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December 27, 2013

Duke's defense looking for turnovers

Although Duke is in the ACC, there's one thing that they do share with their SEC brethren in terms of playing defense…they play lots of people on that side of the ball.

That hasn't necessarily translated into better production for the Blue Devils as they remain a lower echelon unit from a statistical unit in the ACC much like similar programs within the SEC. For example, Duke ranked 12th in the ACC in total defense this season and they have never finished higher than ninth during David Cutcliffe's tenure at the school.

However, Cutcliffe has slowly built up the depth on that side of the ball over time. While it hasn't paid off in many aspects, it's allowed the Blue Devils to get better at just enough things to enable them to win ten games and an ACC divisional title. Mostly, that means turnovers…Duke was fourth in the conference with 26 forced turnovers which ranked them just behind Clemson and Miami, which have far more experience and size. In particular, the Blue Devils have a much more aggressive, faster secondary than they've had in past years. They still give up a lot of yards and touchdown passes but their 18 interceptions translate (depending on which study you give credence to) into four to seven points a turnover which offsets much of the yardage and touchdowns allowed.

Nonetheless, when you start studying defenses, you have to start with the front seven (or six in Duke's case) because everything that you do on defense is a trickle down effect from that unit. The Blue Devils run a 4/2/5 due to the proliferation of spread offenses in the ACC. Their front four isn't very big…nosetackle Jamal Bruce is a converted defensive end at just 6 feet and 280 pounds and the backups even at tackle top out at 255 pounds. Because of that, Duke has a tendency to get pushed around up front and ranked 11th in rush defense this season. However, due to improved depth, they didn't wear down quite as much and kept Duke in games. In addition, with an influx of speed, they allowed just six rushes of over 20 yards all season.

Bruce was moved inside during the spring because at one point Duke had just three defensive tackles on its roster. Because of his height and quickness, he gets good push at times and can make life difficult for opposing centers. However, due to his lack of size, he gets rotated in and out of the lineup quite a bit because if he gets left in too long he'll wear down. Sydney Sarmiento is the other tackle and he and Bruce alternate playing the nose due in part to Sarmiento's size (6 foot 4, 300 pounds). Sarmiento is the one guy at the position with some size and he can get some penetration at times. Mostly, he's a fifth year senior who plays with good technique and doesn't make many mistakes in terms of recognition. Carlos Wray is a 280 pound sophomore who is more active than Sarmiento and like Bruce has a good first step. Sophomore Kellin Rayner and freshman A.J. Wolf are only about 250 to 260 pounds and although part of the rotation lack the bulk to be much of a factor when they are out on the field. When Duke goes to a three man front in passing situations, Sarmiento, Bruce, and Wray will rotate at the nose.

Duke's best player in the front four by far is sixth year right defensive end Kenny Anuike (6 foot 5, 255 pounds). He's another guy that's technically sound and because of his really good get off leads the team in both sacks (six) and tackles for loss (13.5). He'll occasionally line up in a stand up position and is an upfield rusher who can use an inside move when the tackle loses inside position. Senior end Justin Foxx (6 foot 3, 245 pounds) is solid and can get sacks when things break down but he's not a game changer. Sophomores Jonathan Woodruff, Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, and Dezmond Johnson have benefitted from a year on campus and are more athletic than Foxx. They can be a factor in the pass rush at times but they don't have his size (DeWalt-Ondijo and Woodruff are 220 to 230 pounds) and when rotated in versus the run they have issues with bigger tackles.

Junior David Helton starts at Mike and junior Kelby Brown starts at Will. Helton is 6 foot 4 and has good range moving laterally; he led the team in tackles. However, Brown is the playmaker of the two; he was second on the team in tackles for loss and is very aggressive. He'll overrun plays but he has great acceleration; he'll also shoot gaps behind pulling linemen and beat their down blocks to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Junior C.J. France is a workmanlike backup at Mike while Kyler Brown (Kelby's younger brother) is virtually a clone of his younger brother in terms of playmaking ability. Duke will rotate the four of them and like most linebackers they are an effective group when they are protected by the people up front.

