Reserves: SS Adrian Aye-Darko (6'2", 210 - SR), S Marvin Marcelin (6'1", 195 - JR) CB Kris Stubbs (6'2", 205 - JR), FS Eddie Morgan (6'1" 190 - SO), CB Chris Rwabukamba (6'0", 175 - SO), CB Colin Jones (5'10", 185 - R-FR), CB Randez James (5'11", 175 - FR), S Matt Daniels (6'1", 195 - FR), * S Jordon Byas (6'1", 195 - FR), *CB Lee Butler (5'10" – 180 FR)
The Devils possessed the worst pass defense in the conference a season ago, finishing at or near the bottom of every meaningful statistical category. When David Cutcliffe came on board, he surely did not expect quality talent among the defensive backs. After winter condition and spring practice, Cutcliffe's outlook changed dramatically. In one of his first interviews discussing the current roster Cutcliffe indicated the most pleasant surprised he found on the team was the talent level of the defensive backs. Many reasons could exist for this disparity, but one could be that the Duke DB position coach has no prior experience at that position during the Ted Roof era. With an experienced defensive backs coach now in the fold in Durham, this unit should much better than a season ago.
Three starters return from the final game of last season, including both cornerbacks. Leon Wright was Duke's top coverage man in 2007. While undersized, Wright is surprisingly effective against the run using low pad leverage and good timing to bring down ball carriers in the open field. Lining up on the other side is 5th year senior Jabari Marshall, one of the fastest Blue Devils around. Last season was Marshall's first at corner. He struggled in coverage for a good portion of the season, but came on strong in the final few games including 5 tackles and 3 pass breakups in his first career start against Notre Dame. While not a starter in the 2007 finale, FS Glenn Williams has started 11 games at CB and safety during his first three seasons. His versatility will be handy when Duke goes to nickel and dime coverages. His corner experience makes him a solid coverage man..
The most hotly contested position battle is at the other safety spot, where junior Catron Gainey and wrestled the starting job away from two-year starter Adrian Aye-Darko. Both players bring good size to the table. Aye-Darko can be exposed in coverage against wide receivers, but is big and strong enough to be a plus in run-support. Gainey has made great strides this offseason under the new coaching staff. He also is strong against the run and has slightly better coverage skills than Aye-Darko. This battle will probably rage on up to and the first game and beyond.
Competition for playing time among the backups has been bolstered by the new arrivals in the 2008 recruiting class. At corner, Randez James enrolled in January and participated in spring drills. He possesses blazing speed and natural coverage ability. He will start the season as the 3rd corner, but will be tough to keep off the field as he gains experience. Chris Rwabukamba has plus height for a corner and is ready for extended minutes during his sophomore campaign. Colin Jones will fight for minutes, mostly on special teams. One player to watch here is true freshman Lee Butler. Similar to James, Butler possesses explosive speed and has caught the eyes of the coaching staff this preseason. While originally slated to redshirt, he might force his way on to the field this season.
The Duke defensive staff can barely contain their excitement of the fight for playing time at safety. Juniors Kris Stubbs and Marvin Marcelin were originally slated to compete for 4th safety minutes, but they will have to now contend with two true freshmen for that time. One of the 2008 class's headliners, Matt Daniels, has so far lived up to his advance billing. Daniels has already gained a reputation for his fierce hitting. The wide receivers on the team know that if they catch the ball in his area, they are going to get clobbered. Jordon Byas looks like a starting free safety in the making. He is a smooth, fast runner with good instincts and a nose for the ball. While Daniels and Byas have a lot to learn, they might have enough talent to help the Devils immediately.
The Devils have loads of experience in the secondary as five defensive backs have started games in their career. Wright and Marshall have both shown at times to be capable cover men. Depth at safety appears to be a long suit, especially with the arrival of Daniels and Byas. If the season began today, Duke would be bringing a two-year starter at safety off the bench. Everyone of the true freshman came to school ready to play. Ideally, a few would take a redshirt this fall. If they are on the two-deep, however, they will see the field this fall.
The secondary does not have that one shutdown corner that every defensive coordinator covets. Wright is at a distinct disadvantage against tall receivers. Marshall has speed and more size that Wright, but does not possess the same agility. He can be exposed with double moves and crisp route cuts. Williams has experience but is not a plus in run support. Gainey is better in coverage than Aye-Darko, but how significant is the upgrade? The forecasted reliance on freshman could be problematic if they struggle to adjust to BCS level game speed.
Even if the cast of characters remains relatively unchanged, the new coaching staff has the expertise and the teaching skills to allow the players to play with more confidence. When a player plays with confidence, he is more decisive and does not second guess himself. That fact alone will improve pass coverage. The returning starters along with the raw talent of the newcomers should propel the Devils to marked improvement in the secondary. Teams will find it much more difficult to throw on Duke this fall than in the recent past.