Luke DeCock

DeCock: ACC Coastal Division race altered by Duke injury

David Helton (47) will have to take on a bigger playmaking role in Kelby Brown's absence.
David Helton (47) will have to take on a bigger playmaking role in Kelby Brown's absence. Chuck Liddy

It isn’t often the presence or absence of one player can change the entire shape of a conference. Kelby Brown has the potential to do just that in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

When Brown went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a scrimmage Monday night, Duke’s chances of defending its Coastal title and getting back to Charlotte may have gone with him.

An All-ACC pick last season and going into this season, Brown was one of two players on Duke’s defense who could be considered as irreplaceable as a quarterback. Safety Jeremy Cash is the other.

Losing Brown may even be worse than losing Cash would be, because there are several players who can shuffle through the five defensive-back spots, but Duke has not traditionally nor is currently blessed with many other All-ACC linebacker candidates.

David Helton, the ACC’s leading tackler last season, will slide into Brown’s position, but Duke will have to audition candidates to replace Helton. In fact, Cash will have to play some linebacker to help fill the void, essentially weakening Duke at two positions.

Duke won 10 games last season with a defense that was mostly adequate, balancing a few timely explosive plays (to beat N.C. State, for example) with a few catastrophic breakdowns (the second half against Texas A&M and the entire Pittsburgh debacle). With considerable turnover on the defensive line, the Blue Devils had little reason to expect massive improvement on defense. Now, without Brown, they have to realistically consider the possibility that they may regress.

This has implications that go far beyond Durham. North Carolina is already the wise-guy pick to win the division – both Las Vegas and college-football guru Phil Steele are leaning heavily on UNC, the only Coastal team in the Associated Press Top 25 – and Brown’s injury will only bolster the Tar Heels’ chances, especially if the division comes down to their Nov. 20 Thursday night game at Duke.

Miami might be the most talented team in the Coastal, but it has to travel to Louisville as its Atlantic crossover game – in the opener with quarterbacks Ryan Williams injured and Kevin Olsen suspended – hosts Florida State and has to play a Thursday night game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. That ugly schedule just got a little prettier.

Likewise, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh will feel a little better about their chances in what was already a wide-open division race. Pretty much everyone but Virginia can make a case at this point. Until Monday night, Duke could make one of the more convincing ones. Not anymore.

You have to feel for Brown, who has already lost one entire season to a knee injury, torn his right ACL twice and now faces the uncertain prospect of applying for a sixth year of eligibility to conclude his Duke career.

Every team faces injury problems to some degree, and other important players will be injured across the Coastal Division before the season is over. Going into the season, it’s hard to imagine a single defensive player in the division as important to his team as Brown.

Duke, with little margin for error on defense already, couldn’t afford to lose him. The Blue Devils knew it would be difficult to match last season’s accomplishments even with Brown. Without him, it’s even harder.