By AL FEATHERSTON
David Helton knows what a concussion feels like.
Duke's sophomore linebacker suffered a concussion in the opening moments of the Blue Devils' second preseason scrimmage and was sidelined for more than a week.
Last Saturday night against North Carolina Central, Helton took another vicious hit and had to be helped to the sideline. Many wondered if perhaps he had suffered another concussion -- a situation which might have sidelined the starting linebacker for a considerable period.
But Helton wasn't worried.
"I got my bell rung a little bit, but I was fine," he said Tuesday after practicing for this week's game with Memphis. "I wanted to stay out there, honestly. They came out and I was like, 'I'm fine ... I'm fine' and they were like, 'No, stay down!' Right when it happened, I knew it wasn't a concussion or anything. My last concussion, I didn't remember anything from the field. This was more like a stinger and a little bit of pain for a brief moment."
The Duke coaches had to breathe a sigh of relief to learn that Helton was not hurt badly. The team's linebacker corps has already been hamstrung by an injury to veteran Kelby Brown.
"Of course, Kelby is a great loss," Helton said. "But I feel we are developing very fast at linebacker. It's great how we complement each other because we have four very solid linebackes, with Austin Gamble leading the pack as a veteran."
"I told Coach [linebacker coach Jim] Collins as we started the year that there wasn't a lot separating all those guys," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "Normally, a lot of people don't substitute linebackers but I think we've got a lot of guys with similar experience, similar ages."
Indeed, Kyler Brown and Helton came in together before the 2011 season, although because Brown redshirted and Helton didn't, they are now in different classes. France is a year older, although because he redshirted, he and Helton are now in the same class.
The exception is Gamble, a fourth-year senior who has considerably more starts than the trio of young guys in the linebacker rotation. And there's no question that it's Gamble, who ranks third on the team in tackles, who is the leader at the position.
"No question Austin Gamble is setting the pace there," Helton said. "I think Austin is really playing his best football there. He's been fantastic this year. If you know AG, it's awesome to see him develop into such a good player, because he's such a great person and such a hard worker."
Helton, a 6-4, 230-pounder from Tennessee, is still developing as a linebacker.
"I'm definitely developing, but I'm having fun," he said. "I feel like that was the big adjustment coming into college, to find how to have fun while still doing your job, while still maintaining all the things on and off the field. The big thing for me was just to relax -- to relax and just go out there to play."
He's convinced that the experience he got late last year -- when he played over 200 snaps as a true freshman -- helped him mature faster than if he had redshirted.
"It exposed me," Helton said. "You would have seen a different David Helton at the beginning of the year if I didn't play last year. I'd be a redshirt freshman and I'd have an extra year, but I'd be a lot more tentative and have to develop a lot more. Just being exposed the last half of last year has made me a lot more comfortable this year."
Cutcliffe is hoping to bolster his linebacking corps as sophomore Britton Grier, who has been dealing with a hand injury so far this season, returns to action and becomes the fifth player in his rotation.
DEALING WITH SUCCESS
Duke opened the season with a rousing victory over FIU. But in hindsight, Coach Cutcliffe and many of his players admit they didn't handle their success very well -- leading to a dismal performance the next week at Stanford.
They are determined not to make the same mistake coming off last Saturday's lopsided victory over North Carolina Central.
"We had a great first game and [got] a little hyped," running back Josh Snead said. "We had a lot of mistakes in that game against Stanford. I guess you could say we weren't as focused as we should have been.
"We learned from that. Now we're back on track. Win a game and that game's behind us. We're ready for Memphis."
Of course there is a big difference with following up a big win against Stanford -- now a top-10 team after knocking off No. 2 Southern Cal last week -- and following up against Memphis, which is off to an 0-3 start.
Cutcliffe expects his team to give the Tigers respect.
"I think we reacted to the first game," he said. "I think we have taken a much more realistic view of what we are doing now. They are a challenge. We're at a stage -- particularly when we have been shorthanded -- that they are all must-win for us."
He preached the message that the focus was on Duke this week -- and getting better. That's a message that seemed to resonate with his players.
"We're looking for progression in every phase of the game," redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Takoby Cofield said. "Offensive line-wise, our focus is on running the ball better, pass blocking better, picking up blitzes better -- pretty much showing no chinks in the armor going into ACC play so that the next team we play goes, 'Wow, we don't know how to attack these guys because they haven't shown a weakness.' That's the ultimate goal."
Sophomore defensive end Dezmond Johnson was also looking for progress.
"The first accomplishment is to get the win," he said. "Beyond that, it's working on the pass rush as a D-line as a whole. I know Memphis is probably going to throw different things at us that we haven't seen. I want to go in basically with the focus of trying not to make any mistakes. Because after this, it's ACC play and everybody knows that when ACC comes around, one mistake can lead to a touchdown or a game-winner."
