic on the practice field. He should be a reliable backup option for Davis this fall. Redshirt Abraham Kromah will probably play mostly special teams and occasionally see spot duty when Davis and Gainey need a rest.
Returning for his second-year as a starter Adrian Aye-Darko (6'2", 210) might be the best athlete of all the safeties. He is a good tackler in run support and can match-up against most backs and tight ends in coverage. Aye-Darko is also quite a leaper from his day as a prep basketball star. There is little drop-off when junior Glenn Williams (5'10", 190) is in the game. Despite his small size, Williams is no slouch in run support. He has played corner for the Blue Devils in the past and can be matched up against slot receivers on passing downs. Both players have been locked in a battle for the starting spot for well over a year now, which is a testament to how closely matched their skill sets are. Both will see plenty of action this fall; Aye-Darko will probably see more action on first and second down, while Williams will play more in passing situations.
Converted wide receiver Marvin Marcelin (6'2" 185) moved over from wide receiver this spring. He was recruited by most colleges as a safety so in a sense he is moving back to his natural position. He will probably get some playing time on passing downs and on special teams.
At the other end of the spectrum, the cornerback depth chart is far from being settled. With the graduation of all-ACC performer John Talley along with two-year starter Deonto McCormick, the coach staff finds themselves in a situation of having to find new options at some of the most important positions on the defense.
One piece of good news is that Sophomore Leon Wright (5'9" 165) has stepped forward this off-season and seized one of the starting jobs. Wright spent last season as the primary punt returner as well as the nickel back on passing downs. He made quite an impression last fall with his ability to cover slot receivers and will now try and fill Talley's large shoes as the corner assigned to cover the opponents' best receivers.
The other starting corner position is a complete free-for-all with several players in the running for the job. Converted wide receiver Jabari Marshall (5'11" 200) is probably the team's fastest player, and he will try to use his jets to cover receivers rather than running routes. He has shuffled between wide receiver and cornerback his first two season of playing time. Now as a red-shirt junior, it is his time to step forward and become a defensive mainstay. Two freshmen seem to be Marshall's main competition for the starting nod. Red-shirt freshman Chris Rwabukamba (6'0", 175), a Canadian import, is a slender smooth athlete that spent last season on the sidelines gaining strength and adjusting to the competition level south of the border.
Freshman grayshirt Matt Pridemore (5'11" 185) might be the most physically capable contender for the starting role. The son of a former West Virginia football star, Pridemore is an excellent athlete with a high football IQ. He played mostly running back in high school but has been working out at corner since January. He has a reputation for being a bit injury-prone, so that bears watching. If he is healthy, however, he will play.
The competition for the reserve roles is also wide open. Besides the players already mentioned, seniors Rodney Ezzard (5'11" 180) and Evalio Harrell (5'9" 170) have seen extensive action on special teams throughout their careers. They both now have a shot to significantly contribute in their final year of eligibility. Two incoming freshmen will also get looks this preseason. New York product Tony Jackson (5'10" 185) was a very productive running back in high school. He has good speed and agility honed from his days carrying the ball.
The last player to sign in the 2007 recruiting class was S/CB Eddie Morgan. He is one of the most highly regarded prospects in last years' class, and will get a shot to show his wares this fall. Because of the depth at safety, Morgan will be tried at corner this preseason. If all goes as planned for the coaching staff and the upperclassmen are up to the task, both Jackson and Morgan will red-shirt.
1. Safety Depth – With Davis, Aye-Darko, Williams, and Gainey, Duke has 4 safeties that saw significant game action a season ago. All four players showed that they can contribute at the ACC level and are assets to the defense. While the staff will be worried about the cornerback depth chart, they will be quite comfortable with the situation at both safety spots.
2. Better Athleticism – While the Blue Devils did lose two senior cornerbacks, the one thing they will have gained with the newcomers is improved athleticism. Leon Wright is star in the making. He is a fluid athlete that has the knack for making a play when it matters. Jabari Marshall will give Duke that one defensive player that can run down just about anyone in the conference. Matt Pridemore is quick as a cat and has nearly a 40" vertical jump. They might make more mistakes that their predecessors, but they have more athletic ability to make up for those mistakes.
3. Coaching – Duke has not had a true defensive backs coach for the past few years, and quite honestly, it has shown itself on the field. This past off-season, Ted Roof hired former Duke player and assistant coach John Gutekunst. He has a long history of success as a defensive backs coach and should be able to get more out of this group than his predecessors.
Positional Question Marks:
1. Untested Corners – Of the corners vying for playing time, only Leon Wright has played any meaningful minutes. Harrell and Ezzard have seen mop-up duty, but have not been matched up against the caliber of players they will see in first-string offenses. By definition, the freshmen have not been tested against this competition level. Some of guys have the ability to excel at the college level, but until they are put into the file, how they will react will be an unknown.
2. Instincts and recognition – Duke was repeated burned for long touchdown passes in 2006. While some of this can be chalked up to lack of a pass rush and blown tackles after receptions, part of the blame must be attributed to breakdowns in coverage as well as defensive backs being caught out of position. For Duke to have a successful defensive season the corners and especially safeties must show better instincts for coverage and more accurately recognize what the offense is trying to expose with their pass routes.
3. Man coverage skills – The Devils will have improved athletic ability from a season ago. This, however, does not mean that they will be able to improve in man-coverage. To put it bluntly, Duke has not been a good man-coverage team in a long time. They simply have not had the top-shelf corners required to play this sort of defense effectively. The Devils will most likely start the season playing a lot of zone, limiting the exposure of the inexperienced corners. Still, there will be times where Duke will blitz the quarterback and man coverage will be required. Whether Duke has the capability to effective implement this coverage is a big unknown.
The Devils should be reasonably confident in their safety play for the upcoming season. The corner position, however, will be a crap shoot. Leon Wright has all the makings of an excellent cornerback in the ACC, but will be prone to mistakes while he adjusts to being the number one corner on the defense. The key for the defense will be if anyone can step up and nail the second and third cornerback duties down. Until that happens, expect teams that can spread Duke out and attack them through the air to do so. Opposing offenses will most likely make Duke prove they can cover before trying something different.
In the past few years, even with John Talley, the Devils have been largely ineffective in defending the pass. True, some of the blame can be attributed to the lack of a pass rush, but coverage must also shoulder a significant portion of the burden. When the defensive front does get to the quarterback and force a mistake, the defensive backs need to be in the position to capitalize on those errors. Finding corners who can make plays will go a long way to determining Duke's ability to defend the pass in 2007.