clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Duke’s Defense Is Ready For The Challenge

And best of all, Mark Gilbert is back

NCAA FOOTBALL: NOV 10 North Carolina at Duke
DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 10: North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Austin Proehl (7) and Duke Blue Devils cornerback Mark Gilbert (28) battle for position on a pass during the first half of an Atlantic Coast Conference matchup between the North Carolina Tarheels and the Duke Blue Devils on November 10, 2016 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, NC.
Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“There’s no doubt we try to make sure that always our goal is to have the best 11 on the field.”

That’s Duke’s defensive co-coordinator Matt Guerrieri talking about his 2020 defense.

Getting your 11 best players on the field is coach-speak of course. If your best 11 all weigh less than 200 pounds, none of them are going to be playing defensive tackle.

Duke’s 11 best defensive players aren’t all 200 pounds or less, of course.

But Duke does have some interesting dynamics on that side of the ball. Duke has lots of talent and experience at safety, cornerback and defensive end. But the Blue Devils only have one tackle and one linebacker with any real experience.

How will Duke answer that best-11-players question?

Let’s go to the scorecard. Duke has two of the nation’s best defensive ends. Both 6-2, 265-pound senior Victor Dimukeje and 6-3, 225 pound redshirt junior Chris Rumph have been named to numerous pre-season teams and watch lists.

Rumph seems too slight to be this good at his position but his athleticism, football smarts and drive have him high on the 2021 NFL mock drafts.

He certainly doesn’t lack for confidence.

“We expect to be the best defense linemen, not only in the ACC but in the country. . . . We make sure we get better each and every day. When we do come out here and get a little better every day, we’re going to be the one to top defensive lines in the country when the season comes.”

Duke also has a third experienced defensive end, senior Drew Jordan, a 260-pound senior, with a bevy of redshirt and true freshmen competing to fill out the depth chart.

Does that spell position change? Rumph is going to play linebacker at the next level. With the graduation of Koby Quansah and Brandon Hill’s decision to opt out of the 2020 season, there’s a need.

But Duke is absolutely convinced that Rumph’s greatest value to the team has him lining up at defensive end, where he’s always going to be matched up against a bigger but slower offensive tackle.

Given Rumph’s 13.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries last season, it’s hard to argue the point. When Duke needs a run-stopping line, they simply go with Dimukeje and Jordan.

And Dimukeje may not have Rumph’s wow factor but he is at least as productive, with 8.5 total sacks last season.

“We definitely have some guys that have real juice off the edge for us,” Guerrieri said. “You have to take advantage of those guys.”

Shaka Heyward is Duke’s top returning linebacker and he had a breakout season, last year, with 68 tackles as a redshirt freshman.

Guerrieri cites Hayward’s “tremendous growth” and says he’ll be the “heart and soul of what we do in the middle of our defense.”

But who starts beside him in Duke’s 4-2-5? Rocky Shelton is a redshirt sophomore, quick but a modest 210 pounds and he made most of his contributions last year on special teams.

But Cutcliffe says Shelton “has been tremendous to this point. Best start he’s had since he’s been here.”

He’s the presumptive second starter.

Guerrieri threw two new names into the mix.

Christian Hood is a true freshman from Missouri City, Texas. Like Shelton, he’s only 210 pounds. But he can run and he can hit.

“He’s a physical player and an intense player,” Cutcliffe says. “He’s got those Mike Singletary eyes. He’s certainly a focused football player.”

The other true freshman linebacker vying for playing time is Detroit’s Dorian Mausi, described by Cutcliffe as “an extremely athletic guy.”

“I think we may surprise a few people with the play-making ability” he adds of his linebacking corps.

Derrick Tangelo is to Duke’s tackles what Hayward is to the linebackers. He’s a senior and Cutcliffe says the 285-pounder “certainly sets the pace inside at defensive tackle. He’s had a great camp. Just really has responded to being that leader” of a young position group.

And young it is. Duke has had three defensive tackles prematurely leave the program over the last year. Oft-injured Ben Frye is the only other defensive tackle who’s ever played a down in college and much of that was at defensive end, where the 255-pounder probably belongs. It’s hard to see him as an every-down tackle at that weight.

So look for some combination of redshirt freshmen Aeneas Peebles, DeWayne Carter and Christian Rorie to see the field early and often. Carter and Rorie are in the 300-pound neighborhood.

“We have some size and some strength,” Cutcliffe says of his defensive tackles. “We have some redshirt freshmen and freshmen that have certainly caught my eye. I’ll be honest with you, I’m really excited about our interior defensive linemen and the depth that I think we’re going to surprise people with.”

Guerrieri says Duke has recruited the position well and he singled out Peebles for praise.

But Duke is going to be throwing lots of youngsters into the deep end of the pool and hoping they don’t sink.

Tired of hearing about inexperience?

Let me introduce you to Duke’s defensive backs. Safety Dylan Singleton is the only significant loss from last season. Returnees include cornerbacks Leonard Johnson, Josh Blackwell and Jeremiah Lewis and safeties Michael Carter, Marquis Waters, Jalen Alexander and Lummie Young.

And there are additions, this time additions with experience. J’Marick Woods is a grad-student transfer from Michigan, the only one of Duke’s three grad-student transfers to enroll in the spring. His cover skills are a work in progress but he’s a fierce hitter and a leading candidate to take over Singleton’s spot. He’s also a great special-teams player.

Finally, there’s cornerback Mark Gilbert. It’s been so long since we’ve seen him on the field that it’s easy to forget how good he was three seasons ago. Gilbert had six interceptions in 2017 and was named first-team All-ACC. Gilbert, not Daniel Jones was Duke’s hot NFL prospect going into a 2018 season that was cut short by a hip injury that kept him on the sideline all of 2019.

Could Gilbert possibly have climbed all the way back?

Guerrieri says yes.

“He’s the same Mark Gilbert that you guys knew and loved before he got hurt. He’s been absolutely fantastic and an even more mature version because he’s had to overcome so much adversity in his life.”

Blackwell talked about Gilbert’s importance to their position group.

“Now that we have him back, he’s brought back that spark that we’ve needed on the field.”

Guerrieri says Duke has to maximize those pass-rushing defensive ends and those experienced cover guys.

“Where’s the risk-reward as far as being able to play tight coverage and rush the passer? I think you’ll see a number of packages that continue to try to exploit those things from an exploiting the offensive standpoint and then highlighting our defensive strengths.”

Let’s pivot back to that best-11-man cliche. Both Guerrieri and Cutcliffe are playing it close to the vest, while acknowledging that flexibility will be crucial to getting through this season.

Guerrieri says of position switches “You know we haven’t done any of that right now as far as a complete overhaul of positions. But we definitely in different packages put guys into spots and cross-train them for sure. . . . And then however someone’s attacking us, we may need to have extra hats in the box or extra hats in coverage based on what guys are doing to us. So, no complete overhauls of positions, but we’ve definitely cross-trained some guys.”

Cutcliffe cited “the mysteries of the depth chart” in these uncertain times.

Duke has its first scrimmage Saturday, closed to fans and media but a chance for some of those young players mentioned earlier to turn practice reps into game situations. Notre Dame is three weeks away and there’s no time to waste.