DURHAM – DeVon Edwards was a two-star cornerback recruit when he signed with Duke – the only FBS school to offer him. But even though he’s a bit undersized as a corner (5-9, 175), he’s blossomed in his redshirt freshman season after the move to safety.
That reflects the philosophy of Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who sees no difference between cornerbacks and safeties.
“I don’t want to sign safeties and corners – I want to sign defensive backs,” Cutcliffe said. “I want to sign guys who can cover and tackle back there. I don’t care what they’re called. That’s what we’re getting more of.”
The Duke coach offered a joke to explain his philosophy.
“You know what a cover corner is?” he asked. “It’s a guy who doesn’t want to tackle. And you know what a strong safety is? A guy who can’t cover. I don’t want either one of those.”
In contrast to his difficulty signing top-rated defensive linemen and linebackers, Cutcliffe has been extremely successful finding quality defensive backs during his time at Duke. In the last two years alone, Duke has produced three All-ACC defensive backs – Matt Daniels in 2011; Ross Cockrell and Walt Canty last season. Both Cockrell (who leads the ACC in passes defended) and Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash (third in the ACC in tackles) are all-conference quality players this season.
But Cutcliffe’s success on the recruiting trail – at least as far as finding defensive backs is concerned – was even more evident by the play of his young DBs in back-to-back wins at Virginia Tech and N.C. State.
Edwards – who only switched from corner to safety a month ago – had 12 tackles against the Hokies, then followed that up with 10 tackles against the Pack. He also came up with back-to-back interceptions in the fourth quarter – returning both for touchdowns to clinch the win.
True freshman safety Deondre Singleton (who was listed by most recruiting services as a cornerback) started at safety and had 16 tackles in the two games. True freshman Byron Fields went most of the way at cornerback in both games and had seven tackles and three pass breakups. True freshman Breon Borders also went the distance at corner in the two games and had four tackles and four breakups – including tipping the pass that linebacker Kelby Brown intercepted to clinch the Virginia Tech win.
That’s an extraordinary crop of young defensive backs – and that doesn’t even include current redshirts Evrett Edwards, Quay Mann or Chris Holmes, who were three of the more highly regarded prospects in last year’s recruiting class.
Cutcliffe is continuing to find the kind of versatile defensive back that he’s looking for in his current class. Indeed, the first player to commit to the Class of 2014 is four-star (according to ESPN) Zavier Carmichael of Mobile, Ala.
It’s kind of an oddity – Carmichael plays safety in high school – but most recruiting services list him as an outside linebacker. He’s exactly the kind of strong, hard-nosed player that Duke needs for the “Strike” position that has produced such standouts as Daniels, Canty and now Cash.
Cutcliffe also has a commitment from Alonzo Saxton, a three-star cornerback prospect from Columbus, Ohio. Saxton, who had five Big Ten offers, has been selected to play for the U.S. Under-19 national football team. Also coming is Zach Muniz, a three-star corner prospect from St. Louis.
That’s probably going to be it for the secondary in Duke’s 2014 recruiting class as the last available spots will be used for positions that aren’t as loaded with young talent as Cutcliffe’s defensive backfield cupboard.
One Crazy November
It’s been a topsy-turvy month for Duke athletics.
The Blue Devil football team, which almost never wins in November (1-29 over the previous eight years) was 4-0 in the month after beating UNC in Chapel Hill to finish a 10-2 regular season. But the Duke basketball team, which almost never loses in November (52-2 over the same eight-year period) lost twice before December.
Defense has been at the heart of the Mike Krzyzewski era at Duke – more than three decades of tough, aggressive – and physical – man-to-man defense. But the Blue Devils are struggling to find a defensive groove in the first month of the 2013-14 season. Whether it’s the plethora of young players playing key roles for the Devils or the difficulty in adjusting to the NCAA’s new rules forbidding defensive contact, Duke has been one of the worst defensive teams in the ACC so far.
That shows up in the Pomeroy metric, which rates the Devils a sad 115th nationally in defensive efficiency. After seven games, Duke ranked 14th in the ACC in scoring defense, 13th in field goal percentage defense and tied for 11th in turnovers forced. The only defensive thing Duke was doing well was defending the three (second best in the ACC).
The problems showed up as Duke struggled to beat East Carolina in the second round of the preseason NIT, but the Blue Devil defense hit rock bottom in a one-point home court victory over Vermont.
The 1-4 Catamounts came into the game off a 23-point loss to Bryant. As a team, Vermont was averaging just over 60 points a game on 40 percent shooting from the field.
Against Duke, Vermont committed just six turnovers and scored 90 points, shooting 64.8 percent from the field. And it wasn’t a case of a team that inexplicably got hot – the Catamounts didn’t really make many jump shots (they were 4-of-13 from three-point range). What they made were layups – layup after layup against a Duke defense that appeared helpless to stop the drive or to rotate effectively when penetration did occur.
Krzyzewski blamed the problem of lack of communication.
“We didn’t talk because we didn’t think we needed to,” he said. “I don’t think we respected them to the level that we should.”
His response to the problem was to insert seniors Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston into the starting lineup – two players who bring little offensive potential, but who are the most experienced defenders on the roster.
His move did shore up the Blue Devil defense, which was much better (if not great) in NIT games with Alabama and Arizona. But having both Hairston and Thornton on the floor for long periods is crippling to the Duke offense, which has to depend too much on the scoring talents of freshman Jabari Parker and transfer Rodney Hood.
Krzyzewski has his work cut out for him. He’s got to walk the tightrope between playing his best defenders and his best offensive threats.
So far the losses aren’t too bad – both were competitive games against top-5 opponents. But the East Carolina and Vermont games demonstrate just how close to real disaster Duke is as November turns into December.