2012 Duke Preview - Defense
Duke CB Ross Cockrell
2012 Duke Preview - 2012 Duke Preview - 2012 Duke Preview -
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: If Duke doesn't have the worst defense among the BCS conference schools, it sure is in the discussion. The Blue Devils allowed at least 31 points in their final four games, a trend the staff hopes to snap this fall. It'll be a challenge. Not only is the school painfully light on elite ACC talent, but it appears incapable of producing money plays, notching just 17 sacks and a dozen turnovers in 2011. In an attempt to shake things up, second-year coach Jim Knowles, the program's third coordinator in the last four years, is inserting a third safety in place of one linebacker. He wants to get his 11 best athletes on the field in order to keep pace with some of the league's faster offenses. Encouraging news comes from the return of DE Kenny Anunike who looked unblockable last September before injuring his knee. Top LB Kelby Brown, too, is on the mend after undergoing knee surgery, and expects to be ready for the summer. The secondary has the numbers, but needs to start playing more soundly if the D as a whole is to improve.
Star of the defense: Senior DE Kenny Anunike
Tackles: Walt Canty, 87
Sacks: Kenny Anunike, 4
Interceptions: Multiple players, 1
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior ROV Brandon Braxton
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman LB Kyler Brown
Best pro prospect: Anunike
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Anunike, 2) Junior LB Kelby Brown, 3) Senior S Walt Canty
Strength of the defense: Experience, safeties
Weakness of the defense: Sacks, pass defense, size, run defense, allowing big plays, takeaways
Through the first four games of 2011, DE Kenny Anunike looked as if he'd ride a hot start to a spot on the All-ACC Team. And then misfortune struck the senior, a serious knee injury that would shelve him for the remainder of the year. At the time, he'd made 13 tackles, five stops for loss and four sacks, two apiece against Stanford and Boston College. The one-time tight end has bulked up to 6-5 and 255 pounds, playing with the upper body strength and motor to fight through blocks. For the sake of his future and the fortune of the 2012 D, it's imperative that Anunike is healthy enough to recapture the form he flashed last September.
Flanking the all-star contender at the other end position will be junior Justin Foxx . At just 6-3 and 245 pounds, he's a very different player than Anunike, often relying on his quickness and straight-line speed to get into the backfield. After making 30 tackles, 4.5 stops for loss and two sacks a year ago, he'll need to take advantage of the attention his linemate is sure to receive.
The silver lining of Anunike's injury is that it gave a trio of kids much-needed reps that they otherwise might not have gotten. Sophomore Jamal Wallace , Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo and Dezmond Johnson each started at least two games, but only notched one sack apiece.
The new anchor in the middle is 6-4, 300-pound DT Sydney Sarmiento . The junior has started all but one game over the last two years, collecting 32 stops last season. Despite packing on the pounds and muscle since arriving, he hasn't lost his quickness or ability to shoot the gap and disrupt running plays.
Partnering with Sarmiento on the interior will be sophomore NG Jamal Bruce . Cat-quick and very strong at 6-1 and 280 pounds, he played in all 12 games to earn a letter in 2011. Bruce's partner at the nose will be 6-2, 315-pound sophomore Steven Ingram who brings considerably more girth and anchoring ability to the middle of the line.
Watch Out For .... the health of Anunike's knee. When he went down last fall, the Blue Devils' pass rush essentially evaporated. The sixth-year senior did not participate in contact drills in March, but the hope around that the program is that he'll be unleashed without restrictions when the team reconvenes in August.
Strength: Quick first steps. While the tackles move like strongside ends, the ends get off the snap like outside linebackers, which will force opposing linemen to be ready at all times. The Duke staff has made particularly sure that its quality athletes don't lose a step when they enter the strength training program.
Weakness: Sacks. This area continues to haunt the Duke program. How bad is the situation? When Anunike went down in the fourth game, he led the team with four sacks. Eight games later, he still held a two-sack lead over his closest competition. Even with No. 84 back in the fold, someone else needs to step up and provide some pressure.
Outlook: The best bet for the Blue Devils is that Anunike blossoms into the kind of presence that hounds quarterbacks, and makes those around him more effective. Realistically, this is a defensive front with one all-star contender surrounded by marginal ACC players. While the squad should exceed last year's 17 sacks, it'll once again labor to slow down even decent running teams.
In the Blue Devils' new defensive alignment, one linebacker has been shed in favor of an additional safety. On the second level, Duke is hoping to halt opposing offenses with their own version of a brown out. Junior Kelby Brown had knee surgery in February to repair a torn ACL, but expects to be back at weakside in time for the start of camp. It was the same knee he injured toward the end of the 2010 season, so there's probable cause for concern about his health. The 6-2, 220-pounder had 65 stops and seven tackles for loss last fall, and has consistently shown good instincts and closing skills when playing at full strength.
Brown's partner at middle linebacker will be none other than his younger brother, redshirt freshman Kyler Brown . The 6-4, 225-pounder is coming off a terrific offseason, which has vaulted him to the top of the depth chart. He has better size than his brother to go along with the athleticism to make plays from sideline to sideline.
The Blue Devils will feature a pair of experienced players on the second team who'll be nipping at the heels of the starters. In the middle, 6-1, 240-pound senior Austin Gamble has 14 starts under his belt, including 11 a year ago. He chipped in 43 tackles and 5.5 stops for loss, but has struggled to match Brown's range and big-play potential. At weakside, 6-4, 225-pound David Helton has terrific size, and earned a couple of starts in 2011.
