Take away Duke’s two quarterbacks – one literal on offense and one figurative on defense – and few would have predicted a 2-2 record four games into the season.
Yet that’s Duke’s standing after upsetting Notre Dame 38-35 Saturday, thanks to improved depth in head coach David Cutcliffe’s ninth season.
The Blue Devils have been playing without redshirt senior quarterback Thomas Sirk, who was lost with an Achilles’ tendon injury a week before the opener. Now they’re without redshirt senior safety DeVon Edwards, who suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral knee ligaments in the first quarter of the Notre Dame victory.
Cutcliffe confirmed Edwards’ injury that ended his season and career on his Sunday teleconference call.
“We’re very saddened for DeVon and his family,” Cutcliffe said. “He is a great leader. He is absolutely a great player and a great person. He’ll have to have an impact like Thomas – Thomas has been an inspiration for us all; certainly to the team. Now we have another captain thrust into that role. We are with DeVon every step of the way through this.”
Duke redshirt freshman Daniel Jones has replaced Sirk, and he threw for three touchdowns against Notre Dame.
Replacing Edwards is a cloudier issue.
“I don’t think one person can replace DeVon Edwards,” Cutcliffe said. “There will be multiple opportunities for people.”
Edwards’ backup, junior Alonzo Saxton, filled in at Notre Dame, but Cutcliffe said he may shuffle his five defensive backs as the Blue Devils (2-2, 0-1 ACC Atlantic) prepare to host Virginia (1-3, 0-0 ACC Atlantic) Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“What we miss is great play but also leadership and knowledge on the back end,” Cutcliffe said.
Edwards and Stanford Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey were the only two active players nationally who earned both All-American and Academic All-American honors last season.
Edwards, a 5-foot-9, 185-pounder from Covington (Ga.) Alcovy, was an All-ACC pick as a defensive back and an All-American choice as kick returner. He was one shy of the NCAA career record of seven kickoff returns for touchdowns, but he barely received a chance this year. Teams kicked away from him, and he had only one return for 20 yards in the first three games.
Ironically, with Notre Dame not kicking away from Shaun Wilson, Edwards’ replacement, Wilson returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown to trim the deficit to 14-7.
Defensively, Edwards led the team in tackles through the first three games with 28 and shared the lead in sacks with three. He had one tackle at Notre Dame.
Duke also was without starting safety Deondre Singleton until the second half. He sat out the first half from a targeting ejection the previous week at Northwestern. Redshirt freshman Jordan Hayes started in place of Singleton.
“We were playing basically with two rookie safeties in Jordan Hayes and Alonzo,” Cutcliffe said. “It was very challenging as a play caller for (defensive coordinator) Jim Knowles position coach (safeties) Matt Guerrieri. But we’ve got a week to work on it, and we’ll find the right combination of things to do.”
Cutcliffe added redshirt junior Philip Carter, who played in 13 games and started two last year, onto the two-deep depth chart.
Saxton started eight games at cornerback last year after Bryon Fields was lost for the year in fall camp with a knee injury. When Fields’ returned this year, Duke shifted Saxton to Edwards’ rover position.
“We’ve got to build off this,” Cutcliffe said of the Notre Dame victory. “We’ve got a lot of good teams coming up on our schedule.”
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