Senior Alonso Saxton II will try and fill the void left by Duke's two departing starting safeties.

Duke football 2017 position preview: Defensive backs

With the 2017 season right around the corner, The Chronicle's football beat writers break down each of the nine major position groups: quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, offensive line, defensive line, defensive backs, linebackers, kicker/punter and punt/kickoff returners.

Despite having an entirely veteran unit to start the season, the Blue Devil secondary struggled mightily last year. 

As the injuries piled up—star safety DeVon Edwards tore his ACL in the fourth game of the season and Breon Borders battled a hip injury at the end of the year—Duke had to use inexperienced players in the defensive backfield, which showed. Communication issues plagued the secondary, and as a result, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has opted to simplify the signals this year.

The Blue Devils are losing all of their starters except redshirt senior cornerback Bryon Fields Jr. Jeremy McDuffie is switching to strike safety—former All-American Jeremy Cash’s old position—from cornerback, and Brandon Feamster is moving to cornerback from safety to try to spark the secondary. Both players have some game experience, and McDuffie has drawn rave reviews at his new position despite fracturing his thumb during fall camp. 

Duke is hoping that these changes will help turn around a unit that surrendered nearly 240 passing yards per game and finished 13th in the conference in pass defense efficiency. Although the Blue Devils are losing most of their starters due to graduation, coaches have raved about the young talent, especially with the two prior recruiting classes boasting four-star defensive back recruits.

Key players lost: Deondre Singleton, DeVon Edwards, Corbin McCarthy, Breon Borders 

Duke will definitely feel the losses in the defensive backfield of its 2016 senior class, especially those of Edwards and Borders—both of whom made All-ACC teams in years past. A star returner, Edwards was dynamic all over the field, and Borders was known as a shutdown cornerback capable of sizing up all types of wideouts. 

McCarthy and Singleton’s departures cannot be understated either. Both players were solid in their roles, with McCarthy sliding in well for Cash at strike safety, and Singleton providing consistency at safety. Needless to say, the Blue Devils have a challenge ahead replacing those starters. 

Projected starters: Byron Fields Jr., Mark Gilbert, Jeremy McDuffie, Alonso Saxton II

Fields will be flanked on the outside by sophomore Mark Gilbert, who impressed as Borders’ replacement last season. At 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, Gilbert has the athleticism and the size to match up against taller wideouts, which he should continue to do this season. 

At safety, McDuffie figures to start at strike safety even if he has to play with a cast, and redshirt sophomore Jordan Hayes and senior Alonzo Saxton II look to start at the other safety positions.  

Sophomore Dylan Singleton—previous four-star recruit and brother of Deondre—should also see time in the secondary. Last season, he turned heads on special teams, as he was often the first player to meet the returner during kick coverage. Especially if Saxton struggles, keep an eye on Singleton to make an impact on the field during a season in which he should have plenty of opportunities to make plays. 

Dark horse: CB Brandon Feamster

Like Singleton, Feamster has made a mark on special teams and should see the field in his first year at cornerback, especially in passing situations. The 6-foot-3 corner has excellent size and can guard bigger wide receivers. Feamster is listed high up on the preseason depth chart for the Blue Devils and has the potential to make an impact in meaningful situations.

Check in tomorrow to see how Duke's kicking game is shaping up for this season. 

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