Jim Knowles knows that part of his job as Duke’s defensive coordinator is to prepare contingency plans in case injury or any other unexpected event sidelines one of his key players.DURHAM, N.C. --
“You have to always have contingency in mind,” he said. “It’s not something that you always want to talk about. You think about things during your quiet moments with yourself. When it happens, it’s hard from an emotional standpoint, but our job is to be ready for anything that happens.”
Knowles had to implement one of those plans last week, when senior linebacker Kelby Brown – perhaps the single-most important player on the Duke defense – was lost for the season with a knee injury. Brown is not only a great player – first team All-ACC last season and a Butkus Award nominee this fall – he’s also the designated signal caller for the defense; essentially the quarterback on that side of the ball.
“It’s a very emotional time for all of us,” Knowles said. “I was just visiting Kelby in the hospital. He’s alive and well, but in terms of our defense, there certainly are shock waves. I think you have to acknowledge that.”
So how does Knowles plan to address it?
“We have a guy in David Helton who has had as much experience as Kelby and understands the defense,” he explained. “David has made a lot of tackles and a lot of plays. We have moved David to the ‘Mike’ [middle linebacker] position, which is really the quarterback position on our defense.”
Helton actually had more tackles that Brown last season. In fact, his 133 total tackles were the most in the ACC.
“Moving David to Mike is a great move for us,” Knowles said. “Now we’ll find ways to make up for that production at the ‘Will’ [weakside] position.”
But Knowles has options there, too.
“We have [senior] C.J. France, who has a lot of playing time at Will,” he pointed out. “Then we have [redshirt freshman] Chris Holmes, who has had some minor injuries, but really showed a lot in the spring. And we like our freshmen, too. Xavier Carmichael, we like him for the Will spot.”
Knowles’ contingency response to Brown’s loss involves more than shuffling his linebackers. He’s also counting on his depth in the secondary to give him some help at the Will linebacker position.
“We’ll make other adjustments – creative packaging – to use other guys at Will, whether that’s [safeties] Jeremy Cash or Dwayne Norman,” he said. “The way offenses are so spread out, the Will position in those situations in today’s game has a lot of DB qualities to them. And we have some bigger safeties who actually can play that position.”
Knowles won’t know how much Duke actually misses Brown until he gets to see the Blue Devil defense in game action. But after looking at his contingency plan in practice, the veteran defensive coordinator is upbeat.
“We’re going to be okay,” Knowles said.
Replacing the Leadership
Knowles has to do more than replace Brown the linebacker. He’s got to replace Brown, the vocal leader of the defense.
Who steps up in that role?
“Jeremy Cash, for sure,” he said. “Our defense looked to him, even before Kelby’s injury. He’s vocal. He’s a high energy guy. Jeremy will take on a piece of it.
“David Helton is a guy who will have to take on a big share. David is a guy who has performed very well in the shadows because Kelby was so great. Hopefully, this will be a chance for David to assume an even greater role.”
Building the Defensive Line
Duke lost three defensive line starters off last year’s team – two fifth-year seniors and a sixth-year senior.
But Knowles views defensive line as a strength going into this season.
“It’s a huge success right now,” he said. “[We have] more guys who can play.”
He reeled off the candidates at defensive end.
“You’ve got Dez Johnson and Jonathan Jones and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo. Kyler Brown is just a natural at defensive end. And if you saw Britton Grier pass rush the other day – there is a real threat. There’s five ends right there. Right now, we would be comfortable with any of those five guys. That’s tremendous depth. That’s real.”
He’s just as comfortable with his candidates inside.
“Inside, Carlos Wray and Jamal Bruce and A.J. Wolf and Jamal Wallace and Mike Ramsey – there’s five guys right there. Four of them have played a lot of football for us. Ramsey hasn’t played yet because he redshirted, but we think he’s as good as any of them.”
The Duke defensive coordinator claimed that having a 10-man rotation for the four defensive line positions is a real positive.
“We think that’s the real strength that we have now,” he said. “You know how fast the game is these days and the big guys get enervated faster than the skinny guys. We can keep rolling them in. That’s a real plus for our team.”
The veteran depth up front is so good that Knowles and the staff don’t have to rush even a highly touted prospect like true freshman defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord.
“He’s making great progress,” Knowles said. “We’re in a good situation right now. It’s not a priority that he has to play, but if he keeps developing, there’s definitely a chance.”
Fine-Tuning the Offense
First-year offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery doesn’t have any huge holes to fill at the moment. He’s inherited a deep, experienced offense from his predecessor, Kurt Roper.
