DURHAM — After Dukes first game of the season, a victory over FIU, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles had a surprise for his players when they reported for work that Sunday afternoon.
He told us were starting to put stickers on helmets, cornerback Ross Cockrell said. Hes giving out stickers for when people make plays.
Six games into the season with a 5-1 record (2-0 in the ACC), there are plenty of black-and-white stickers dotting the helmets of Duke defenders. The sticker depicts a grim reaper figure, complete with a skull and crosshairs. The rendition is based on a symbol used by snipers in the military. So is its accompanying slogan, the decision is mine.
Its getting them to believe that it doesnt matter what the other team does, said Knowles, who is in his third year at Duke. You make a decision that youre going to make a play.
Third-down stops, sacks, caused fumbles, tackles for loss, takeaways and similar plays all get stickers. The military-inspired makeover dates back to the summer, when Knowles and head coach David Cutcliffe came up with the idea of the defense acting as Dukes homeland security, protecting the end from opponents.
Cockrell, who leads the nation with 13 passes defended and is tied for second nationally with four interceptions, has about 40 stickers. The next closest player trails by double digits.
Duke ranks fourth in the ACC in total defense, and the 12 turnovers the Blue Devils have generated are tied for the second-highest total in the league. The 15 sacks Duke has recorded just two fewer than the 17 Duke posted in 12 games in 2011 is the third-highest total in the ACC.
Weve talked about how for the Duke football program to make a true transformation, the defense has got to step up, Knowles said. Every time the defense takes the field, people have to think, OK, well be OK, well get a stop. That generates confidence. Were always going to be able to score a lot of points around here, but the defense needs to be able to really protect our program.
Last weeks 42-17 win over Virginia shows the change in Dukes defense. In the first half, the Cavaliers were running the ball at will, averaging 7.1 yards per carry with 184 rushing yards. In the second half, Virginia managed just two yards on the ground.
In a pivotal moment, the Cavaliers had the ball near midfield and faced fourth-and-1. Knowles saw senior safety Walt Canty move up toward the Cavaliers massive offensive linemen, who weigh an average of 302 pounds. By the time running back Kevin Parks received the ball, Canty was in the backfield, and he stopped Parks for a 1-yard loss. Duke went on to score an insurance touchdown, part of the teams 28 unanswered second-half points. Meanwhile, in the same time frame, the Cavaliers were held scoreless and managed only five first downs.
Canty, taking a cue from Dukes halftime adjustment to have safeties puncture holes in between the defensive linemen, decided to blitz on his own.
Thats what you get with a veteran player when you know the system enough, Knowles said. Hes been around me for a couple of years, and he knows when its possible to take chances.
Duke is in its second year of Knowles 4-2-5 defensive scheme. And while there has been plenty of attention to the number of defenders not playing because of injuries Duke had only five safeties participate in pregame warm-ups, and two were walk-ons there are a handful of veteran players who have thrived.
Cockrell, a redshirt junior and three-year starter, leads the nation in passes defended. Canty, a senior and three-year starter, ranks in the ACC top 10 in tackles per game and tackles for loss. Redshirt senior Jordon Byas returned in a month from knee surgery and, like Cockrell and Canty, earned ACC defensive back of the week honors earlier this season. Redshirt senior Kenny Anunike has recorded at least a half-sack in every game this season and he is fourth in the ACC with 4.5 total.
All of them have plenty of stickers.
I need to do a better job of saying special little prayers for them individually, Cutcliffe said of the veterans holding together the defense. Its been amazing the plays those guys have made.