Duke ‘D’ has plenty to prove this season

Duke’s defense has to be better this season – if only because

the Blue Devils couldn’t get much worse than in 2012.

”Every Saturday this year is going to be a showcase for us, a

showcase to prove what we’ve worked on in the offseason,”

cornerback Ross Cockrell said Tuesday.

They certainly had plenty to fine-tune, and the first chance to

show what they’ve learned comes this weekend against crosstown

Championship Subdivision opponent North Carolina Central.

Improvement on defense has been a top priority for Duke, which

ranked 10th or worse in the Atlantic Coast Conference in all four

of the major defensive stat categories.

No ACC team allowed more points per game last year than the Blue

Devils, who gave up an average of 36. They surrendered at least 41

points in six of their final seven games last season, a blight on

an otherwise breakout year in which they reached their first bowl

since 1994.

”We haven’t won very many 49-48 games,” defensive coordinator

Jim Knowles said. ”When the defense steps up, we win. We don’t

talk about the numbers a lot … but we all know.”

Knowles hopes a change in the focus of its 4-2-5 defense will

lead to better results.

In the two previous years, the defense has been driven by its

safeties but the heart of this year’s group will be a front six

that features three redshirt seniors – including sixth-year end

Kenny Anunike – and three redshirt juniors.

Their goal is to generate pressure and take some heat off a

secondary in which Cockrell, a preseason all-ACC pick, is one of

only two senior starters. Four freshmen – one redshirt and three

first-year players – appear on the depth chart as possible backups

at cornerback, but Cockrell says he isn’t concerned about that


”We have a good mix of old and young players,” Cockrell said.

”We have guys who are veterans who know the schemes, understand

the schemes and guys that are on the younger side that may not be

as experienced and understanding reading concepts but are athletic,

and fast and talented enough to go up and get the ball.”

Two of the key players Duke is counting on didn’t play a snap

last season: middle linebacker Kelby Brown missed the year after

having knee surgery, and redshirt sophomore safety Jeremy Cash, who

transferred from Ohio State, sat out in 2012 after his appeal to

play immediately was denied by the NCAA.

Knowles says Cash can be the prototypical ”strike” safety in

Duke’s three-safety alignment while Brown will be counted upon to

lead the front six both with his play and his words.

”We talked about getting more from our front six – in today’s

game, those guys have to make tackles,” Knowles said. ”Kelby’s a

guy who’s a tackler.”

He’ll be counted upon to strengthen a unit that showed some

cracks late last season. Duke was 6-2 last October and in position

to snatch the Coastal Division title before things went south.

In their season-ending five-game losing streak, the defense

allowed 15 touchdowns that covered at least 20 yards – including an

82-yard pass in the final minute of the Belk Bowl loss to


But quarterback Anthony Boone, who goes up against the

first-string defense during practice, insists things have changed.

The Duke defense, he says, has shown significant visible

improvement on the practice field since then.

”They’ve got a little bit more swagger to them,” Boone


Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at