We know Duke will need to replace two starters from a season ago, with the graduation of Guiseppe Aguano, and the position switch of Malcolm Ruff. Despite the attrition, there is plenty of game experience to be found among the remaining group. Outside linebacker is one position where Duke has no question marks. Brendan Dewan is the lone starter remaining from a season ago. He is undersized at 6-foot-2 and just 210lbs, but makes up for his lack of bulk with great strength and keen awareness. He is also a sure open-field tackler. His backup for the past three seasons, senior DeAndre White (6'0", 210), owns a similar skill set to Dewan, but is not quite as strong. He is most effective in passing situation, where he can use his speed in coverage.
We also know that Duke has other guys that can play at the ACC level. Projected MLB Cody Lowe (6'3", 240) served as an understudy to Aguano last season. Lowe is a classic, tough as nails, middle linebacker that can shed blockers at the point of attack and make the tackle. The projected starter at the other outside spot is sophomore Patrick Bailey (6'4", 235). In limited action, Bailey showed great instincts and pursuit speed while player out of position at defensive end. Now that his hand is off the ground, he will have the freedom to further use his speed to his advantage. Junior Alex Williams (5'11", 220) has logged significant minutes during his 2-year Duke career, and has even started a handful of games.
What we don't know:
Over the past 20 years, Duke has almost always fielded at least one difference-maker at linebacker. Players like Mike Junkin, Billy Granville, and Ryan Fowler have been defensive stalwarts for Duke in the past. This year, however, the Devils do not have that proven leader among the linebacker corps. While Dewan has been a three-year starter, at 210 lbs, he is not the tough, physical presence needed for a true intimidator. Lowe has the size and ability to fill that void, but now needs to translate that to the field.
Depth is also a big unknown this year, especially in the middle. The primary contenders are Zach Smith (5'11", 210) and bruiser Alfred Williams (6'2", 245). Smith is not your prototypical middle linebacker, but he has blazing speed and has great strength which lets him play bigger than his size suggests. A switch to outside linebacker is not out of the question for him. Williams looks the part of a middle linebacker with his large frame, but will be seeing the college field for the first time this fall, having taken a redshirt in 2004. True freshman Paul Thornton (6'3" 220) comes from a high level of competition in Texas, and might be able to push Williams and Smith for playing time. Still, despite the ability of the reserves, the lack of proven depth will be an area of concern for Duke heading into the preseason.
Outside backer Pat Bailey – The coaching staff feels that they have a special player in Bailey. The mantra of the Ted Roof era has been to get your best players on the field. For most programs, the thought of playing a 215 pound true freshman at defensive end would not be entertained. Bailey, however, proved to be a playmaker that the staff could count on for spot duty, despite being matched up with offensive linemen that sometimes outweighed him by as much as 100 pounds. After a position switch and an additional 20 pounds gained in the weight room over the spring and summer, Bailey is now a player some feel could be all-conference at linebacker. His nose for the ball combined with his natural speed will be a great asset for the 2005 Duke defense.
What will happen in 2005:
There will be a fierce battle for playing time at strong-side linebacker between Alex Williams and Bailey. Williams has been through more battles at the position, but Bailey's size, athleticism and instincts will win him the starting spot. Lowe will man the middle and expect Alfred Williams to emerge as his primary backup. Smith will see time on passing downs and on special teams, where his speed and ability to play in space will prove to be a big asset.
Weak-side linebacker will remain in the capable hands of Brendan Dewan, and Deandre While will once again be the backup. Both will be on the field in passing downs, giving Duke more speed to cover backs and tight ends. Overall, this unit will not garner the attention and praise that the line and backfield will receive, but it will not be a weakness for the Blue Devils this fall.