Jeremy Cash shows off flexibility of Duke defense

Duke defenders safety Jeremy Cash (16), safety DeVon Edwards (27) and cornerback Alonzo Saxton II (21) break up a pass to Boston College wide receiver Sherman Alston (6) in the first quarter.
Duke defenders safety Jeremy Cash (16), safety DeVon Edwards (27) and cornerback Alonzo Saxton II (21) break up a pass to Boston College wide receiver Sherman Alston (6) in the first quarter. cliddy@newsobserver.com

It’s not often that a safety leads a major conference in tackles for loss. But that’s the position Duke’s Jeremy Cash finds himself in more than a month into the college football season.

“I’m sure people are looking at it trying to figure out how that is happening,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They would probably think we’re blitzing every play, but that’s not the case. He diagnoses well; he reads and reacts. We do use him where we are pressuring, not necessarily blitzing. Being a smart football player, he can be one of the four rushing because we can move him around. We try to give him as many opportunities as we can.”

This week, Cash will have an opportunity to play linebacker, as the Blue Devils use a 4-3 scheme to prepare to face Army and its triple-option offense. It’s the second time this year Cash has moved into an outside-linebacker role – in Duke’s 34-20 win over Georgia Tech, which runs the same spread-option, run-oriented offense, Cash recorded 12 total tackles, with 3.0 for loss, four quarterback hurries and two caused fumbles. By moving closer to the line of scrimmage and not having to worry about pass coverage responsibilities, Cash has free reign to do what he does best: make plays.

“Oh yeah, I look forward to these games,” Cash said. “Playing against the triple option, going down there, getting your nose in the heart of things –quarterbacks, running backs, whomever has the ball, someone is getting hit.”

Through five games, Cash has recorded 9.5 tackles for loss, and his average of 1.9 per game ranks in a tie for eighth nationally. His average of 8.4 tackles per game ranks him fourth in the ACC, the most productive cog in the Duke defense, which ranks in the top 10 nationally in terms of scoring defense (fifth) and total defense (ninth).

“You can say this about Jeremy because it won’t affect his head,” Cutcliffe said, “But I don’t know that there is a defensive player – I haven’t heard of anybody playing any better or playing as well as Jeremy Cash is playing, anywhere.”

Cash’s switch from safety to linebacker is so complete against the triple option that he goes to linebacker meetings instead of defensive back meetings. And his presence brings a jolt of energy to an already productive group.

“He motivates everybody to make plays,” Duke linebacker Dwayne Norman said. “Whenever he goes out and gets a sack or a TFL, I take that upon me that I have to go out and do the same thing and hype up the team. It’s contagious when everybody makes plays.”

For the record, Cutcliffe has never considered moving Cash, who is 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, to linebacker against traditional offenses, despite his success in that role against the triple option – he’s too valuable to Duke’s 4-2-5 scheme in his safety position, which allows him to play as almost a hybrid linebacker-safety, up closer to the line of scrimmage than typical for a defensive back.

“Where we have him, he’s a great space player that we can bring into the box,” Cutcliffe said. “Play a guy in space like that; he’s a great edge player; he’s great on the perimeter, one of the better things he does. At right downs and distances or calls, we have calls that put him inside. I like the versatility of where he is now.”

Cash is the second player in as many weeks to join the linebacking corps on a temporary basis – last week, against Boston College defensive end Kyler Brown, a converted linebacker, moved back to his old role as the Blue Devils played four defensive tackles up front against run-heavy Boston College. Cutcliffe is quite pleased with his defense’s ability to flex like that, moving people fluidly from one level to the next. It’s the result of years of building up the defensive system, and now, in defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’s sixth season, it’s like a well-oiled machine.

“You want to build a system,” Cutcliffe said. “You teach a whole, and then you use parts. To me, that’s how any system operates best, whether it’s a business or a football team or a side of a ball.”

Cash’s productivity is partly due to Duke’s system, no doubt. But it also helps to have NFL-quality talent. He solicited feedback about his NFL Draft prospects last winter and ultimately decided to return to school.

“From my own perspective, I saw some things that I could improve on, and I’ve been working on those throughout the offseason,” he said. “When I’m able to put those on full display and showcase those, I’m sure they’ll be pretty impressed.”

When asked to go into specifics, Cash didn’t hesitate.

“I do that on Saturdays.”

For all the latest Duke news, like Duke NOW on Facebook and follow Laura on Twitter.

Duke at Army

When: Noon Saturday

Where: Michie Stadium, West Point, N.Y.

TV: CBS Sports Network