ChronChat: Duke football without Kelby Brown

The loss of redshirt senior linebacker Kelby Brown has the media and fans alike questioning Duke's ability to repeat as ACC Coastal Division champions. The Chronicle's Daniel Carp, Brian Mazur and Nick Martin tackle three of the biggest questions now facing the Blue Devils as they move forward without their emotional leader.

What does the loss of Brown mean for the Blue Devils right this moment?

Losing Brown completely changes the makeup of Duke's defense, removing its top playmaker in the middle and putting significant pressure on the players around him to fill in the void.

Without Brown, Duke's defensive front—which will feature three new starters in 2014—will have to provide a better push at the line of scrimmage for a defense that ranked near the bottom of all power conference teams in tackles for a loss a year ago (Brown was responsible for 11 of those).

Brown's running mate, senior David Helton, will have to be Duke's assertive force in the middle. Helton went under the radar a year ago and led the ACC in tackles, but without Brown playing beside him, the senior's job just became a lot more important.

But the greatest pressure from Brown's injury actually is on redshirt junior safety Jeremy Cash, who is now without a doubt the Blue Devils' top defensive playmaker this season and will be responsible for most of the on-field leadership that the injured linebacker provided. In addition to being a vocal and energetic force in the defensive backfield, Cash is incredibly dynamic and made a lot of plays around the line of scrimmage during his first year at Duke, but can he be more of a run-stopping force without neglecting coverage responsibilities? With Brown out, Cash's workload—both physically and from a leadership standpoint—just skyrocketed.

Who is going to replace him?

Brown’s leadership and talent on the gridiron will be tough to replace, but his back-ups are not new names in the world of Duke football. