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Jim Looks At Duke’s Defensive Line

Will it be a weak spot?

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Army v Duke
DURHAM, NC - AUGUST 31: Kelvin Hopkins Jr. #8 of the Army Black Knights loses his helmet after being hit by Tre Hornbuckle #59 of the Duke Blue Devils during their game at Wallace Wade Stadium on August 31, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Duke returns almost everyone of consequence from last season’s defensive line.

Unfortunately, by any metric, Duke’s defensive line was mediocre at best last season. Duke will have size, experience and depth all along the defensive line this fall.

Will they be able to make the plays?

Duke tackle Twazanga Mugala graduated, while ends Terrell Lucas and Chidi Okonya transferred. Lucas made some contributions last season but at best he projected as a third-team defensive end this season.

Tackles Edgar Cerenord and Ben Frye are recovering from knee surgery. The NCAA granted Cerenord a sixth year of eligibility. Both are expected to see the field this fall, arrival date TBD.

Frye is an undersized 260 but Cerenord and fellow returnees Trevon McSwain, Derrick Tangelo, Axel Nyembwe, Tahj Rice and redshirt freshman Elijiah Brown all tip the scales at 300 or more pounds.

Duke returns Victor Dimukeje, Drew Jordan, Tre Hornbuckle and Chris Rumph on the edge.

Most of these players were heavily recruited and they are tutored by respected veteran Ben Albert, who begins his fourth season at Duke, so everyone knows everyone else.

Looks great. On paper.

But the on-field performance has not matched expectations.

Duke notched 24 sacks last season, 14 by defensive ends, three by defensive tackles. That ranked 11th in the ACC. Duke allowed 209.4 rushing yards per game last season, also 11th in the league.

David Cutcliffe says he wants his defensive line to be more “disruptive” this season and he certainly has some potential disruptors.

Let’s start with Dimukeje, 6-2, 265, fast and mobile, a freshman All-America pick in 2017. He led Duke last season with 3.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss.

But he admits he can do better. Cutcliffe’s 2013 Coastal Division champions were led by second-team All-ACC defensive end Kenny Anunike, who had six sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. Dimukeje has that kind of potential.

“We’re working on our pass rush most of all,” he says. “Coach Albert is preaching getting off the ball, working our hands more. We want to be disruptive, aggressive, trusting everybody, getting to the quarterback and making plays.”

Rumph is a redshirt sophomore. He’s only 225 but had three sacks and eight tackles for loss last season.

Rumph played some linebacker last season and Duke has needs at linebacker. But Cutcliffe insists that Rumph’s play-making abilities are better utilized at end.

“He’s going to make plays for us, so we’ve got to put him in position to make plays. It will be more from the standard end position.”

Cutcliffe said that last season but has not wavered from that stance.

Tangelo and McSwain were Duke’s leading tacklers from the tackle position last season, with 46 and 43 respectively. And McSwain will be a redshirt senior this season. He’s 6-6, 300 pounds, began his college career as a defensive end and has maintained some defensive-end-speed even as he’s added 60 pounds since coming to Duke.

But the breakout candidate might be Rice, a true sophomore. He’s 6-2, 320 and was a rare 4-star recruit. True freshmen defensive lineman don’t often play at Duke and he got on the field in all but one game last season. With some body toning and better conditioning, Rice could be a difference maker.

Duke signed five defensive linemen in 2018, none of whom matriculated early. One or more could play this fall, especially at end, but the hope is that Duke won’t need any freshmen contributions on the line and would only play one who is simply so good that he can’t be kept off the field.

For now, Duke is concentrating on getting better.

“We all have experience,” Dimukeje says. “ We have the starters coming back and coach Albert is doing a great job coaching us. We’re getting more confidence every day, so we’re ready to take that next step.”

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