Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles appeared to wince — if slightly — a couple of times Tuesday while talking to reporters.
One came when asked about replacing safety Jeremy Cash, the ACC defensive player of the year in 2015.
Another wince came when last year’s 66-31 loss to North Carolina was mentioned.
Cash was the Blue Devils’ biggest defensive playmaker, the one Knowles relied on to cover for others’ mistakes when things went haywire on the field.
“The ‘Eraser,’ ” Knowles called him.
As for the North Carolina game, Knowles likened the drubbing to him losing a Catholic League championship game in his senior year of high school eons ago.
“It doesn’t go away,” he said. “That’s something you just don’t forget, when you get beat that badly. They were very talented, but we need to show up better than that.”
Knowles believes the Blue Devils defense will “show up” this season, even with Cash now a member of the Carolina Panthers. Cornerback Bryon Fields is back from a knee injury. Ben Humphreys could be a good “quarterback” of the defense at middle linebacker. The pass rush should be — and has to be — better.
It’s also the “Year of the Beast” at Duke. The mandate from Devils coach David Cutcliffe was to get bigger and stronger, on both sides of the ball.
The Blue Devils have a new defensive line coach in Ben Albert, who joined the staff from Boston College and also serves as Duke’s associate defensive coordinator.
“He’s a career defensive line coach who’s extremely aggressive in his coaching and takes a lot of ownership and pride in what the D-line does,” Knowles said.
Duke was 13th in the ACC and 114th in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in sacks last season with 17 (1.31 a game.) The team leader: Cash, with 2.5 sacks.
We have the quickest play-calling defense in the nation. There are so many checks and things we have to do, play in and play out. If you don’t have great communication …
During Duke’s Friday scrimmage, the Blue Devils had Marquies Price and Danny Doyle at ends, with A.J. Wolf and Edgar Cerenord inside at tackles. Knowles will have a rotation and said it should include Chidi Okonya, a 6-foot-6 freshman, who has a “quick get-off,” Knowles said.
In the UNC game last fall, the Blue Devils did not have a sack as the Tar Heels had their way, passing for 537 yards and finishing with 704 yards in total offense. And 66 points.
“Definitely a shock for us,” junior linebacker Zavier Carmichael said. “Them running the board was very embarrassing, as a player and as a team.”
While Duke beat Indiana 44-41 in the Pinstripe Bowl, the Blue Devils allowed 389 passing yards and 667 total yards. Again, no sacks.
Knowles said a priority this season would be allowing fewer “explosive plays.” Better communication also is a must.
“We have the quickest play-calling defense in the nation,” said Humphreys, a sophomore. “There are so many checks and things we have to do, play in and play out. If you don’t have great communication …”
Former linebacker Kelby Brown, Knowles said, was like having an extra defensive coach on the field. “Ben can be the next Kelby Brown,” Knowles said. “He has that potential.”
Having Fields back will allow DeVon Edwards to remain at safety. It’s an experienced, confident group of defensive backs — but again, no Cash.
“Cash could make you right even if something was screwed up,” Knowles said. “That’s hard to replace.”
Safety Corbin McCarthy, a redshirt senior, will get his chance to be the defensive disruptor, Knowles said.
“But Cash, that’s a lot of numbers, a lot of tackles right there,” Knowles said.