DEPTH CHART (expected starters in italics):
C.J. France, R-Jr.
David Helton, Jr.
Kyler Brown, R-So.
Chris Hoover, Jr. (walk-on)
Deion Williams, So.
Lucas Fisher, R-So.
Mario Sanders, R-So.
Dominic McDonald, Fr.
Brendan Fowler, Sr. (walk-on)
The Duke defense has to be better this year. Sorry for the blinding flash of the obvious. The front six are the key to a better defense this season with all the youth in the secondary. If experience is any indication, the defensive line should be better (preview here). The linebackers also are expected to take a step forward this year.
Stepping forward means making plays. Those guys can’t count on Walt Canty to come up and clean up anymore. With only six players up front (part of the 4-2-5 scheme), the linemen and linebackers will have to be strong and shed a block to make tackles. Coaches have said they are scheming to keep the defensive backs from being in a “run-pass bind” (deciding which one they are responsible for). That means the linebackers have to do better against the run. Last season, Duke gave up more than 200 rushing yards per game. While coaches said they are only concerned with points per game (and explosive plays), the running game can control the clock and keep the Duke offense off the field. This offseason players have done agility drills to help guys make tackles in space.
Getting Kelby Brown back can provide a big boost to the front six. Brown missed last season with a knee injury. He is a smart linebacker who studies tape and breaks down what offenses are doing. Coaches will expect him to make sure guys are lined up in the right spot and make adjustments to the offense. The trick for Brown is to stay healthy. In his first two seasons he missed five games with injuries on top of missing all of last year.
C.J. France is listed as the starter next to Kelby, and the redshirt-junior has a solid feel for Duke’s defense. Last season, France was tied for fourth on the team with 60 tackles and is a solid, steady ‘backer.
Kyler Brown and David Helton provide solid depth behind the top two. Kyler is a red-shirt sophomore who picked up valuable experience last year. He had played tight end and defensive end in high school before switching to linebacker at Duke. He has the size at 6’4” 230 lbs. to be a dominant linebacker, and he studies tape like his brother. Helton is an experienced linebacker who can step in and provide solid production. Last year he had 55 tackles (good for sixth on the team) after playing in all 13 games but only starting in four.
Two other guys deeper in the depth chart are switching from defensive end to linebacker. Mario Sanders and Lucas Fisher are both transitioning this spring. Both guys have the size to be a force at linebacker (Sanders: 6’5” 240 and Fisher: 6’4” 230) but learning different coverage schemes takes time.
What needs to happen in 2013:
The front six of the defense have to make plays this season. The linebackers need to be tough and strong inside to stop the run. Kelby Brown needs to be a leader and quarterback of the defense. He also has to stay healthy this season, as does the entire defense. The Duke defense forced turnovers at a league-average rate in the ACC last year and needs to continue doing so this year.
Coaches said the linebackers may be dropping a step or two deeper in coverage to help prevent big plays. They also said guys need to “vice” receivers by keeping them in between two players. This offseason, the coaches have also focused on tackling correctly (especially in light of the rule change this offseason). In the tackling drills at camp, coaches are making sure players see what they hit and avoid leading with the crown of their helmets. Coaches have said the defense needs to keep the Blue Devils in the game. The offense can go out and win it.