Today, we are officially one week from the beginning of Duke’s football season. And there will be plenty of preview material coming in the interim.
Intern extraordinaire Aric DiLalla has a look at Duke’s two new starting linebackers, Zavier Carmichael and Dwayne Norman. Carmichael got his feet wet with 277 snaps (and two timely interceptions) last year. Norman is more raw at the position, moving over from safety, but he did play as a pseudo third linebacker to face Georgia Tech last year (and the result was the Blue Devils’ first win over the Yellow Jackets under Cutcliffe).
While David Helton and Kelby Brown were certainly productive linebackers during their on-field careers, the bottom line is that the Duke coaches think this year’s group can be better. And that’s because there is just a higher baseline athleticism with the Blue Devils’ more recent recruits.
"On the whole, we will be better, because we are more athletic and faster," defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said recently. "But I do think it's going to be a committee thing. It's going to be taking advantage of the individual talents. Your not going to see a guy play the whole game. There is going to be a lot of rotation. We're faster, and we can run down more plays. We can make more plays behind the line of scrimmage. The question is can we be as consistent as David Helton at getting the guy on the ground."
Other players in that rotation include redshirt sophomore Chris Holmes (also a converted safety), redshirt freshman Tinashe Bere and true freshman Ben Humphreys, the jewel of the most recent recruiting class. The Army all-American has consistently impressed coaches and players this camp. Within the first week-and-a-half, he had already hauled in four interceptions.
"He's fast, like a Forrest Gump. That’s our nickname for him," Knowles said of Humphries. "He just—phzoom—takes off. He has the ability to see the whole picture. You can't coach that. Linebacker, either you see it or you don't. There is no easy way to explain it.
"That's what makes a great linebacker, having the ability but then being able to diagnose the play. He just sees it. He just knows what the play is going to be. And he can read the quarterback, the pass coverage as well as any freshman I've ever seen."
Enhanced linebacker play would be a nice plus for Duke, especially as Bryon Fields’s ACL tear forces some reshuffling in the secondary. For all the improvements that Duke had made recently, there still is a long way to go in run defense, as DiLalla pointed out in his story—the Blue Devils ranked 13th in the 14-team ACC in rushing defense (in front of just North Carolina, which fielded arguably the worst defense in the history of that program last year).
The opener against Tulane will give Carmichael, Norman and the young reserves a nice opportunity to ease up to ACC-level speed.