By Al Featherston
Is it possible that Duke can be stronger in the secondary this season in the wake of Matt Daniels' departure?
Let's be clear about the question. Daniels was a superb football player - clearly the best Blue Devil defender in 2011. The senior safety from Georgia led the team in tackles, in passes defended and was Duke's only first team All-ACC performer.
So there is no suggestion that the Duke secondary will be better because Daniels is departing. Instead, the question is whether the Devils can be better in spite of his graduation?
Cornerback Lee Butler thinks the answer is an emphatic yes.
"It's hard to replace Matt Daniels," Butler said earlier this week as the Blue Devils gathered for the opening of preseason camp. "He was the heart and soul of our defense. But a lot of guys who played around him, we got to see him do things. We've learned from him. I think we'll learn to adapt. I feel we are actually better than we were last year because we have a lot more guys who have played ... and not just played one season, but played a couple of seasons."
Butler is one of those veterans. The 5-11, 185-pound graduate student started his first game at Duke in 2008 and enters this season with 20 starts in 38 career games to his credit. He started all 12 games in 2010 at safety, missed most of last year at injury and now returns to his original position at Duke - cornerback.
"I feel like it's not tough moving me, because I feel like I'm naturally a corner," he said. "I've been around it so long, it doesn't affect me at all."
Butler, who returned an interception for a touchdown against Stanford's Andrew Luck before he was hurt last season, claims to be 100 percent healthy and ready to go in 2012. He'll team at corner with redshirt junior Ross Cockrell, who ranked eighth in the ACC in passes defended last season.
"I've seen him grow into a leader," Butler said of his running mate. "He had some bad times when he was a freshman. But from those, he has learned and grown. He's a guy who's been through a lot; he's learned from it."
Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles made a similar observation about Cockrell.
"He played way too soon, but what courage - he never backed down," Knowles said. "And now you're going to see a premier corner."
Head coach David Cutcliffe loves what he sees at the corner position.
"I think when you have Lee Butler and Ross Cockrell starting at corner, it may be as good a two corners that I've been around in my career," he said. "That allows you to do a lot of things in the interior with your safeties."
Safety may be one of the deepest positions on the Duke team, despite the loss of Daniels. Duke usually uses three safeties together in its 4-2-5 defensive scheme.
"We're going to be a little different than we were with Matt," Cutcliffe said. "That's number one. That was my first conversation with Jim Knowles. I said, 'We cannot replace Matt Daniels'. That's what we have to understand. We have good players, but they can't do the things Matt Daniels did, so let's find out what our strengths are and let's take a different approach."
The first step was moving senior Walt Canty into Daniels' old "Bandit" role.
"Walt has great strengths with the football and he's one of the more savvy guys around," Cutcliffe said. "That enabled us to take [wide receiver] Brandon Braxton and put him where Walt played and I think Brandon has strengths. That gives us coverage change opportunities because of his size and ability to run."
Canty, a 6-1, 220-pound senior, was the defensive MVP of the 2008 North Carolina-South Carolina Shrine Bowl and has started 18 of his 36 games at Duke. He finished second (to Daniels) on the team in tackles last season. He averaged 9.4 tackles a game over the last eight games last season.
That's a product of experience - experience that should make him even better in 2012.
"Year after year, you gain more confidence and experience until you can get out there and be the player you want to be," Canty said. "I guess that comes with time - over time, you gain more confidence and experience."
Canty's growing confidence and experience has translated into leadership.
"I've seen a lot from Walt Canty," Butler said. "He's really stepped up through our summertime. He was leading our activities. I feel like Walt has really stepped up his game as far as being a vocal leader, not just setting by example."
Canty said his new role is part of Daniels' legacy.
"He was a role model for the defense," Canty said. "When you have a player like Matt and his leadership goes away, somebody has to step up ... we all have to step up in that aspect. Not only me, but we have other seniors on the defense - just a lot of guys who are older and can take on the role."
That includes Jordan Byas, a fifth-year senior from Florida who is currently starting at the "Strike" safety spot. He enters his final season after starting eight of his previous 35 games at Duke.
