Duke looks to improve by making defensive adjustments
The Duke defense last year, for lack of a better word, was bad. Horrendous, even, at times. Through a combination of injuries and lack of depth, the Blue Devils finished the year 105th in the country in total defense, giving up 469.2 yards per game (and 36 points). In the ACC, they were last in scoring defense, surrendering more than four more points than the 11th-place team.
Home games against Clemson and Miami were probably the low point -- the two teams combined for 1,364 yards on 148 plays (9.2 per play), including 17 plays of 25 or more yards (including seven touchdowns). At least the Miami game was a one-score loss. In just the first quarter of the Clemson game, the Blue Devils allowed touchdown passes of 58, 45 and 30 yards.
The Duke offense kept pace for awhile, cutting the lead to 28-17 early in the second quarter. But Clemson scored two more unanswered touchdowns before halftime, and that game was a microcosm of Duke's problems last year. The offense, while prolific, could only do so much. And the defense needs to do more.
"This is just kind of the way I've always played the game: I want to figure out how to score more points than you’re going to score, whether it's basketball or football. I didn't care how we did it. But that's how I've strategized," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "So that’s kind of what I've gone in with our defense is let's study it from this standpoint -- how many ways can we trim and measure what caused us to give up less points per game than we did? We gave up over 36 points a game last year. It's hard to ask any offense to try to average 37, 38 points every game."
Duke faced five top-40 offenses last year (all in the final five games of the regular season) and won one of those games (North Carolina). How? By limiting UNC's big plays! Oh, and the Tar Heels were the only top-40 offense to not score a touchdown of 25 yards or more against the Blue Devils. UNC had just three such plays, period. The other four top-40 offenses combined for 25 "big" plays, 11 of which went for touchdowns.
Cutcliffe's primary objective is to cut back on those big plays. "If we could drop the number of plays we’ve given up over 25 yards by 40%, that's going to significantly affect the points per game total," Cutcliffe said. "If we can create a couple of more turnovers here or there, but increase that 20%, that affects, that's possessions taken away."
Cornerback Ross Cockrell remembers those big plays very well. He was thrown into action as a redshirt freshman, and he took his share of lumps. But last year, he was one of the better corners in the league with five interceptions (tied for the most in the ACC), also ranking third in passes defended (18).
There are a lot of young guys in the backfield with him -- but they're talented. Cockrell has made a number of preseason watch lists for various defensive awards, but what he wants to show his young teammates is not what he’s done right throughout his career, but rather what he's done wrong.
"The one thing that I've done is show them tape from my freshman year, those first couple games that I had, and even throughout the season, some of the rougher spots that I had," Cockrell said. "There’s a lot of people that now, they don’t see me as that redshirt freshman anymore. They see me as this guy -- oh, he's on that list, he's on whatever list."
"They kind of lose track of the work that I had to put in to get to the point where I'm at and where Duke’s at. It doesn't just happen by accident that we've gotten a lot better. So I've tried to instill, show the guys what it was and what it takes to get to a certain point."
Cutcliffe said that as offenses change to a no-huddle approach and try to spread the field, it's getting harder and harder for teams not named Alabama or LSU to play effective defense.
"I think this era of no-huddle, people that get on the fast track of learning how to play fast defense effectively, so it’s not just say 'blitz more'. It's putting ourselves in position to be aligned and ready to play and focused on what our jobs are and be as solid and as diverse as you need to be or can be in a simpler manner, if you will," Cutcliffe said.
"That's required a lot of work on (defensive coordinator) Jim Knowles' part, but we have met for hours, literally. We’re not only on the right track, we’ve moved way down the road in the right direction. So I like where we are and I'm anxious to test it and see what comes from it."
Cockrell is fueled at least in part by last year's numbers. He's seen them. He knows how people perceive Duke's defense, and just Duke in general, for that matter. Despite returning a lot of talent on both sides of the ball -- and a much more manageable schedule than a year ago -- the Blue Devils were picked to finish last in the Coastal Division yet again.
"Honestly, when you look back at some of the stats that we gave up, it's embarrassing. It's embarrassing for us as a defense to allow teams 40, 50, 55 points, 300 yards in one half. Stuff like that, that's embarrassing to me," Cockrell said. "And we know as a defense we have to improve if we want to compete in games and if we want to go to an ACC Championship, because that’s our ultimate goal."
Cutcliffe was, of course, reluctant to talk about specific changes schematically that the staff was making. Cockrell, though, knows that the amount big plays given up has to go down this year. That"s the most urgent problem that needs addressing, and as long as the young players in the secondary learn quickly, a lot of Duke's returning starters in the front seven will help make the changes on the back end pay off.
"We've done some things to protect ourselves deep, incorporating more middle of the field, deep zone type of stuff. During the course of the season, teams will see that and they'll have to attack us differently," Cockrell said. "Last year, we were in a lot of press-man and at times, we got hurt by that. So this year, we're going to protect ourselves by playing a little bit deeper. We’re still going to challenge receivers, don't get me wrong about that, but we're going to be smart about it."