Why Duke’s defense has coach David Cutcliffe fired up about this year’s football team

For all of David Cutcliffe’s well-earned accolades coaching offense, it’s the defense that has him fired up about this year’s team.

“I’m more excited about this defense than any defense we’ve had in the 12 seasons,” the Duke football coach said Thursday at the ACC’s Operation Kickoff event.

While Duke’s offense is replacing Daniel Jones, the quarterback taken No. 6 overall in last April’s NFL draft, the Blue Devils return eight starters on defense and have two other former starters coming back from serious injuries.

All four starters on the front line are back in defensive ends Drew Jordan and Victor Dimukeje and tackles Trevon McSwain and Derrick Tangelo.

On the back end of Duke’s 4-2-5 alignment, defensive backs Michael Carter, Leonard Johnson, Marquis Waters and Dylan Singleton all started nine or more games last season, when Duke finished 8-5.

Duke will have two new starting linebackers as Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris are gone after handling the position for the last three seasons. But one of the new starters is experienced senior Koby Quansah, who has played in 23 games with five starts over the past two seasons.

It’s a defense with experience, athleticism and depth that Cutcliffe and his staff could only dream about when they embarked on their ground-up rebuild of the moribund Duke program in 2008.

Now the Blue Devils have been to six bowl games in the past seven years and their defense needs to help them return to the postseason this fall.

“We have pretty much our whole defense coming back,” Quansah said. “We’re excited, confident in our team. Main thing is keeping our foot on the gas the second half, the entire game. Our guys are excited about the season. We know we’re a great defense, can stop people when we want to. We just have to make sure it’s consistent.”

Outside of health, consistency will be the most important thing for Duke to concern itself with this season.

Duke’s four non-conference opponents averaged just 333 yards of offense last September when the Blue Devils zoomed to a 4-0 start that landed them in the top 25.

But the Blue Devils were pounded 31-14 by Virginia Tech as the Hokies amassed 413 yards in Duke’s 2018 ACC opener on Sept. 29.

One week after Pittsburgh amassed 634 yards of offense in a 54-45 win over Duke on Oct. 27, the Blue Devils shut out Miami in the second half to beat the Hurricanes 20-12.

Wake Forest embarrassed the Blue Devils 59-7 in the regular-season finale as Duke surrendered 517 yards of offense. But Duke responded with a strong effort in the Independence Bowl, limiting Temple to 281 yards in a 56-27 win.

Part of the up-and-down nature of Duke’s performance can be attributed to health. Duke lost cornerback Mark Gilbert in September, defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord in October and Singleton in November to season-ending injuries. Giles-Harris’ last game was against Miami on Nov. 5. Humphreys missed only two games but played injured for the final month of the season.

An all-ACC player in 2017, Gilbert is rehabilitating a dislocated hip. While there’s hope he’ll be able to play this season at a high level, he’s yet to be medically cleared.

“He looks good physically,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s strong. We’re just waiting on the go from our medical people. Praying that happens sooner than later here.”

Cerenord (ruptured Achilles’ tendon) and Singleton (broken ankle) are further along.

Singleton is especially important since he had 73 tackles in 10 games, with two forced fumbles, prior to his injury.

“He looks good, really good,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s running, jumping, competing. Thank goodness. He looks really good.”

While all that is promising, co-defensive coordinators Matt Guerrieri and Ben Albert need strong play and a high level of production from the defensive line for Duke to be at its best.

Dimukeje’s nine tackles for loss, including three sacks, led the group. Duke had nine fumble recoveries and 24 sacks as a team. Cutcliffe wants to see those numbers grow.

“What we have to do is generate those big plays,” Cutcliffe said. “I call them sack fumbles. About 20 percent of sacks end up with fumbles from a quarterback. That’s how critically important they are. Not only is it lost yards but it’s a lost down and maybe possession of the ball. So it’s a huge emphasis. It’s been our biggest emphasis all spring.”

As strong as Duke’s defense looks, it faces a daunting task this season. The Blue Devils open against Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta on Aug. 31. Notre Dame comes to Wallace Wade Stadium on Nov. 9.

Syracuse, another 10-win team last season, plays at Duke at week later on Nov. 16.

But Duke can at least count on more experience, depth and talent on defense than it’s ever had.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.