Every week, the ACC picks eight ACC players of the week -- one player at eight different positions.
In the first six weeks of the season, the conference has honored six secondary players as the ACC Defensive Back of the Week. Exactly half of those selections have gone to Duke defenders.
Ross Cockrell won after the NCCU game, when he had two interceptions and two pass breakups to go along with six tackles. Jordon Byas won after the Wake Forest game, when he had 11 tackles and a pass interception. And this week, following Duke's 42-17 victory over Virginia, Walt Canty was honored for his 14-tackle performance -- including three tackles for loss (especially a fourth-down stop that was a key play in the game).
What does that say about the Duke secondary?
"It says that we've made plays this year," Cockrell said when asked about the triple honors. "That's what we wanted to do. We wanted to be game-changers. Last year we didn't force enough turnovers and we didn't make plays when it was time to make plays.
"This year we've done that."
Duke's secondary performance is even more remarkable when you look at all the injuries they've had to overcome. Byas missed the first three games after enduring preseason knee surgery. Starters Brandon Braxton and Lee Butler were knocked out early in the Wake game. Starter August Campbell was hurt and then left the team. Backups Corbin McCarthy, Taylor Sowell, Jared Boyd and Chris Tavarez have all been hurt.
Cockrell and Canty have been rocks of consistent excellence. Byas has been outstanding since his return. Senior Tony Foster, a career backup, has been very good as a starter. True freshman Dwayne Norman and redshirt freshman Tim Burton have been major contributors.
Cockrell said the charging cast of characters in the secondary has not been a problem.
"Defense is simple -- you see the ball and you go get the ball," he said. "At the end of the day, that's what it comes down to. No matter what scheme you have, you still have people who tackle the runner with the ball or if the ball is in the air, attack the ball."
Duke's defense -- especially the secondary -- has made major strides this season. A year ago, the Devils ranked either last or next to last in the ACC in every significant defensive category. This year, the Blue Devils rank fourth in total defense and fifth in pass efficiency defense.
Cockrell has a lot to do with that. After six weeks, he leads the nation in passes defended and the ACC in passes intercepted (four). The former category measures passes either intercepted or broken up.
Canty is seventh in the ACC in tackles -- he is the only defensive back in the top 10. He's also tied for ninth in the league in tackles-for-loss and is again the only defensive back to qualify in that category.
FROM UP FRONT
One reason the secondary is playing so well is the growth of the young players up front. Duke's front six -- four defensive linemen and two linebackers -- have raised their level of play this season.
Duke, which gave up 180 yards a game on the ground (and almost five yards a rushing play) in 2011, is allowing less than 130 yards (and 3.7 a carry) this year. The Devils already have more sacks from their defensive front (13.5) than they did all last season (12).
That improvement is due to a number of factors. One of them is simple maturity.
"We knew we had a challenge to replace some really good defensive linemen that we inherited -- Vince Oghobaase, Ayanga Opokowuruk, Cliff Respress -- there were some guys who were good players, but they were about done. We scoured the country [to find replacements]," Cutcliffe said.
Cutcliffe and his staff brought in a large group of linemen and linebackers two years ago. Most of them redshirted in 2010 and saw their first game action in 2011.
They were not ready to compete at the ACC level a year ago. Now, they are not only competing, they are excelling.
"When they see themselves on tape from games a year ago -- they chuckle," Cutcliffe said. "They're all bigger, stronger ... that's a difficult baptism that they went through. It's fun to see them be a little more physical."
Ten of the 13 defensive front/linebackers listed on the current two-deep were signed in February of 2010 or later. Looking at the list of young defenders points to another reason why Duke's defense is making strides -- Cutcliffe is rotating two and three players at every position.
"Playing so many people is probably the number one factor [in Duke's defensive improvement]," Cutcliffe said. "We've never had this many people to play and trusted as many people to play."
The exploding depth pays off in ways that the fans don't always get to see.
"It makes you fresher the second half -- that's the obvious thing," he said. "The other thing it does is make you practice better. Competition makes you better. People trying to compete for playing time. You're practicing more energized -- those guys are competing and getting to play. Our preparation has been better."
Sophomore linebacker David Helton enjoys being a part of the linebacker rotation.
"We realize we've got a lot of linebackers and a lot of d-linemen who complimented each other -- all good players," Helton said. "So we want to swap in and out as much as we can to show and keep our depth and play as one unit."
It's been a four-player rotation at linebacker so far -- Helton and sophomore C.J. France sharing one position; senior Austin Gamble and redshirt freshman Kyler Brown sharing the other. It's possible that sophomore Britton Grier and true freshman Deion Williams, who have played mostly special teams so far, could join the rotation at linebacker soon.
Up front, the defensive coaches are rotating redshirt senior Kenny Anunike, redshirt sophomores Dezmond Johnson, Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo and Jonathan Woodruff, plus redshirt freshman Lucas Fisher at ends -- with redshirt junior Justin Foxx slated to return to the rotation soon. And inside, redshirt junior Sydney Sarmiento, redshirt sophomores Jamal Wallace, Nick Sink and Steven Ingram, plus true freshman Carlos Wray share playing time -- perhaps with sophomore Jamal Bruce soon to join the rotation after missing six games with a preseason injury.
