Senior co-captain Phillip Alexander knows that Duke’s defense has lost a chunk of its heart and soul. Graduated linebackers Ryan Fowler and Matt Zielinski will no longer be positioned behind him, and Alexander’s good friend, the late Micah Harris, will not be in a three-point stance on the opposite end of the line.
In 2004, it is Alexander’s time to step up.
“He’s a guy that needs to make big plays,” head coach Ted Roof said. “At the same time, we’ll count on Philip for a whole lot more than that, we’re counting on his leadership as well. We expect him to have a great year, [and] he’s got to have a great year for us.”
Alexander’s success in 2003 was somewhat unexpected. Prior to last year, the coaching staff asked him to switch from linebacker to defensive end, even though he was undersized at 240 pounds. It turned out to be a breakout season for Alexander, who recorded 6.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss.
“I think the transition has been good,” said Roof, who was defensive coordinator at the time of the switch. “The thing that he’s had to work on is being on the line of scrimmage at the point of attack, where as a linebacker you’ve got three or four yards to recognize things. Phil’s gotten a lot better, and I expect him to be [even] better at the point of attack this year.”
The whole defensive staff has helped Alexander adjust to the change, but the coach who Roof and Alexander both credit most is co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Scott Brown.
“Coach Brown has spent a lot of extra time with me, a lot of one-on-one time to get my steps and my pass rush pure,” Alexander said.
Despite having to change his mentality completely, Alexander’s most difficult task was preparing his body for the brutish nature of playing in the trenches.
“The hardest part was more physical than mental because there’s a lot more reads at linebacker,” Alexander said. “At end there’s a lot more body stuff, so it’s just getting accustomed to taking on bigger guys.”
With even bigger and better linemen to take on in the expanded ACC, Alexander is up to the challenge—he is a remarkable twenty pounds stronger than he was a year ago.
“I just hit the weight room real hard,” Alexander said. “I also changed my diet around a little bit trying to put on more muscle mass.”
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Alexander, who hails from Bronx, N.Y., brings more to the table than his strength and speed on the football field. In 2003, the public policy major was named to the Academic All-ACC team, and this season he was selected for the preseason ACC Academic Honor Roll. He believes his family is responsible for helping him become the scholar-athlete he is today.
“My grandparents and my mother really helped me get to where I am right now,” Alexander said. “They always stayed positive, and when things weren’t going my way at first, they just always stayed in my corner.”
On the field, his task will be to lead both the defense and the team back to respectability. Last season the Duke defense flashed a lot of potential after Roof’s promotion to head coach, but that was only after the defense gave up 42 first-half points to Wake Forest, leading to then-head coach Carl Franks’ dismissal.
The Blue Devils finished fifth in the ACC in total defense, but they surrendered 28.6 points per game. With the offense mustering just 17.6 points per game a year ago, both sides will need to improve.
The rest of the defense knows how intertwined Alexander’s performance is with the team’s success this season.
“[Alexander] brings a presence to our defensive line,” co-captain Kenneth Stanford said. “He’s always a threat to sack the quarterback and he is a very important [player].”
Alexander knows that with a tougher schedule, he and the defense will have to step it up even more if the team wishes to continue its rise. Having put in the hours to improve himself, the defensive end thinks his team is ready to do the same.
“When you’re trying to climb to respectability, you don’t want an easy road,” Alexander said. “You definitely want to earn everything that you get, so we welcome the competition.”