That doesn’t mean that he’s coasting through preseason workouts. Montgomery has some things to settle before the opener – for instance, he needs to develop a backup quarterback to senior Anthony Boone. He also needs to solidify an offense line that lost two starters and tweak a running back rotation that lost two of last season’s four workhorses.
Montgomery has seen progress in all three areas. He sounded especially enthusiastic about developments in the running back rotation, where redshirt freshman Joseph Ajeigbe and true freshman Shaun Wilson are fitting in behind veterans Josh Snead and Shaquille Powell.
“This is the group I’m most pleased with,” he said. “We have great leadership there with Shaquille Powell and Josh Snead. Josh has been tremendous from a leadership standpoint. It’s great to have that solid foundation in the room.”
Montgomery knows what he can expect from Snead and Powell, who combined for just under 1,000 yards and almost six yards a carry last season. But he’s also excited by the two new running backs.
“Now we have Joseph Ajeigbe, who has shown so far in camp that he can get the football downhill. I like guys who go get you four yards and four yards, then they pop one.”
Montgomery was torn when asked about Wilson.
“We’ve really been impressed with the young kid. He has just been remarkable. I don’t like saying a freshman’s name in interviews. His demeanor, everything about him has been exactly what you want from a good prospect. That’s exactly what he is right now – a prospect.”
Overall, the Blue Devil offensive coordinator is very comfortable with his running back rotation.
“We look to see them grow, but we’ve really seen some exciting plays from that group,” he said.
Finding a Backup Quarterback
Starting quarterback Anthony Boone is the most experienced player at that position in the ACC.
But he’s the only Duke quarterback who has taken a snap in a college game. What happens if Boone is sidelined, even temporarily?
“You always have to prepare yourself,” Montgomery said.
Right now, he has two young candidates vying for the backup job – redshirt sophomore Thomas Sirk, who missed last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, and redshirt freshman Parker Boehme.
“The one thing we didn’t know about Sirk -- just because he hasn’t had a lot of full time at quarterback -- is that his knowledge of our offense has completely grown. His completion percentage is much higher than it was. We’re trying to continue to make him understand that he is a weapon, not only throwing the football, but also running the football.”
Boehme also brings some specific skills to the table.
“I think Parker is one of our most accurate passers,” Montgomery said. “I think he’s as accurate as Anthony. He’s not as old in the offense as Thomas is, but I think his knowledge is continuing to grow. We’re excited to see where he’s going to do.”
One of the two backups – Sirk or Boehme – is likely to replace the departed Brandon Connette as Duke’s short-yardage quarterback.
So which one has the edge there?
“I’m not telling,” Montgomery said with a chuckle.
Rebuilding the Offensive Line
Duke returns three starters up front on offense, including senior guard Laken Tomlinson, who is regarded as one of the finest players in the nation at his position.
But Montgomery said the Blue Devils will miss the leadership and intelligence of departed seniors Perry Simmons at tackle and Dave Harding at guard.
“David and Perry were unbelievable for our entire team – the work ethic that Perry had was unmatched by anybody and Dave was such a smart guy on the offensive front that he understood every adjustment we had to make,” Montgomery said.
Redshirt junior Lucas Patrick, who started for an injured Simmons in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, is now expected to take Harding’s spot at guard. And redshirt sophomores Tanner Stone and Casey Blaser are vying for the vacant right tackle spot.
“We got a chance to see those guys in game action last year – all except for Tanner,” Montgomery said. “We like what they did. I think that athletically, we’ve continued to grow at that position. We’re excited to see where it goes.”
A Potential Superstar
Quite a few players blossom in their second or third seasons in college. But has there ever been a player bloom into stardom as a fifth-year senior?
Montgomery and his staff think that could happen with wide receiver Issac Blakeney.
The 6-6, 225-poind receiver is one the finest athletes on the Duke roster – combining size, great speed, strength and good leaping ability. But he’s never really found his place to shine. He started out at Duke as a safety, but after sitting out a season, he returned to Duke as a tight end in 2012. Last year, he switched to wide receiver. He’s been a good player – 51 catches for 534 yards and five touchdowns in two seasons – but never quite as good as his abilities suggest he could be.
“I think the maturation process happens at different times for different people,” Montgomery said. “I know this whole offseason, we’ve tried to let him know that he is a very special player and he has to perform consistently.
“It’s been mind-boggling to see some of the catches he makes. We just want to see him be consistent every play – not eight-out-of-10, which he’s grown from three-out-of-10.
“He’s a hard cover. He needs to understand how important he is to our football club.”