Remove one longtime defensive coordinator, take away an all-ACC cornerback and mix in injuries throughout the depth chart.
That’s the reality for Duke’s defense so far this season.
Yet the No. 22 Blue Devils (4-0) have jumped into the national rankings for the first time since 2015 and the defense is a big reason for their success.
Duke allowed 20.2 points per game last season, third-best in the ACC, while going 7-6. Jim Knowles, its defensive coordinator since 2010, left to take the same position at Oklahoma State.
Mark Gilbert, a first-team all-ACC cornerback, suffered a season-ending hip injury on Sept. 8.
Another cornerback, sophomore Michael Carter, missed the last two games with a sprained knee. Starting defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord missed Duke’s 55-13 win over N.C. Central last Saturday with a lower body injury.
Senior safety Jeremy McDuffie has played in only 41 snaps so far as he recovers from the reconstructive knee surgery he needed last November.
Despite all of that, the 15.3 points per game Duke has allowed is tied for second in the ACC with Clemson, trailing only N.C. State (13.3).
Duke coach David Cutcliffe responded to Knowles’ departure by naming two existing staff members, Matt Guerrieri and Ben Albert, as co-coordinators. Albert coaches the defensive line and remains on the sideline on game day. Guerrieri, the safeties coach, is in the press box calling plays.
“The reason that we went co-defensive coordinators is the quality of the people that we have in Ben and Matt and the quality of the rest of the staff, (defensive backs coach) Derek Jones and (linebackers coach) Lanier Goethie,” Cutcliffe said. “So we’re at a point where we’re still growing in that regard, but we clearly defined their roles. It is a transition, but our players were very familiar with both coaches. We have had a lot of stability in this program, so that helps a great deal.”
In his third season at Duke, Albert’s success in improving the defensive line’s play is a big reason for Duke’s defensive success. Where the Blue Devils relied heavily on risky blitzes in years past to pressure quarterbacks, its front four has proven capable of winning battles at the line of scrimmage.
Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente, who brings his Hokies to Wallace Wade Stadium for an ACC game this Saturday at 7 p.m., said he’s seen Duke improve in that area over the last three seasons.
“They were a pretty big zone blitz team from the field and the boundary and all sort of stuff,” Fuente said. “As their personnel has continued to improve up front, I think they have relied more on those guys to get to the passer and have done a really good job of it. They have been able to rush four and through either straight rushes or using some of their games and twists up front been able to put a tremendous amount of pressure on the quarterback.”
Going beyond points per game, advanced statistics reveal how well Duke’s defense is playing.
On running plays, opponents average 4.33 yards per play. The national average is five yards per play.
On passing plays, opponents average 4.99 yards per play. The national average is 6.4 yards per play.
Duke’s opponents have gained two or more first downs on 37.3 percent of their drives. That’s also below the national average of 41.4 percent.
“Our D-line has been phenomenal,” Duke all-ACC linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. “They make running to the ball easy. The seven or eight of them who get interchanged up there, there is no drop off, there is no nothing. There are phenomenal guys in our secondary, despite injuries. It’s fun. It makes playing linebacker easier.”
Up front, freshman Chris Rumph (2.0), sophomore Victor Dimukeje (1.5) and sophomore Drew Jordan (1.0) all have sacks this season. Dimukeje leads Duke with 3.5 tackles for loss.
Duke linebacker Ben Humphreys is tied with Syracuse linebacker Kielan Whitner for the ACC lead with 32 tackles.
Among the injured, only Gilbert is lost for the season. The Blue Devils expect to get Cerenord and Carter back in the coming weeks, perhaps as early as the Virginia Tech game. McDuffie is increasing his practice repetitions in hopes of playing a larger role.
In the meantime, Duke enters ACC play with a defense playing at a level well enough for the Blue Devils to look like Coastal Division contenders.