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Jim Looks At Duke’s Defensive Backs

They’re young but promising

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Georgia Tech v Duke
DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 18: Mark Gilbert #28 of the Duke Blue Devils breaks up a pass intended for Ricky Jeune #2 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets during their game at Wallace Wade Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 43-20.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Duke has 18 recruited defensive backs on its 2019 roster. That’s more than 20 percent of its available scholarships.

Now Duke uses a 4-2-5 defense, with five defensive backs and defensive backs are generously represented on special teams.

But that’s a sizeable investment in the players that position coach Derek Jones calls Cheetahs and Duke is going to need a better return on that investment if they are going to contend for the 2019 ACC Coastal Division title.

A dozen of these defensive backs made at least one tackle last season.

So, there’s experience returning.

And some talent, including two defensive backs who have made All-ACC.

But like every position group except quarterback, Duke’s defensive-back- contingent has been hit by the injury epidemic that’s plagued Duke football.

Cornerback Mark Gilbert was first-team All-ACC in 2017, when he intercepted six passes and broke up 15 more. And this was as a true sophomore. Gilbert entered the 2018 season as a pre-season All-America selection.

But his season ended early, when he suffered a dislocated hip in the second game.

It was an unusual injury, not the result of contact but rather a misstep, a zig when he should have zagged. But he missed all of spring practice and his return in TBD.

And who has a frame of reference for a dislocated hip?

But we all know about broken ankles, like the one that sidelined safety Dylan Singleton in Duke’s 10th game last season. Singleton ended the 2018 season with 73 tackles and was named third-team All-ACC.

He also sat out the spring and his return to the field also depends on rehab, hard work and yes, some luck.

The cupboard is hardly bare, even with the uncertainty surrounding Gilbert and Singleton. Marquis Waters had 68 tackles last season, playing both safety and cornerback. Safety Leonard Johnson had 59 tackles, six for a loss, two sacks and a 53-yard pick-six against Baylor.

But Johnson’s interception was one of only four interceptions by Duke last season. Duke went nine games without a pick, Brandon Feamster ending the streak against Temple in the Independence Bowl.

Wake Forest and Louisville were next closest in the ACC, with six interceptions.

At the other end of the scale, Boston College and Syracuse led the league with 20.

Remember Gilbert had more than that all by himself in 2017. Blame his absence, blame an anemic pass rush, blame youth. But a miserly four interceptions in today’s pass-happy game combined with a pedestrian nine defensive recovered fumbles kept Duke’s defense on the field too long.

Jones says that has to change,

“Getting our hands on the ball and creating turnovers is a must because it’s so critical to the outcome of games,” he told earlier this spring. “If you strip balls, get interceptions, stop drives or stop conversions -- we consider that a turnover as well -- those are good things. That’s the one thing we want to focus on because we had a very unsatisfactory season by our standards last year with turnovers. We only had four interceptions. We have prided ourselves and set a standard of having more than that. So naturally, that had to be a point of emphasis in the spring.”

Duke’s DBs were better by other metrics. Opponents completed 54.8 percent of their passes last season, averaging just under 200 yards per games, stats squarely in the middle of the ACC.

Who joins Waters, Johnson and hopefully Gilbert and Singleton on the field this fall?

Michael Carter, Damani Neal and Lummie Young look like the best bets at safety, Josh Blackwell, Antone Williams and Myles Hudzik at corner.

But there’s room to move up.

Look at Jalen Alexander. He’s a true freshman, who enrolled early and made a strong case for himself this spring. He was a standout in the spring game. Classmate Tony Davis was a four-star recruit who also enrolled early.

Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Lewis had an interception in the spring game, which had to catch some eyes.

And David Cutcliffe has shown no reluctance to play freshmen at defensive back.

He’s also shown no reluctance to move safeties to cornerback and vice-versa. Johnson, for example, played mostly cornerback this spring. Duke wants more size at cornerback and at 6-1, 200 Johnson gives them that.

“We’re playing a lot of different people in a different combinations in the secondary,” Cutcliffe said after spring practice, “and I feel good about that.”

Sounds like a recipe for competition.

But only if the teaching takes hold.

“I think any time you’re young and you have an opportunity to get experience early in your career, it’s very, very valuable throughout the rest of your career,” Jones says. “As a defensive-backs coach, you have to understand that nobody comes in ready-made. You have to teach the elements of playing the position to allow them to be successful. The technique comes with getting reps, maturing and being able to grow. The fact that our young guys had to get out there in very critical situations and grow up really shows at this point of the spring.”

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