DURHAM, N.C. – Twenty years ago, defensive end Charles Bowser recorded 17.5 individual sacks in a single season. Last year, the Duke defense managed just 12 sacks – and 5.5 of those were recorded by linebackers.
That’s got to change for the Blue Devils to make significant defensive improvement next season. And the change is going to have to come from a crop of young defensive linemen, most of them redshirt freshmen who will be playing their first college football games this fall.
“The biggest thing is what we’re going to have more players available to play,” head coach David Cutcliffe said after Duke’s spring game. “As we were winding down last year, we were playing about five people [on the defensive line] and we had guys playing 70 snaps.
“I don’t see us having to play 70 snaps next season,” Cutcliffe continued. “The one area we made strides was depth. I think our younger players are on the right track. We’ve got some people who are a little better as far as individual pass rushers, so we can create a better pass rush with our four-man front, which is encouraging to see.”
The youngster attracting the most attention is Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, a 6-5, 220-pound defensive end from Prairie View, Texas.
“Jordan has a chance to be a great player,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “He’s just really raw. But he’s got good defensive end talent. He’s got toughness. He’s got a lot of skill.”
Knowles rates fellow redshirt freshmen Dezmond Johnson, a 6-4, 230-pounder from Nashville, Tenn., and Jamal Wallace, a 6-4, 245-pounder from Virginia Beach, Va., as having similar potential.
“All three of those guys are going to be really good players,” Knowles said. “You’re going to see them make a lot of plays around here. The question mark is how quickly can we get them up to speed for ACC competition and get them to understand the defense and where they fit.”
Cutcliffe also was impressed by the trio of young defensive ends.
“Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo is where you start,” the Blue Devil coach said. “Dez Johnson is another – he had a great start, then we lost him midway through spring. Jordan had a really good spring. He made strides every day out here. He has a chance to be a special player before it’s done. Jamal Wallace is very similar. He’s a big, strong youngster who’s got to learn consistency.”
The three newcomers will join two holdovers in Duke’s end rotation next fall. The problem is that the two “veterans” are still learning the position too.
Justin Foxx is a 6-3, 235-pound rising sophomore, who had one sack last season. He was regarded as a prime recruit when he came out of Victory Christian High School in Charlotte.
“Justin always seems to be plagued by injury,” Knowles said. “We think he’s good enough too. His deal is to just stay healthy.”
Kenny Anunike also has struggled with injuries, including one that knocked him out of all of spring drills. The 6-5, 250-pounder from Galena, Ohio, spent his first two years at Duke as a tight end and only switched to defense in the spring of 2010.
He’s still learning the position, but Knowles believes the tall, athletic end is ready to blossom in his redshirt junior year.
“Kenny can be as good as anybody in the league,” Knowles said. “But, again, it’s consistency. Last year, he showed some things and you were like, ‘Wow!’ He has a good motor and he’s strong. He’s got a great attitude. He’s got to step up for us.”
Inside, the task is to blend another trio of newcomers with a trio of returning veterans.
Rising senior Charlie Hatcher will have to be the anchor of the defensive line. The 6-3, 300-pound nose tackle is one of the most solid players in the ACC.
“I think Charlie can be as good as any nose tackle in the league,” Knowles said. “He understands what’s going on and he’s strong enough. He just can’t play 60 plays. You’ve got to find other people to help him out so that he can stay at 100 percent when he’s in there.”
A year ago, Hatcher got some relief from 6-2, 280-pound Curtis Hazelton, a rising junior from Roswell, Ga., who saw the first game action of his career. But redshirt freshman Steven Ingram offers more size (6-2, 310) and more potential at the nose position.
“Curtis will be able to give us some plays – he got better [in the spring],” Knowles said. “Steve Ingram is so young and is just re-shaping his body. He’s going to be a good nose-guard around here. You just hope that next year, you can get some plays out of him, even if it’s just 10 plays a game to give Charlie some relief.”
Of course, few nose tackles rack up big sack numbers. Hatcher, for all his success, has just two sacks and nine QB pressures in his career. But it helps the defensive ends when there is a strong push up the middle. Hatcher can provide that – the one question is how much push can the Devils get from the other interior position?
Sidney Sarmiento handled the job last season with little help – Duke’s most common subs at the position were a walk-on freshman and defensive end Wesley Oglesby, playing out of position inside. And while Sarmiento was solid against the run, he didn’t bring much to the pass rush – zero sacks and no hurries.
To be fair, Sarmiento was playing extensive minutes – too many minutes – as a redshirt freshman last year. He should be stronger and more experienced as a third-year player this fall. But what would help the most would be help from the redshirt freshman brigade, specifically Nick Sink, 6-5, 270-pounder from Kernersville, N.C., and Jamal Bruce, a 6-1, 270-pounder from LaGrange, Ga.
“Both of those guys are very young, obviously, but they both showed signs of being able to help us,” Knowles said. “I think with Sidney and Charlie, we’ve got a good group, but they can’t play the entire game. They can’t do it. If they have to play 60 plays, we’re in trouble. Between Curtis and Jamal and Nick and Ingram, they need to be able to give us a lot of plays. They’ve all shown signs of being able to do it, it’s just how quickly can they mature and do it on a consistent basis.”