The Blue Devils play three safeties in their five man defensive backfield with Jeremy Cash (6 foot 2, 205 pounds) acting as a hybrid linebacker/safety. He'll play in the box and also cover down on slot receivers. He's the one guy on the unit that plays with something of a mean streak. He's very much like Auburn's Robinson Therezie in that he can attack across the line of scrimmage in run support or blitzes (8.0 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles) but yet can cover (four interceptions). He's capable of taking slots out of the game with his size and ability to flip his hips almost like a corner.

Duke uses a lot of man coverage and their corners are very aggressive. They get tested a lot too because Duke doesn't get a lot of sacks (11th in the ACC). Senior Ross Cockrell (6 foot, 180 pounds) can bang you at the line, turn and run with you down the field, and adjust to the ball when it's in the air. He had three interceptions this season to go with 11 passes broken up. When teams started shying away from him, they started attacking the other corner, 5 foot 9 freshman DeVon Edwards. On the surface, that might seem like the thing to do; in reality, Edwards had six pass breakups and three interceptions. He's fast and probably has better feet and ball skills than Cockrell.

Safeties Anthony Young-Wiseman and Dwayne Norman are both 200 pounds or better and can either play in the box or in centerfield. Norman is more of a strong safety type while you'll see Young-Wiseman deeper more often.

Duke rotates a lot of people at the nickel position and in the defensive backfield as they do up front to keep people from getting worn down. Freshman Breon Borders, Deondre Singleton, and Bryon Fields play a lot of nickel back (as well as corner) and had 16 pass breakups between the three of them; they don't represent much of drop off at all from Cockrell and Edwards.

One thing that stands out about Duke's defense when you watch them on film is that they don't back down from anyone. They don't have a lot of size but their back seven plays with a lot of velocity and they weren't afraid to press Florida State's bigger receivers in the ACC title game. They'll give up big plays in the passing game because they play a lot of man coverage and don't have a great pass rush; however, when they field gets compressed, their tenacity and athleticism allows them to force interceptions. The latter was literally the difference in their season; they were plus seven in turnover margin in their last six regular season games. In addition, they won three games by a touchdown or less down the stretch because they rotated people on defense and were still flying to the ball late in the game. They've faced Florida State, Miami, and Virginia Tech so they're not going to be intimidated by the prospect of facing A&M or last year's Heisman Trophy winner. The unit forced multiple turnovers versus the Seminoles and kept the game close until they wore down and got blown out because their offense couldn't do much.

Even so, teams that have played Mike Evans in man coverage this season have often found it to be a bad idea. His length, jumping ability, and physical style enable him to get open down the field or win one on one contests even when he doesn't get separation. He destroyed Alabama's and Auburn's attempts to man him up (over 200 yards receiving in each game) and for the most part teams either zoned A&M or kept a safety to his side. No matter how aggressive Duke wants to be, they'll probably follow a similar strategy. In addition, the Seminoles had multiple chances to hit big plays in the passing game early on and couldn't connect; if they had, the game would have been over a lot earlier than what it was.

A&M's achilles heel all season has been red zone turnovers. The Aggies have forced the issue throwing the ball down the field in the red zone and Duke has done very well in that regard. New play caller Jake Spavital said Thursday that "starting with a good run game is probably going to be the main emphasis right now". That's especially true versus Duke which isn't very good at stopping the run and can also open up big plays in the passing game against a secondary that is young.

To complement the running game, A&M needs Johnny Manziel to be somewhat more like his old self again, especially in terms of ball security. If Duke gets turnovers, they'll gain confidence and stay in the game no matter how many yards rushing they give up. If they don't, then they'll wear down and A&M will look more like the team that averaged 50 points a game for most of the season and come far closer to covering the spread than they otherwise would.


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