Duke has been one of the programs to slow down triple option attacks and their rush defense is better than you think. Still, they head into the summer with much work to do improving a porous pass defense.
Starters Returning: 6/11
Key Losses: DE Deion Williams, DE Kyler Brown, DE Britton Grier, DT Carlos Way, LB Dwayne Norman, S Jeremy Cash
Key Returnees: DE Marquies Price, DT A.J. Wolf, LB Tinashe Bere, LB Zavier Carmichael, LB Ben Humphreys, CB Breon Borders, CB Alonzo Saxton, S Deondre Singleton, S DeVon Edwards
FEI Defense Rank: 97
S&P Defense Rank: 53
S&P Rush Rank: 40
S&P Pass Rank: 104
Turnovers Forced: 20
Stout Run Defense
Most people don't associate a 3-3-5 with good run defense, at least that was the majority opinion as little as 3 or 4 years ago. Today, minds are changing!
Duke's run defense was really, really solid last year. Maybe I'd even call it pretty great. They held all opponents to just 3.61 yards per carry which ended up 23rd nationally. In total, the Blue Devils only gave up a respectable 153 yards per game on the ground.
Additionally, they've apparently figured out how to frustrate the triple option in recent years. Just last year alone they limited Georgia Tech and Army to just 286 yards combined.
Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash was a revelation for Duke since coming to Durham after Jim Tressel was fired in Columbus.
Technically listed as a safety, Cash played almost exclusively in the box as a nickel corner, and more importantly, an edge rusher. Throughout his 3 seasons with Duke he racked up 38 tackles for loss. Just last year alone Cash totaled 18 tackles for loss in 12 games (he missed the bowl game with injury) and was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.
As a team the Blue Devils finished with 84 tackles for loss (same as Notre Dame) so it'll be interesting to see how they are affected by the loss of one player who was responsible for nearly a quarter of that disruption. Interestingly, Cash went undrafted this past weekend and signed a free agent deal with the Carolina Panthers.
Bad Finish for Pass Defense
It was a tale of two seasons for Duke's pass defense last year. That, and they started playing better offenses. With two triple option teams and the black hole offense that was Boston College among their first 6 games it appeared as if the Blue Devils had a stout pass defense. Their opponent quarterbacks managed the following:
62 for 143 (43.3%), 787 yards, 3 TD, 5 INT
For 6 games that's phenomenal defense, even given the opponents. Once Duke got into the bulk of their ACC games boy did things change for the pass defense:
161 for 260 (61.9%), 2,345 yards, 20 TD, 6 INT
It's really hard to win football games when you're giving up an average of 335 yards through the air. One has to wonder if the Duke run defense will take a step back without the aggressive Cash playing on the edge and if they will improve as they use an extra safety a little more conservatively.
It'll probably be more of the same for Duke's defense, meaning effective play against the run and less so against the pass. They do return 4 starting defensive backs, three of whom are seniors, so that may help in 2016.
Still, all this defense is really missing from last year is pass rushing ability in the form of defensive ends and Jeremy Cash. In the middle of the defense 5 players with starting experience return at defensive tackle and linebacker, including true sophomore Ben Humphreys.
Humphreys (Composite Score .927) is a rare middle 4-star prospect on the Duke roster, and until receiver Scott Bracey (.934) signed this winter he was the highest rated recruit among all the Blue Devils. Humphreys got an opportunity late last year and really excelled. Next to redshirt sophomore Tinashe Bere, Duke feels like they have a really promising duo emerging at linebacker.