RUNNING THE BALL
As dominant as Duke was against NCCU last Saturday night, the Blue Devils did reveal one glaring weakness -- the running game.
Duke managed a mere 128 yards on 29 carries - and most of that came very late, after the game was decided. The Devils managed just 28 yards on nine carries in the first half.
"There's no doubt that we're not running the ball as much or as effectively as we would like," Cutcliffe said. "We weren't pleased with that -- particularly in the first half of the last game. That's a hot topic of conversation."
Duke's struggles to run the ball effectively do not reflect any personnel problems. Cutcliffe believes he's got a solid core of running backs, bolstered by the return of Josh Snead after missing last year to injury and the arrival of talented freshmen Jela Duncan and Shaquille Powell. And they are running behind the deepest, most experienced offensive line of the Cutcliffe Era.
Yet, there is a curious dichotomy in the line's resume -- as pass blockers, they have been superb, allowing just two sacks and five quarterback hurries in 134 pass plays this season. Yet, as run blockers, they have struggled to open holes for the Blue Devil runners.
"I don't understand it," said Cofield, who starts at left tackle. "I came from a run-first offense in high school. I'm still run-first at times.
"It's just a progress thing. It's going to come with time. It's going to come with more repetition, more work and eventually we'll be able to run it at will. We understand that. We understand where we struggle and where our weaknesses are. Every week we want to get better at our weakness."
So why is the line so good at pass protection?
Cofield started with the teaching of line coach John Latina.
"Coach Latina and technique," he said. "And [quarterback Sean Renfree] recognizes blitzes and coverages and relays calls to us. It's about the offensive line being one cohesive unit, just knowing what your other guy is going to do and knowing where you've got help and everybody seeing the same thing and being on the same page."
That wasn't always the case a year ago, when injuries and inexperience sometimes left the offensive line struggling for consistency.
"This year, it's a big difference because we had the time in camp and we had the time in spring to get used to each other and build that bond," Cofield said. "That's the difference -- we've been together since the spring."
Although Duke's interior offensive line averages just under 300 pounds a man, it's actually one of the smallest in the ACC.
"We're not one of the heavier offensive lines, but I feel like we are top three athletic-wise," Cofield said. "We're able to run ... to run and outreach guys on the offensive line. A lot of defensive linemen take pride in their speed and their quickness, but our offensive line is as quick or quicker than some of these defensive lines. That leads into why we are such good pass blockers -- we move our feet real well."
Both Cofield and Snead suggested that the talent up front would eventually lay the foundation for a successful ground game.
"We've got a lot of guys up front with experience," Snead said. "We've got some things we've put in that are a little newer. They're still learning. As they continue to grow as a unit up front, we'll get better in the running game.
"We don't want to be known as just a pass offense. We want some balance."
GROWING A DEFENSIVE FRONT
A year ago, Duke's defensive front was a major weakness.
That's changing, thanks to a group of young linemen who are growing up together. Recruited in 2010, Dezmond Johnson, Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, Jamal Wallace, Nick Sink, Steve Ingram and Jamal Bruce all redshirted that first season. A year ago, they played -- with varying degrees of success -- as redshirt freshmen.
This season, five of the six have taken much more significant roles on Duke's defensive front. The one exception is Bruce, who might be the most talented of the bunch. He's been sidelined by a broken foot.
When he returns, he'll have to work hard to catch up with his rapidly maturing classmates.
"I feel like we're at a mid-level on that learning curve," Johnson said. "Of course, we haven't reached our top level, but we're working to get there. I feel like that on the D-line, our pass rush -- each one of us has individually gotten better. We've been getting more pressure on the quarterback, making it easier for our defensive backs to cover."
Johnson already has two sacks this season. Wallace has one and DeWalt-Ondijo has half a sack. That's already half a sack more than that trio managed over 12 games last season.
"We help each other," Johnson said. "We all have a better understanding of what's going on. We all have a better understanding of the scheme we're trying to run. We all know each other and what we're going to do before we do it."
And, of course, all of them are a year older and have had another year in Duke's weight program.
"We're all getting stronger," Johnson said. "I think everybody increased on every max we had, which is a big step ... a big help in shedding blocks, getting off blocks. You can see the difference between last year and this year. We're doing it quicker and using our hands more."
That group will be even better in the future. Johnson admitted that sometimes he tries to imagine what Duke's defensive line will look like in two years when he and his five classmates are fifth-year seniors.
"I think about it from time to time," he said. "We talk about it too -- the guys I came in with. We're looking pretty good because basically everybody that's playing now with the subtraction of Kenny [Anunike], Justin [Foxx] and [Sydney Sarmiento], it's pretty much the same line coming back. I feel like this season is helping us progress toward that."