"This year, we're going to need everybody to step up and everybody to make a significant number of plays for us to be successful on defense," Byas said. "We're pretty experienced at safety. We're better, but we still have a ways to go. We still have a lot to learn, but we're better than we've been previously."
The one starting safety without a lot of experience at the position is Braxton, who gave up a starting wide receiver spot to move to "Rover". It's a clue to his potential at his new position that even with offseason problems at wide receiver, Cutcliffe has given no thought to moving the 6-1, 210-pound junior back to offense.
Byas understands what Cutcliffe sees in Braxton at safety.
"He's a very smart guy," he said. "He learns the defenses very quickly. Also, he's very physical. On special teams last year, he had a whole lot of tackles and he loved to block as a receiver. I think the move to the secondary is good for him. He showed promise in the spring and he's only going to get better."
And even if Braxton is new to the secondary, he does have a ton of playing experience. He's started 15 of 24 career games at Duke and last year recorded 40 catches for 352 yards. He also recorded nine solo tackles in punt coverage.
If the Blue Devils ever do need more experience at the Rover position, the coaches can turn to fourth-year junior August Campbell, who started six games a year ago (he's started eight of 24 in his career). The 6-3, 235-pounder started his Duke career at linebacker before making the switch to safety.
Actually, Campbell missed last spring with a shoulder injury - opening the door for Braxton to claim the starting job at Rover. The two are likely to battle this month for the starting job on Sept. 1 when the Devils open against FIU.
And don't count fourth-year junior Anthony Young-Wiseman, who has played in 21 games so far in his career, out of the mix for a starting job.
While they are not likely to start, several youngsters also figure in the playing rotation or could help on special teams. Redshirt freshman Chris Taveras has a lot of potential at safety. Incoming freshmen Michael Westray, Corbin McCarthy and Dwayne Norman have been on campus most of the summer, working with the veterans. Redshirt freshmen cornerbacks Tim Burton and Jared Boyd are also in position to contribute.
"We have some freshmen who have shown promise," Canty said. "I think we're pretty good in the secondary."
And that doesn't even count Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash, a premier national recruit two years ago, who played five games for the Buckeyes in 2011. Cash was on hand for spring practice and is still waiting to learn whether the NCAA will grant him a waiver to play this season or whether he'll have to sit out a year.
"If he can get eligible, he could definitely be a contributor," Byas said. "He's a playmaker."
Cutcliffe likes the idea that he has enough depth to generate that kind of competition.
"I want to play more people that we have ever played," he said. "That's when you really start producing competition. Practice competition is one thing - producing in a game is another."
In one area, the production of Duke's secondary has to improve. The Blue Devils generated just 11 turnovers in 2011 - last in the ACC by a wide margin. Just six of those were interceptions.
"We have dropped too many interceptions in the past," Byas said. "That's one of the things we're focused on - not to let those opportunities slip through our fingers. We're trying to increase our turnovers. Those are game-changers."
It could help that the Blue Devils expect the return of pass rush specialist Kenny Anunike and the growing maturity of young defensive linemen such as Dezmond Johnson, Jamal Wallace and, when they return from injury, Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo and Jamal Bruce to help generate a better pass rush. That, in turn, should create more turnover opportunities for the secondary.
"I think it really helps us as far as getting turnovers," Canty said. "It's hard for a quarterback to sit back there in the pocket, when there are a bunch of linemen on his back. It's a big advantage for a D-back because we don't have cover guys so long. That's where it starts."
And it finishes in the secondary.
Duke has as much depth and experience in the secondary as it has anywhere on the roster. And even without the presence of Matt Daniels, the Blue Devils should be very solid in the secondary - maybe better than they were a year ago.
"We just have to make more plays," Canty said. "Last year, we put together solid performances, but if you go back on film and look ... somebody didn't get off a block or the tipped pass wasn't intercepted - just the small things like that. It was close, but close wasn't good enough."
Canty and his compatriots are determined that they will be good enough this season.