DURHAM — While listening to a question after Wednesdays morning practice, Desmond Scotts mind drifted.
While you were asking the question, I was trying to remember who we played because Im so focused on Wake Forest, he said.
Scott said he has been imagining the Demon Deacons defense and has watched so much film it feels like the Blue Devils have already played the game. From his slot receiver position, Scott sees Wake Forest free safety and Durham native A.J. Marshall, who he has played since middle school, looming.
Marshall is a piece of Wake Forests 3-4 base, which is the same formation the Blue Devils saw against Memphis and at Stanford. Beyond that, though, its hard to know what to make of the Demon Deacons defense.
Nationally, Wake Forest is ranked 103rd out of 120 FBS teams in total defense. Its rushing defense comes in at No. 117, giving up an average of 266 yards per game. Duke has attached an asterisk to those numbers, though.
Number one, youve got Army, and thats a different animal, Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe said about Wake Forests most recent opponent. And people running into Florida State right now are running into a bugbear, so youve got to cross that one off the ledger.
Another meaningful variable is the health of all-ACC nose guard Nikita Whitlock. The redshirt junior, whom linebacker Riley Haynes called the heart of the defense, led Wake Forest last season with 14 sacks but has missed the past two games with a high ankle sprain.
Whitlock, though, declared he was ready to go four different times Tuesday.
Im good enough to play, for sure, he said. Definitely Saturday.
Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe wasnt so sure.
Thats what Ive heard, thats the rumor on the street, Grobe said. I think its hard for kids to come back from ankle sprains when youre a skill guy, but when youre in the trenches pushing 300-pound guys, its not easy. Well see. To be honest with you, I have my doubts.
Whitlock estimated he was at 70-75 percent but said the two weeks off has killed his endurance and his strength. Still, he hopes to play about 65-70 percent of the snaps Saturday. Wake Forest has started two players in his absence: 6-foot-4, 245-pound freshman Tylor Harris and 6-foot-5, 270-pound graduate student Hasan Hazime, who played 31 games at Akron.
Both are natural defensive ends. And both play the nose guard position differently than the 5-foot-11, 260-pound Whitlock.
What Nikita gives us is a quicker guy, is probably more of a sideline-to-sideline guy, but I think the other two give us a big presence inside, and theres some good to that, too, Grobe said. When we get Nikita back, wed like to see him go back to being the big playmaker he was last year, he added, noting that Whitlock had two pedestrian games to start this season.
Duke is certainly a pass-first team, but the running game, finally, found its stride against Memphis. The Blue Devils ran for 177 yards and were led by freshman Jela Duncan, who had nine carries for 88 yards. He took advice from starting running back Juwan Thompson, his assigned big brother, to heart: Dont let those big holes surprise you. Duncan took his first carry 58 yards.
While it would certainly be unexpected for Dukes ground game to carry the offense Saturday, surprises (elbows blocking field goals, blown coverage resulting in interceptions and more) have almost become the norm over the course of Wake Forests 12-game win streak.
Everyone wants to win this game, even alumni, Thompson said. We just cant make as many mistakes and errors. It just could come down to the little things that we least expect are important.
Correspondent Bill Kiser contributed to this report.