Positional Preview: Linebackers

The Devils welcome back their top four linebackers from a season ago, including two of the top-10 tacklers in the ACC. Senior Mike Tauiliili returns for his senior season as the ACC's active leader with 297 career tackles

Projected Starters: MLB Mike Tauiliili (5'11", 225 - SR), OLB Marcus Jones (6'3", 225 - SR), OLB Vincent Rey (6'0", 240 - JR)

Reserves: OLB Charles Robinson (6'2", 215 - SR), MLB Paul Thornton (6'3", 225 - JR), OLB Adam Banks (6'4", 230 - SO), MLB Damian Thornton (6'1", 235 - SO), OLB Abraham Kromah (6'1", 215 - SO), OLB Andrew Holoman (6'2", 225 - SO), MLB Trent Mackey (5'10", 220 - FR)

Tauiliili is currently just outside Duke's all-time top-10 in tackles and is already in the top-10 in tackles for loss. With a strong senior campaign, he could end his Duke career replacing current Tennessee Titan Ryan Fowler at second on the school's all-time tackles list. Unfortunately for his record chase, he will have to share tackles with Junior Vincent Rey. After playing at 255 pounds for his first two seasons, Rey has slimmed down to less than 240 pounds, and is noticeable quicker to the ball. This weight loss was necessary to ensure that both he and Tauiliili could be on the field at the same time. Both are natural middle linebackers and Rey will likely slide into the position upon Tauiliili's graduation. Rey is the Blue Devils' surest tackler. When he gets his hands on a ball carrier, they go down. The other outside position is currently held by senior WR/QB convert Marcus Jones. While Tauiliili and Rey were busy losing 20 pounds a piece, Jones spent the offseason gaining weight to better physically compete at the linebacker position. Last season, Jones was decent in pass coverage, but teams had success running at him. At only 215 pounds last season, he was easily overpowered at the point of attack. Now sporting an extra 10 pounds of muscle, Jones is more prepared to handle the rigors of defending the run in a BCS conference.

While the starting jobs might appear set, there are a few reserves that will push for lots of playing time. At the top of that list is sophomore OLB Adam Banks. After spending his true freshman year bouncing from defensive end to linebacker, Banks has settled in on the outside. He is a physically imposing player with outstanding speed. The only thing currently keeping him off the field is the play of the starting and experience at the position. With a little more time, Banks will be a stellar player for Duke. Despite only being on campus for a few months, true freshman Trent Mackey has shot up the depth chart. He is showing why, despite his 5'10" frame, he was defensive player of the year in Louisiana. Many bigger schools passed on him because of his lack of height, and Duke found a star in the making. Mackey still have things to learn about the college game, but his natural instincts, closing speed, and tackling ability will earn him playing time this fall. Senior Charles Robinson provides experience depth though his lack of size limits his potential for full-time duty. Run-stuffer Damien Thornton provides the Duke defense with a two-down option in the middle. Redshirt junior Paul Thornton's career has been racked with injuries. But when healthy, he has seen playing time at LB and special teams. Sophomore Abraham Kromah has responded well to the new coaching staff and will compete for playing time on the outside. Sophomore Andrew Holoman will also fight for minutes on the outside, and will probably also be used on special teams.

The weight loss regimen implemented by Cutcliffe will have a profound impact here. One of the outside observations of the Duke defense heard last year was that the linebackers seems to be good fundamental players, but were a step slow as a group. The weight loss of Rey and Tauiliili will make both players quicker to the ball. When they get to the ball, both are great finishers. Jones and Banks are both speedy outside backers that give the Blue Devil defense versatility when going to nickel packages. Tauiliili, Rey, and Jones have all played a lot of college football already, and Banks started a handful of games a season ago. Their experience should have them mentally prepared for the upcoming season.

The Blue Devils call ill-afford injuries to the top players. While Banks provides a proven option outside the starters, Duke has little else in the way of quality depth. Mackey is a potential star, but is a true freshman. Robinson is a spot player only with limited effectiveness against the run. Paul Thornton's injuries have limited his effectiveness. The rest of the players are untested and have done nothing to stand out so far. Even though this group should be quicker to the ball, they need to prove their effectiveness in pass coverage. Last season, teams at Duke alive with the underneath pass. When in man coverage, opposing offenses picked on the Duke linebackers with underneath routes. If the Devil defense is to make significant strides forward, they must do a better job defending opposing backs and tight ends in pass coverage.

Bottom Line
Do not underestimate the leadership of this group either. Both Tauiliili and Rey were voted team captains by their teammates. This is an especially high honor for Rey, as he is only a true junior. Their hard work has had a tremendously positive impact on the entire defense. From a personnel standpoint, the Devils have four known D1 caliber linebackers. Trent Mackey has shown in practice that he's probably going to make that number five. After those five, the production level drops off dramatically. Cutcliffe has to cross his fingers and hope these five stay healthy. If they do, there is enough depth to survive in 08. If there are several injuries, the Devils will be in a bind here, giving significant minutes to spot duty players. Needless to say, this scenario could end up being a disaster. The Devils are due for a break from injuries. Jones has been slowed a little with a sprained ankle this preseason, but the rest have avoided the bug. For the sake of the 2008 Blue Devil defense, let's hope the good health continues.

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