Just in time for a game against the highest-ranked opponent it has faced in five years, Duke saw its defensive depth chart take some serious hits.
The broken left ankle safety Dylan Singleton suffered during Saturday’s 42-35 win over North Carolina means Duke has lost its third defensive starter for the remainder of the regular season, at least.
Cornerback Mark Gilbert (hip) and defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord (Achilles’ tendon) have already had surgeries that ended their seasons. Though Singleton, who had surgery on Sunday, is listed as out indefinitely, Duke coach David Cutcliffe doesn’t anticipate him returning to play even in Duke’s bowl game next month.
In addition to those three serious injuries, starters Marquis Waters (safety), Michael Carter II (cornerback) left the UNC game with various injuries. All-ACC linebacker Joe Giles-Harris (knee) missed the UNC game.
Their status for this Saturday’s 7 p.m. game at No. 2-ranked Clemson (10-0, 7-0) remains uncertain.
Duke also saw reserve defensive tackle Ben Frye suffer a torn ACL in practice last week. Reserve linebacker Koby Quansah is limited as he plays on a foot he broke in practice on Oct. 10.
Duke has seen 15 players with starting experience miss at least one game this season, including defensive players Giles-Harris, Quansah, Carter II, Gilbert, Singleton, Cerenord, linebacker Ben Humphreys, safeties Jeremy McDuffie and Jordan Hayes and defensive end Drew Jordan.
“This just kind of continues,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got a lot of fight left in us. Somebody is going to step up. I believe that in my heart. I couldn’t be more proud of players and staff and everybody that’s involved with Duke.”
Fight and pride might not be enough this week. Duke hasn’t played a team ranked in the top two spots of the Associated Press poll since 2013, when the Blue Devils lost 45-7 to top-ranked and eventual national champion Florida State in the ACC championship game.
Duke last played a top-10 team in 2016, a 24-14 loss at No. 7 Louisville.
The Blue Devils head to Clemson’s Death Valley after almost as many reserves played on defense as starters in the second half against UNC.
With Giles-Harris, Duke’s leading tackler, out after spraining his MCL against Miami on Nov. 3, sophomore Brandon Hill got his first start and recorded a team-best 10 tackles.
Singleton entered the game Duke’s second-leading tackler. He was injured in the first half, meaning Hayes took over. Hayes had played in only four games previously this season, taking part in 47 snaps.
He played well enough, recording five tackles with a tackle for loss, that Cutcliffe awarded him a game ball.
“We just stuck together and played as a team,” Hayes said. “We did our 1/11th, knowing that at the end of the day we can all do this together.”
Safety Lummie Young had played in 91 snaps over seven games before playing the entire second half against the Tar Heels.
Senior Jeremy McDuffie, a third-team all-ACC player last season, has missed two entire games and been limited in the seven games he has played after suffering a torn ACL last November.
McDuffie started against UNC in place of redshirt freshman Leonard Johnson. But it was Johnson who returned to play the second half.
Redshirt freshman Josh Blackwell played cornerback when Carter was injured. He recorded a key tackle during UNC’s final possession in the last 53 seconds, keeping Tar Heels receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams in bounds to keep the clock running.
Redshirt junior cornerback Brandon Feamster moved up the depth chart due to Gilbert’s September injury. He batted away UNC’s final desperation pass into the end zone as time expired.
“It’s been tough to endure all the of the change and all of the people out,” Cutcliffe said. “I hate it for players, particularly those who are facing surgeries and all the rehab associated with it. But this will ultimately help our program. As I look at depth charts for 2019, it’s just going to be a lot of people on those depth charts who have played a lot of football. That’s never a bad thing.”
There are more immediate challenges with two regular-season games before a bowl game.
Clemson looms large on the horizon.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity,” Cutcliffe said on Sunday. “Certainly a big challenge. They basically have steamrolled a lot of good football teams. We’ll dive into this to prepare. We’ll dive into this schematically. We’ve got to prepare exceptionally well. I think our team will embrace that.”