Watch Out For .... Brown's knee. The Blue Devils need Kelby Brown to be whole in order to feel comfortable about their situation at linebacker. He's the unit's top performer, a sparkplug who makes those around him a little better. One knee surgery is not uncommon. A second one on the same knee raises concerns about his durability.
Strength: Instincts. With the Browns leading the way, the linebackers do a solid job of reading the direction of a play and reacting in time to string it out. Plus, having a couple of seasoned players pushing for playing time from the second team is a real bonus for Duke.
Weakness: Thickness. The Blue Devils linebackers might as well be electrical outlets because most of them go no more than 220. While the team's linebackers are athletic and quick to close, they're also prone to getting trucked into the front row of Wallace Wade Stadium when opposing linemen are allowed to drift to the second level.
Outlook: What can Brown do for you? Duke hopes Kelby and Kyler can clean up the messes created by a defensive line that doesn't create enough traffic at the first line of defense. Assuming the elder Brown can avoid the injury bug, the Blue Devils should have a solid two-deep of interchangeable linebackers with which to employ.
Coordinator Jim Knowles plans to get five defensive backs on the field, two corners and three safeties. Eleven of the returners have earned letters, so competition figures to be intense. One of the more interesting moves of the offseason saw junior Brandon Braxton make the move from wide receiver to ROVER, one of the three safety positions. The 6-1, 200-pounder begins the season with 54 career catches, but has so far made a smooth transition to the other side of the ball. Pushing Braxton is 6-3, 225-pound August Campbell , the linebacker-sized junior who has started eight games over the last two years.
Playing STRIKE is 6-1, 215-pound senior Jordon Byas, a part-time starter and ace special teamer throughout his career. A tough and physical tackler, he can play multiple positions, and is coming off a career-high 40-tackle season as a junior.
Capping off the safeties at BANDIT will be 6-1, 220-pound senior Walt Canty , arguably the defensive backfield's most influential player. The big-hitting veteran of 18 career starts finished second on the team with 87 tackles, adding four stops for loss and three forced fumbles. He plays the game with keen instincts, diagnosing the flow of a play before lowering the boom. Canty is an All-ACC contender, especially if he can help offset the loss of underrated all-league S Matt Daniels.
The Blue Devils are excited about the return of senior CB Lee Butler who received a medical hardship after suffering a season-ending leg injury in last year's fourth game. The 5-11, 185-pound veteran of 20 career starts will still need to sharpen his coverage skills in order to maintain this spot atop the depth chart. Not far behind is 6-1, 180-pound fellow senior Tony Foster who has played a lot of football on defense and special teams.
Manning the other corner spot will be junior Ross Cockrell who arguably has the best cover skills on the team. He's started every game since his freshman year, breaking up 16 passes over that time. A year ago, he made 56 stops and picked off his fourth career pass. At 6-0 and 180 pounds, he has the long frame, great wheels and leaping ability to neutralize bigger receivers. Once he hones the finer points of his game, the postseason recognition might soon follow.
Watch Out For .... the progress of the new defensive alignment. In an effort to get the best possible athletes on the field, the Blue Devils are adding a third safety. That should be good news for the pass defense, but how will it impact the run D? Duke will go into most of its games undersized and vulnerable to get bullied on the ground.
Strength: Athletes. Now that Duke is going to feature five defensive backs, the team should be able to cover ground in a hurry. Plus, the addition of Braxton gives the team another well-sized talent who can shorten the field on opponents.
Weakness: Coverage skills. The Blue Devils have a ton of returning players in the secondary, but that guarantees nothing with this group. The 2011 edition had a fair amount of veterans as well, but still allowed 23 touchdown passes, picked off a league-low six and incomprehensible 15 yards a completion. The only way is up, but no one is expecting a 180 in the pass defense department.
Outlook: Duke is about to undergo an interesting experiment as it transitions to a more back-loaded D. While the secondary has both experience and athleticism, it still needs to evolve in many of the fundamentals, such as sticking to receivers and keeping the play in front of it. Unless the pass rush suddenly comes to life, the Blue Devils will once again be vulnerable over the top.
Duke must find a successor for last year's placekicker, Will Snyderwine, and punter, Alex King. Neither player is irreplaceable , so the staff is welcoming a chance to turn the page. As it stood at the end of spring practice, one Blue Devil, 6-4, 200-pound redshirt freshman Will Monday will handle both jobs. One of the nation's top special teams recruits from 2011 has tremendous leg strength and hang time as a punter.
In the event that Monday flubs his lead, waiting in the wings will be sophomore PK Jack Willoughby and junior P Spencer Rogers.
Watch Out For .... the development of sophomore Jamison Crowder as the team's primary return man. As a rookie, the 5-9, 175-pound jitterbug showed flashes of potential on special teams, pacing the Blue Devils on both kickoff and punt returns.
Strength: Covering kicks. If the Blue Devils are able to even approach last season's effort on kickoffs, special teams coordinator Ron Middleton will be giddy with excitement. Duke ranked third in the country at covering kicks, yielding a mere 17.5 yards per attempt.
Weakness: Youth in the kicking game. While the staff is optimistic about the future of Monday, the reality is that he's yet to handle one long snap or attempt one pressure kick at this level. Barring a shocking development in the summer, he'll undergo a baptism under fire at two positions that are sneaky important to the Devils' fortune.
Outlook: After Snyderwine tanked and punt coverage was marginal, the only way is up for Duke's special teams unit. As long as there are no manic Mondays, the program is excited about breaking the seal on a new era at punter and placekicker. The punting game is especially important to a defense that needs all of the field position support that it can possibly get.
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