Football is famous for its menacing nicknames.
The Fearsome Foursome. The Iron Curtain. The Purple People Eaters. The Legion of Boom. This year Duke’s secondary will do its best to earn the nickname bestowed upon it – the Cheetahs.
“That was all coach (Derek) Jones,” redshirt sophomore safety DeVon Edwards said. “He used that from one of his terms when somebody gets beat deep, you chase the hip just like a cheetah. Ever since then, it stuck.”
The Cheetahs are back, convinced they can overcome the graduation of leader and All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell to the NFL.
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“Ross left a legacy,” Edwards said, specifically mentioning Cockrell’s influence as a teacher and mentor. “So that was a plus on his part because he knew the time was coming for him to leave Duke. He had been here for five years and he knew it was going to be different. He did his best and I think that was his goal senior year, to really get us ready for playing without him.”
Cockrell, now with the Buffalo Bills, was the secondary’s undisputed leader. This season, it will be a shared responsibility.
“I think we’ve kind of divided it,” Edwards said. “Ross was pretty much the whole secondary. But Bryon (Fields) does the corners and (Jeremy) Cash is in charge of the safeties. I’m the guy that brings them both together.”
Edwards had a break-out season, part of it on display on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” the day after his performance against N.C. State. Then a redshirt freshman, he returned a kickoff for a touchdown and sealed the game with back-to-back interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Edwards’ athleticism and play-making ability allow him to play anywhere in the secondary. He has played safety, corner and kickoff returner all in one game. Coach David Cutcliffe insists he’s just getting started.
“I can promise you DeVon Edwards is a heck of a corner,” Cutcliffe said. “So he can play both places. I thought DeVon Edwards didn’t have a good spring at corner, I thought he had a great spring. So we’re going to work him a lot.”
As a part of Duke’s 4-2-5 defense, the secondary represents the largest group on the field. Cutcliffe looks for players who are defensive backs, not just corners or safeties, and players like Edwards are proof of this.
Sophomores Breon Borders – who intercepted two passes against Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston during the ACC championship game – and Fields will be the starting corners.
Cash returns at safety as one of the conference’s top defensive backs and will be joined by Deondre Singleton and Edwards.
As the leader of the safeties, Cash – who tied for the team lead in interceptions (four) and ranked second in tackles (121) – also points to Cockrell as the player he looked to during his initial season.
“I did listen to Ross and a lot of the things he brought to the table and the traits he had,” he said. “So I try to model my game off his as far as how I approach different situations with different people, different ways of motivating people and different ways of just helping people.”
With a solid nickname in place and a roster of proven potential to back it, all the Cheetahs need to do now is catch their prey.