Last season Duke gave up more 260 yards per game through the air, then graduated four key components in the defensive secondary, including three starters. Redshirt senior cornerback Ross Cockrell is the only remaining full-time starter from last season’s team, when the unit failed time and time again to prevent the long ball.
But heading into the 2013 season, the Blue Devil coaching staff seems confident with the secondary’s progress coming out of the summer camp, thanks in large part to the progression of a talented group of up-and-coming sophomores and freshmen.
“I feel better about our secondary,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “It’s never going to be right where you want it, unless you have 10 people who have all played a lot. Ultimately this class may look like that a couple years from now—there will be a lot of veteran people in the secondary. We have made progress there.”
Cutcliffe unveiled the official depth chart Tuesday for the Blue Devils’ first game of the season this Saturday against N.C. Central. Defensive backs coach Derek Jones will use his young talent to help rebuild the secondary around Cockrell, a team captain for the second season in a row.
It is one of Duke’s most veteran players, though, that is slated to hold down the second cornerback position.
Redshirt senior Garett Patterson will start his first career game as a Blue Devil when Duke takes the field against the Eagles. Patterson has been a significant contributor on the special teams unit and has played in every game for the past three seasons, but never as a defensive starter.
“Garett has tremendous skills, and he is one of those guys whose confidence level has risen,” Cutcliffe said. “Derek Jones has tried to do a good job with that, and has done a good job with that. [Patterson] has learned how to play within himself, which is what a corner has to do.”
Patterson and Cockrell together will bring a bevy of experience to the cornerback position to supplement the rest of the unit, composed of talented, but mostly untested athletes.
Cutcliffe and Jones are especially excited about two freshmen cornerbacks in particular—Breon Borders and Bryon Fields, both listed on the depth chart as backups to Cockrell and Patterson.
“Breon and Bryon have had a tremendous camp,” Cockrell said. “They’ve done extremely well. They are going to see some playing time for us this year. Hopefully they continue to play well and don’t have to go through some of those freshman mishaps that happen sometimes.”
The Blue Devils, who utilize a five-man secondary in their 4-2-5 defense, will feature four new full-time starters at safety after graduating Walt Canty and Jordon Byas and seeing Brandon Braxton return to his former position as a wide receiver.
Making his first official appearance with the Blue Devils is Jeremy Cash, who sat out all last year after transferring from Ohio State. A four-star recruit coming out of Plantation High School in Florida, Cash saw action in five games with the Buckeyes as a true freshman before transferring in January of 2012.
Cash put his talent on display in Duke’s final spring scrimmage in April, recording five tackles, one tackle for loss and an interception.
Cash will fill the role of strike safety, using his speed and athleticism to defend the pass as well as help the front seven against the run, which the Blue Devils struggled to defend against last season.
“Sometimes I may be an outside linebacker or strong safety, or other times you might see me in man coverage with a slot receiver or a big tight end,” Cash said. “Sometimes you might see me back in two-deep…. But if you can tackle, or you see yourself as a more versatile player, [strike safety is] a great position for you.”
Dwayne Norman started five games last year as a true freshman, and will fill into Canty’s spot at the bandit position this year as a sophomore. Norman played in all 13 games last season and totaled 60 tackles. The breakout game of Norman’s freshman season came on the road against Florida State, where he recorded 13 tackles and recovered two fumbles.
The third safety role will be filled by redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy. McCarthy saw action in Duke’s first two games of the 2012 season against Florida International and Stanford games last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury versus the Cardinal. McCarthy’s physical presence and speed should serve him well in the rover position, where he will focus mostly on defending the pass.
The secondary will see multiple looks throughout the season, though. Cutcliffe has championed the unit’s depth and athleticism since the end of summer camp, and will likely utilize close to a 10-man rotation throughout the year.
“The secondary is an area where we are going to play a number of people,” Cutcliffe said. “If somebody is coming out of the game, don’t read that as they are failing.”
Cockrell will serve as the bedrock of the defensive secondary as it looks to rebuild after losing so much experience. The redshirt senior received preseason all-ACC honors and is on the watch list for the Nagurski Trophy, given to the nation’s top defensive player, and the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back.
“It feels good,” Cockrell said about receiving the preseason accolades. “I think it’s just a sign that the coaches and the media are starting to respect what Duke football is doing.”