Duke defense, led by line, improves

lkeeley@newsobserver.comSeptember 24, 2012 

DURHAM The numbers don’t lie: Duke’s defense is better.

And it starts up front.

The defensive linemen begin every week by updating the sack totals on the white board in their meeting room. Right now, the board totals 12 sacks, with nine different Blue Devils contributing.

Not bad for a unit that posted 17 – total – in 2011.

“That’s a true testament to the hard work and dedication we put in,” said Kenny Anunike, who leads the team with three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. “We’re hungry for more, we’re competing for sacks amongst ourselves, we’re just going down the line.”

The line’s increased ability to penetrate the backfield and generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks has had a trickle-down effect as well. More chaos up front has put the secondary in better position to make plays, said Ross Cockrell, who is tied for the national lead in total passes defended.

“When you see errant balls going up in the air and stuff like that, that’s a credit to our defensive line,” Cockrell said. “We’ve fortunately benefited from that a lot this year.”

One year after finishing either last or next-to-last in the ACC in every major defensive category, Duke is ranked sixth in the conference, surrendering an average 344 yards per game. The Blue Devils’ sack total ranks third, one behind North Carolina and Florida State.

In their most recent game, against Memphis, the Blue Devils limited the Tigers to 152 total yards of offense, a new low for the David Cutcliffe era. And, despite the lopsided score, Duke is the only team to hold Stanford to under 100 yards rushing so far this year.

The measurable, undeniable improvement – “I don’t think there’s any question that we’re better on defense,” Cutcliffe said – stems in part from increased familiarity with system. Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and defensive line coach Rick Petri installed a 4-2-5 scheme last year and are just starting to see the benefits.

“We’re a lot more comfortable, we’ve grown together as a unit and that definitely allows us to throw in a few more wrinkles,” Anunike said. “Since you don’t have to spend as much time studying the playbook now, you can look at other things and study your opponents, look at the guys you are going to be going against in the games.”

Not even a lengthy list of injuries has slowed Duke’s progress. Two of the four projected starters on the line – Jamal Bruce and Justin Foxx – are out indefinitely. This has caused many additional meetings and challenges, Cutcliffe said, but their backups have proven more than capable. Sydney Sarmiento took over the nose guard spot, and Dezmond Johnson, Jonathan Woodruff and Jamal Wallace registered a combined five sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss.

“We’ve got depth now, something we haven’t had in the past,” Anunike said. “That’s a great feeling.”

So, too, is the feeling of a 3-1 start, the best since 2008, which has the line’s confidence at an all-time high. There’s much more work to do, and a few more sacks to accumulate to officially top last year’s total.

At the top of the weekly defensive line handouts, there is the sack total from 2010, 2011 and 2012. Next to this year is a question mark.

“I’m excited to see where this team is going to go this year,” Anunike said. “Starting conference play going in 3-1, that’s a great start, especially for a Duke team.”

Keeley 919-829-4556

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