Yesterday I talked about relatively unknown players on the offensive side of the ball who are poised to make a positive contribution to Duke’s 2021 football season.
Today, I’ll go to the defensive side of the field.
With the exception of end Ben Frye and tackle DeWayne Carter, pretty much everybody on the defensive line is unknown.
But two names seem to have emerged,
One is defensive end Michael Reese, who seems poised to start at defensive end opposite Frye. Reese is 6-4, 250 and got into a couple of games last season, making a single tackle. But he entered the fall behind R.J. Oben, Caleb Oppan and maybe Ahmad Craig.
“He’s had a great camp,” defensive co-coordinator Matt Guerrieri says of Reese. “He’s a guy who, okay, you’re sitting behind guys taking a bunch of snaps and then now, you start to arrive and it becomes your time. He is really tough. That would be the first thing I would say about him. He is a really coachable guy who is going to do what we want him to do. I’m really excited about what he brings to our defense.”
Then there’s defensive tackle Christian Rorie. He came to Duke out of Raleigh’s Enloe High School as a 260-pound end, coming off ACL surgery. He’s a 305-pound redshirt sophomore now, fully healthy for the first time since high school.
“He’s been great,” according to Guerrieri. “This camp he’s been a totally different guy. He’s gone from a guy who in the past wasn’t in great shape when he got here, kind of up and down performance wise, has always had the talent. He’s a big, powerful man, who’s explosive. And then the demands of Coach Cutcliffe’s program, that molds young men into grown men and he’s one of those guys who’s really taken a step up for us.”
Going into fall camp, the two linebackers in Duke’s 4-2-5 scheme seemed locked up. Shaka Heyward is still at one of those spots and that’s a good thing. He might be Duke’s best player. But the other presumptive starter, Rocky Shelton is no longer on the team.
Who’s next man up?
It looks like redshirt sophomore Sayyid Stevens. The 6-3, 225-pounder actually was challenging Shelton in the spring, when the narrative was “the light has switched on” for Stevens, who was starting to play instinctively.
The light has stayed on for Stevens, according to Guerrieri .
“He’s really coming into his own. He’s playing fast. He’s matched to the defense. Those two guys in the middle are physical and can run. I’m excited about those two guys.”
Guerrieri also praised new linebacker coach Sam McGrath.
McGrath has been with the program since 2015, starting as a graduate assistant and working his way up to his first job leading a group.
“Sam McGrath and I have had a long-lasting relationship. When Jim Knowles was here, Sam worked under Jim with the linebackers and had a huge, huge hand behind the scenes in coaching those linebackers, more than people outside the building even know. So, he’s done that before.”
Like receivers, the secondary has lots of experienced players, Leonard Johnson, Lummie Young, Josh Blackwell, Jeremiah Lewis and Jalen Alexander among them.
But again, they are being pushed by younger players.
“There are new guys. Dom Long [grad-student transfer from Michigan State] and Joshua Pickett, who’s had a really good camp as a freshman, so there’s definitely depth there.”
You may recall safety Isaiah Fisher-Smith blocking punts against Charlotte and NC State last season as a freshman. Well, he’s a sophomore now and ready to make contributions other than on special teams.
“Any time you block two punts as a true freshman you have a knack for being around the football. He showed that in high school [Greensboro Page] and that’s obviously why we recruited him. He’s a good athlete but he also has good football instincts. He’s a guy who’s had a good camp and he’s continuing to make strides.”
Now, this is a snapshot in time. All of these players may not contribute this year and some players I haven’t mentioned almost certainly will. But the best programs blend experience while bringing along the next wave and giving them a chance to play their way onto the field. And Duke certainly needs players who can play their way onto the field.