"It's so exciting playing behind a defensive line like that -- it's fun for everyone," Helton said. "You can feel it when we're out there. We play as a cohesive unit. Ultimately we realize it's our choice and our will that will get us off the field.
"The two units are very young. But it's exciting. Of course we make mistakes and we make corrections from those mistakes. I feel like we're growing so much every week. That's fun."
TO RUN THE BALL
Along with Duke's defensive improvement this season, the Blue Devils have finally started to generate consistent results from the running game.
That's been a rarity in recent years. Since 2003, Duke has averaged more than 100 yards a game on the ground just three times -- with a high of 127.1 yards a game in 2005.
So far this season, Duke is pushing that mark, averaging 126.0 yards a game. That might not look like a lot, but after finishing dead last in the ACC last season with 94.0 yards a game, Duke is currently up to ninth in the league.
More importantly, the team's three tailbacks are averaging exactly 5.0 yards a carry between them.
"The biggest reasons are the quality of the offensive line and the backs we're playing with," Cutcliffe said. "We've got some good running backs. Our line, there's a mentality to that. That offensive line, they believe -- they truly believe we're not only good, we're REALLY good at the back end."
This is the first year Duke has not started a redshirt freshman on the offensive line. All five starters had starting experience before this season.
"To me, the biggest difference we had to deal with here in the past wasn't always in the skill positions," Cutcliffe said. "It was mostly the mismatches line to line. So we've really tried to address that. We still can't see over a lot of people we play, but we've closed the gap a lot."
"We have a lot of depth this year -- a lot of fresh guys," he said. "We're able to change things up and give defenses a different look, a different speed, a different tempo every down. I might come in two or three plays, then Josh comes in. That keeps me fresh and him fresh and Jela also.
"Last year, I played a lot more snaps and I would get tired at times. A lot of guys were injured. It might be a big run and I might not be able to finish it due to being tired after playing seven or eight straight plays. Now, I'm in two or three plays and we keep rotating, rotating and rotating -- keeping us fresh and those big holes are opening."
Duke's running game also got a boost when sophomore Anthony Boone replaced senior Sean Renfree at quarterback last week against Virginia. Renfree is one of the best passing quarterbacks in college football, but Boone is the better runner.
"There is some value in that," Cutcliffe said. "People have to account for him. When a quarterback runs the ball and you have to account for that, it changes you defensively."
If Anthony Boone poses problems for opposing defenses, then what about Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas?
"I don't know if we've got anybody big enough to tackle him," Cutcliffe said of the 6-6, 262-pound junior. "He is a great-looking athlete. Wow, is he big."
Thomas rushed for 469 yards a year ago, while throwing for just over 3,000 yards. So far this season, he's been limited by the lack of playmakers at wide receiver and running back -- the Hokies lost tailback David Wilson, a first-round NFL draft pick, and the top two receivers in school history off last year's Coastal Division champion squad.
But what has really hurt the Hokies in their 3-3 start has been slippage on defense -- Virginia Tech is giving up 86 more yards a game than a year ago ... and 18 more yards a game than the Blue Devils have so far.
"I'll be real honest with you -- looking at Virginia Tech on tape, it's the Virginia Tech we know," Cutcliffe said. "They've had some hard knocks and some difficult circumstances here and there, but there's talent. It's a great program. They've played for the championship six of the eight years they've been in the league and I know they've won four of them."
Virginia Tech has beaten Duke all eight years since joining the league, but a couple of Cutcliffe's teams have played the Hokies close, including in last year's 14-10 loss.
"No easy task, but I do think it's important for our players to challenge our program to go up there and compete," the Duke coach said. "We didn't do that two years ago.
Cutcliffe said that to prepare for the atmosphere in Lane Stadium, the Blue Devils practiced with blaring loudspeakers.
"My ears are still ringing," he said. "You can't do what we did up there two years ago. We got behind the eight ball pretty quickly. You can't let a game like that get away from you."
Duke showed up in both the AP writer's poll and the USA TODAY/ESPN coaches poll this week -- well down the list of "other teams receiving votes."
The Blue Devils got three votes in the AP poll (actually all from one Connecticut writer who picked Duke 23rd) and 10 votes in the coaches' poll. That's the first time since 1994 that the Devils have gotten votes this late in the season in either poll.
Cutcliffe, who is no longer a voter in the coaches' poll, said he was told about Duke's votes.
"I'm just glad somebody thinks we've got a pretty good football team," he said. "That's better than not getting a vote."
But the Duke coach isn't getting too excited.
"That and $3.00 -- it used to be a quarter -- will buy you a cup of coffee," he said.
Cutcliffe was a bit more interested in the fact that at 5-1, Duke is just one victory away from qualifying for a bowl for the first time since 1994. He's interested because he knows his players are interested.
"I heard them chirping about it Sunday and I'm not going to stop them," he said. "I told my wife, 'I don't want to spoil a good party.' That's just human nature.
"They're starving. Why wouldn't they feel that way?"
But Cutcliffe doesn't want his team to focus on getting that crucial sixth win.
"I mentioned it, but I mentioned other things about the opportunity of playing this game that are in actuality bigger," he said.