DURHAM, N.C. – The defensive backs form a sage faculty, with fifth-year senior DeVon Edwards as the Dean.
Four of the five starters in the 4-2-5 scheme return, but Bryon Fields, a 2014 starter who missed 2015 with a knee injury, accounts for a fifth first-unit player in 2016. Those are just the starters. Ten lettermen exist in this group of defensive backs.
Flip the coin, however, and one reason for concern emerges: Those same defensive backs played on a unit that badly faded in a 2-4 stretch last year to finish an 8-5 season.
In those six games, the Blue Devils yielded per-game averages of 345.8 passing yards and 517 total yards. The low point was rival North Carolina crushing Duke, 66-31, behind 704 total yards and 537 through the air.
Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who begins his seventh season with the Blue Devils, met with the media Tuesday at the Brooks Football Building. He casually propped a leg on a folding chair and answered questions about the unit’s fall camp progress.
He didn’t look or sound uptight about what he has to work with entering a fresh season. In fact, Knowles readily agreed when asked about one television analyst’s comments late last season that Duke’s defensive backs tried to do too much.
“Absolutely,” Knowles said. “We were very successful in the front half (of the season) and then when things got tough, you know, these guys are good kids and they’re committed. You try to do more than your job. When you do that on a defense that is highly structured and accountable you start violating your lane and your job; it makes it worse.”
Knowles is confident it can be corrected because the root reason for the mistakes was misdirected selflessness rather than selfishness.
“We don’t have any guys trying to be heroes,” Knowles said. “Duke Gang is not about ego. That comes from top down. We’re smarter together than singularly. Our kids understand that and play like that. When things don’t go as planned, those are good kids taking responsibility and trying to do more. It’s my job to say, ‘Just do your job. We’ll get better if you all do your job.’ ”
Duke finished last season with Edwards moving from safety to cornerback in the final two games when Alonzo Saxton, now a junior, struggled. A source of optimism entering 2016 is that Fields’ return as a starter opposite senior Breon Borders allows Edwards to shift back to his best position. Knowles also is confident sophomore cornerback Jeremy McDuffie can play like a starter.
“Jeremy McDuffie struggled as a true freshman with a knee injury and didn’t have a great year,” he said. “But he’s a guy that I’ll tell you guys to look at. He’s explosive and talented. He can spell Bryon and Breon. I think we’ve got three really good corners.”
Another piece to the puzzle is Duke improving its pass rush over last year. Pass pressure and pass coverage work hand in hand.
Knowles expects last year’s fade to motivate the entire defense, especially the ignominious North Carolina loss. The 51-year-old coach related the lingering pain to one he still feels from his high school playing days at Philadelphia St. Joseph’s Prep.
“That doesn’t go away,” Knowles said. “That’s like losing the high school Catholic League championship game my senior year at the old Vet. That stuff doesn’t go away. (North Carolina is) a talented team, but we’ve got to show up better than that.”
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055