Positional Preview: Defensive Line

On paper it seems as though the top recruited positional group in former coach Ted Roof's tenure was the defensive line. Many of those players are now third and fourth year players with a great deal of starting experience under their belts. How will that translate in 2008? TDD investigates.

Projected Starters: NG Clifford Respress (6'4", 275 - SR), DT Vince Oghobaase (6'6", 300 - JR), DE Greg Akinbiyi (6'2", 235 - SR), DE Wesley Oglesby (6'6", 245 - SO)

Reserves: DE Ayanga Okpokowuruk (6'4", 255 - JR), NG Kinney Rucker (6'2" 290 - JR), DT Brandon Harper (6'3", 310 - JR), DE Patrick Egboh (6'4", 240 - SO), NG Ifreke Okpokowuruk (6'1", 255 - SO), DE Eriks Reks (6'5", 225 - R-FR), DE Sam Poggi (6'2", 225 - R-FR), DT Charlie Hatcher (6'3", 275 - R-FR), *DL Curtis Hazelton (6'3", 260 - FR)

After evaluating the roster during his first few weeks as Duke's new head coach, David Cutcliffe probably sent Ted Roof a thank you note for his work in stockpiling defensive linemen. Roof's 2005 defensive line class was rated top-5 nationally, and those players are coming into their own in their 4th collegiate season. Leading the group is junior defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase. Once a five-star recruit out of Texas, Oghobaase is finally starting to live up to his advance billing. Almost every preseason publication has him contending for all conference honors this fall. Oghobaase is a rare talent, especially at a school with a bad football reputation like Duke.

Lining up beside Oghobaase is senior Cliff Respress; one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new coaching staff. After three years as a backup, Respress has re-defined his game and has seized the starting nose guard position. No longer relegated to the days of part-time duty, he is primed to make his last season at Duke his best.

Sophomore Wesley Oglesby was inserted into the starting lineup last season after the season-ending injury to departed senior Patrick Bailey. Oglesby was able to make Duke fans miss Bailey much less with his outstanding play despite being rushed into the full-time role. His size and strength, combined with good football instincts should make him a force coming off the edge. The other end is the most hotly contested position on the line. As it stands today, Greg Akinbiyi has the edge in the battle with junior Ayanga Okpokowuruk. Both players have loads of playing time under their belts. Akinbiyi is more of a pass rushing threat and has the ability to drop into coverage when Duke decides to zone-blitz. Okpokowuruk is a much bigger, stronger option, but does not have the same agility or pass rush skills as Akinbiyi. Expect the battle for this starting nod to continue right up to kickoff on August 30th.

While the other three starting line positions seem set, many players will see plenty of action. Backing up Respress at the nose is junior Kinney Rucker. He spent part of last year at end, but the new staff moved him inside for depth. Tackles Brandon Harper and Charlie Hatcher are quality players that should be able to help spell Oghobaase and Respress. Ifreke Okpowuruk is a bit undersized for the middle, but will see some snaps in a reserve role. If the Devils need a pass rusher off the bench, they can turn to either sophomore Patrick Egboh or redshirt freshman Eriks Reks. Both players are on the small size and are best suited for obvious passing situations. Sam Poggi will try and crack the rotation as well as a pass rushing specialist. Freshman DL Curtis Hazelton will most likely redshirt.

The Devils have experience and talent here. Every player in the two deep saw extensive playing time a season ago, which will allow the staff to ease guys like Hatcher and Reks into the rotation. With Oghobaase, Duke has one of the best defensive linemen in the conference. Conditioning has been an issue in the past, but when he's fresh, he commands a double team on every down. This will free up the other three defensive linemen for one-on-one blocking. Teams like Duke usually have either a size or speed issues along the defensive front. For once, the Devils will have neither problem.

Teams ate Duke alive last season in the passing game. One of the major culprits was the lack of a pass rush. None of the players in the rotation has displayed the ability to consistently pressure the passer. As a result, Duke was dead last in the conference in QB sacks. This lack of pressure was also one of the main reasons Duke has such a problem getting off the field in 3rd down situations. Expect this situation to get better with the increased emphasis on speed and agility over bulk. Still, one or more players needs to step up and become that go-to-guy for quarterback pressure. This unit also had an issue last year wearing down late in games. While Cutcliffe has taken steps to correct this problem, the effectiveness of the solution will not be known until the Devils are tested in game action.

Bottom Line:
This is the best group of linemen that Duke had fielded in a long time. The Devils should be able to hold up against the best offensive lines the ACC has to offer. Duke has a good starting cast, and depth to spell them. The staff also should have these guys in much better condition than they were a year ago. This will manifest itself in the second half of games, where Duke will get more stops in crunch-time than they have in previous years. If the line can get pressure on opposing QBs without having blitz help, the Blue Devils should be much more effective against the pass this season. This will cause points per game allowed to decrease dramatically from 2007 levels.

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