There’s another redshirt freshman who could be very important to Duke’s pass rush – 6-6, 230-pound Issac Blakeney.
The Monroe, N.C., product is slotted to play safety in Duke’s new 4-2-5 defensive alignment. He’ll be sharing the hybrid safety position that uses a defensive back close to the line of scrimmage – putting him in prime position as a blitzer.
“I think Blakeney, if there’s one thing he can do is come off the edge with natural ability,” Knowles said. “Our offense last year couldn’t block him when he was on the scout team.”
Blakeney will share his position with redshirt sophomore August Campbell, a 6-3, 220-pounder who made the switch from linebacker to safety late last season, recording one sack and setting a new school record with a 95-yard fumble return against Boston College.
“They’re really what you want from a down safety position – a safety position that’s closer to the ball,” Knowles said of Blakeney and Campbell. “They have the physical capabilities of linebackers, but can run like a safety. You get them closer to the ball by making them a safety. They also have to play in space more than a linebacker so that’s where their athletic ability comes in.”
Unfortunately, both are still extremely inexperienced. Blakeney has never played in a college game and while Campbell saw extensive action last year and even played in three games in 2009 (he got a medical hardship year after an injury), he’s a newcomer to football. Growing up in the Bahamas, he was a baseball player and he only took up football when he arrived at Christ School in Arden, N.C., for his last three years of high school.
“Issac is really raw right now,” Knowles said. “He’s just a raw talent. He really needs a lot of work with fundamentals and schemes. Augie, he’s ahead because he did play last year. So we got him involved toward the end of the season – we moved him from linebacker to safety when we started working this scheme. I think he’s going to be great. He’s got enough experience to understand game conditions.”
Matt Daniels will also see action in that hybrid safety position too, although Knowles would rather keep his best defensive player – or at least, his most proven player – in the middle of the field in the majority of situations. But Daniels is an excellent blitzer too, so he’ll also get chances on the edge.
A year ago, Duke’s inability to pressure the quarterback put pressure on the team’s young corners – more pressure than they were prepared to handle. That’s pretty much the reason that the Devils gave up 241 yards a game in the air – the worst figure in the ACC. Duke allowed a 54.7 percent completion rate and tied for the ACC low with just eight interceptions.
“We had inexperience at corner and we could not generate any heat on the quarterback,” Knowles said. “It was a tough position to put them in. Those are the kind of things you have to go through in growing to be a good cornerback. You’ve got to live through some of those circumstances.”
Duke’s corners are a year older this season and their performance could improve dramatically – if the pass rush improves. That can come one of two ways, either by the performance of an individual pass rusher or by the introduction of an effective blitzing scheme.
Unfortunately, any blitz is a gamble and a year ago, more blitzes blew up on the Devils than on the opponents.
“Our guys just have to be confident,” Knowles said. “We don’t have a lot of confidence right now. I’ve always been a big blitz guy, but the players have to believe in it and make plays.”
If Duke is going to blitz to get to the quarterback in 2011, guys such as Blakeney, Campbell and Daniels will be team’s sack leaders. But it would be a lot easier if Knowles can find a defensive lineman who can do it without help from the linebackers or secondary.
“I think Jordan is a guy who has a lot of natural pass rushing skills,” the Blue Devil defensive coordinator said. “Will he be ready next year? I don’t know, but he’s going to turn into a premier pass rusher. Other than that, Anunike can do it at times. Ondijo has really good quickness and speed and a motor. Kenny’s a lot stronger.”
Unlike the Duke offense, which is manned by veterans across the board, Duke’s defensive prospects depend largely on the kids. The Devils have a deep group of veterans at safety (one reason the new defensive scheme will feature three safeties at a time) and a bit of experience (but not a lot of depth) at cornerback.
But up front, it’s a youthful show. The team’s best linebacker will be second-year sophomore Kelby Brown (and he missed all spring with an injury). Aside from Hatcher, there’s nobody else in the front with more than one year’s experience at his current position.
The real key to Duke’s defensive improvement – and it’s best prospects for a decent pass rush – seem to rest with last year’s deep crop of redshirts: DeWalt-Ondijo, Johnson and Wallace at ends; Sink, Bruce and Ingram inside; C.J. France at linebacker; Blakeney at safety.
The veteran Hatcher likes what he’s seen of the new crop.
“This spring, we got a lot better,” the senior nose tackle said. “We obviously had a lot of young guys out there, so the coaches stressed fundamentals a lot. After spring break, we really saw a lot of improvement. We’ve got a lot of athletes. Once we get the fundamentals down, they’ll be real good.”
Cutcliffe also likes what he’s been seeing.
“Those guys have a chance to impact this team,” he said when discussing the new crop of defenders. “They’re guys who can eventually help us. I think that group is going to be pretty special when it’s all said and done – just sooner than later, we hope.”