There’s more to Zavier Carmichael than meets the eye.
At the podium, Duke’s 6-foot, 220-pound starting linebacker seems soft-spoken and a bit shy.
That changes on game day.
“He has a certain tenacity about him that you wouldn’t see just by talking to him and being around him,” said linebacker Dwayne Norman, “but when he puts on the pads and steps on the field, he’s definitely a different person.”
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Carmichael will need that alter ego after Kelby Brown’s latest, career-ending ACL tear. The injury means Carmichael moves over to the “Mike” linebacker spot, where he’ll be tasked with replacing David Helton in coach David Cutcliffe’s base 4-2-5 set, and Norman will slide into the vacant “Will” position. As a true freshman, Carmichael made 20 tackles and reeled in two interceptions in 13 games in 2014. This season, he and Norman will need to take big steps forward.
Helton leaves a rather intimidating shadow at “Mike,” which functions as the quarterback of the defense in most systems. He tallied 134 tackles as a senior en route to earning first team All-ACC honors. In an ideal world, Brown would have lined up at “Mike” backer next to Helton at the “Will” last season, but horrid injury luck prevented that pairing. When healthy, Brown was an All-ACC caliber player. During his junior year, he racked up 114 tackles, 50 of which were solo and five of which were for losses. His replacement, C.J. France, started eight games in 2014 and notched 59 tackles.
Those high tackle numbers are as much a testament to the talent of Brown and Helton as they are to the type of defense that Duke runs, Cutcliffe said.
All three players -- France and Helton to graduation, Brown to yet another injury -- must be replaced. And as Carmichael and Norman, 6-1, 215 pounds, prepare for Duke’s road opener against Tulane, the two will lean heavily on advice from Helton and Brown.
“David and Kelby: I knew that they were both all-star linebackers,” Norman said. “They let me know the nuances of playing linebacker. ... I watched a lot of film with them.”
As Brown recovers from ACL surgery again, he’s moved on from ankle tape to breaking down tape. Carmichael said Brown has already adopted a role as a student coach whose duties apparently include sending film to his two teammates.
“He’s more of a teaching figure now,” Carmichael said. “He’s still the same Kelby off the field. He’s still the emotional leader. He’ll be needed to help us get riled up.”
Even with Helton, Duke’s run defense was among the worst in the ACC. The Blue Devils finished 13th against the run and 12th in overall defense. Their passing defense ranked eighth, but much of that success should be attributed to the star-studded secondary. Yet despite the average to below-average yardage ranks, the Blue Devils were stingy when it mattered. Duke finished fourth in points allowed.
Cutcliffe seems to think his new starters possess the physical tools to replicate that success.
“I think overall this is the most athletic group of linebackers that we’ve had,” Cutcliffe said. “They can both really, really, really run. I think they give us a chance of being guys that do a lot of different things for us. They can be excellent speed guys, blitzers, pass rushers, good in coverage.”
Their agility should provide an edge against slot receivers and running backs that slip out of the backfield. Both Carmichael and Norman are converted safeties that moved down into the box, where Cutcliffe said they will need to learn to play in between the tackles.
“The biggest change for me is how much faster plays develop being so close to the line,” Norman said. “At safety, I had a couple extra seconds, and now at linebacker, it’s like when the ball’s snapped, it’s time to go. There’s no thinking.
“You have to do what you have to do and get it done right.”
Duke’s success might just depend on it.
DiLalla: 919-829-0835; @AricDiLalla