While David Helton took over Kelby Brown’s linebacker spot in the preseason, on Saturday night Helton started making up for his playmaking ability, too.
With the defense reeling early after a pair of 83-yard Troy touchdown drives, Helton made four consecutive plays on the ensuing drive to get Duke back the ball. From there, the Blue Devils were able to roll to a 34-17 victory.
The Blue Devils (2-0) lost Brown, their best defender, in the preseason, and senior starter C.J. France was ruled out last week with a leg injury, too. Helton moved from the weakside linebacker role – where he led the ACC in tackles last year – to Brown’s middle spot. And with depth and experience at the position growing perilously thin, he helped out by significantly increasing his personal production.
On a critical drive in the second quarter, Helton made three straight tackles – on a quarterback draw, a short pass and a run up the middle, setting up fourth-and-1 from the Troy 41-yard line. With the Trojans leading 14-10, running back Jordan Chunn attempted to go up the middle, but he was met at the knees by Duke safety Deondre Singleton. Helton was right there, again, at his shoulders, as the Blue Devils recorded their first defensive stop.
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“On defense, when a lot of plays are going against you, it’s daunting, a little bit,” Helton said. “Once you get a few stops, you can settle down.”
From there, Duke turned the short field into its second touchdown, finished off with a 2-yard jump pass from Thomas Sirk to tight end D.J. Reeves. That put the Blue Devils ahead 17-14 with 6:06 left in the second quarter. The lead lasted the rest of the way.
Troy only scored three more points – a third-quarter field goal.
Helton finished the first half with 10 tackles – double what he had in the entire game last week against Elon. For the game, he led the Blue Devils with 15 total tackles (seven solo).
The coaching staff felt Helton was in the best position to fill the injured Brown’s role at the Mike, which included a step-up in responsibilities. In addition to covering more ground in attempt to make more plays, Helton also now makes the defensive calls for the front six defenders. Based on Saturday’s performance, that looks like a wise decision.
Initially, the Blue Devils’ front six struggled to get off of blocks and into the Troy backfield, but that sluggishness was largely confined to the first quarter. Helton had to get the calls in quicker, and it just took a bit of time for the Blue Devils to adjust to the quick tempo of the Trojans’ offense, as well as the thick Central Alabama air. By the opening drive of the third quarter, the Blue Devils had the Trojans moving backwards, thanks to back-to-back sacks by defensive end Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo.
“I think when it shows our backs are against the wall, we play our best,” safety Jeremy Cash said. “I don’t think our backs necessarily should be against the wall, but in times of clutch, that’s when people step up.”
Behind the defensive line and the linebackers, sophomore safety DeVon Edwards rediscovered his knack for impactful plays that he flashed as a freshman – he forced two fumbles (including one of Troy’s second unsuccessful fourth-down attempt of the second quarter) and returned a kickoff 61 yards. It didn’t quite equal his 99 or 100-yard returns for touchdowns last year, but it’s a start. Edwards also finished with 14 tackles – 10 of them solo.
For the second straight week, the Blue Devils scored 21 points in the second quarter, quickly putting a slow start on both sides of the ball behind them. Quarterback Anthony Boone finished 27-for-41 (65.9 percent) for 268 yards and one touchdown, and he also led the team with 47 yards rushing and two touchdowns on the ground. Jamison Crowder was Duke’s leading receiver with seven catches, good for 70 yards. Issac Blakeney continues to establish himself as the Blue Devils’ second receiver, adding five catches for 90 yards.