With offensive output in college football exploding into video-game territory in recent years, defenses have been put on the, well, defensive. Defensive coordinators around the country – including Duke’s Jim Knowles – have spent the offseason scheming up responses.
So while most eyes will be on the Blue Devils’ new quarterback and wide receivers as the season opens Thursday night at Tulane, there is a tweak to the defense worth following. Look for it on the defensive line.
Knowles and his staff created a new position for this year’s defense — “the devil,” to use their lingo. It is a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, and instead of lining up in a crouched three-point stance with his hand in the ground, like a traditional defensive end, the devil stands up. The other defensive end in the 4-2-5 scheme still plays with his hand down.
“What we’re doing is trying to play to the strengths of what we have. We’re not huge at defensive end,” said Jim Collins, who coaches outside linebackers and defensive ends. “So for us to say that we’re going to stand in there all day and do what’s conventional is not what is best for us. We’re going to live with their strengths a little bit and see if we can give them opportunities to make a few more plays.”
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There are several advantages to standing up a traditional down lineman, as Duke sees it. For one, it’s obviously easier to see, helping put a player in a better position to diagnose plays. The starting devil is redshirt senior Kyler Brown, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 235 pounds. But his backup is 6-foot, 230-pound senior Deion Williams.
“Coach likes to say that I’m vertically challenged, so I can see a lot better (without a hand on the ground),” Williams said with a smile. “I personally like rushing from a two-point stance, from being on my feet, so it helps for me a lot.”
In addition to rushing the quarterback, standing a defensive end up helps with pass coverage responsibilities too.
“Usually the defensive end will have his hand in the ground, so he’s really responsible for stopping the run and being a force on the pass,” Williams said. “So, it’s a mix between that and an outside linebacker who might have a little more pass coverage responsibilities. We’ll get to stand up and read as a linebacker would do. But we’re still close enough to be able to be a force on the run.”
Like many “new” trends in football, the origin of the devil is a throwback to the past. Knowles said he used it in the early 2000s when he was at Western Michigan. His guinea pig was Jason Babin, who became the first player from the school to be drafted in the first-round of the NFL draft and has been in the league since 2004.
Collins said the first player he used in a hybrid end-linebacker role was LaVar Arrington, whom he coached in the early 2000s in the NFL as Washington’s linebackers coach. And while the Blue Devils officially introduced this wrinkle in the spring, they experimented with it last year. Defensive end Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, who was tied for second on the team with 41/2 sacks, occasionally stood up.
“We took Jordan and moved him around, and we rushed him from different places. He stood up and roamed around,” Knowles said. “We want to add to that further, taking guys who have linebacker skills and experience to be able to cover the pass or rush.”
The drawback to standing up a lineman is a loss of leverage: a standing lineman is much easier to bowl over and clear a running lane. Still, that’s a risk Duke is willing to take. Improving the pass rush and getting into the offensive backfield quicker is an annual goal for the Duke defense. Last year, the Blue Devils ranked seventh in the 14-team ACC with an average of 2.31 sacks per game and 12th with an average of 4.69 tackles for loss per game. Duke won’t win battles along the line of scrimmage with size alone – thus, the out-of-the-box thinking, putting smaller defensive linemen in a better position to use their strengths and succeed.
“I’ve said this because it’s a fact: This is the fastest team, and certainly the fastest defense, that we have put on the field,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “Now, do I realize that we’re not the biggest? Yeah, I get that. And you have to hold up against all opponents. We plays some really psychical football teams this year, Tulane being the first one.”
Duke (0-0) at Tulane (0-0)
Kickoff: 9:30 p.m., Yulman Stadium, New Orleans.
TV/Radio: CBS Sports Network/620 AM/96.5 FM.
Tulane’s strength: The play of the Green Wave’s defensive line in its 4-2-5 defense can make it difficult on opponents to run. Tulane returns six of its seven top lineman from last season, The Green Wave play pretty conservative and don’t blitz a ton, but as Duke’s running backs return to health and quarterback Thomas Sirk attempts to use both his arm and legs in his starting debut, patience with the run game will be a must.
Key theme: Duke, a 71/2-point road favorite, needs its new starters to play smart and not try to do too much. Sirk needs to show the poise his teammates talk about in practice. Johnell Barnes, Chris Taylor and true freshman T.J. Rahming need to play steady at receiver. And the three new defensive line starters need to establish physical dominance over the American Athletic Conference offensive line they are up against. It will only get harder in ACC play.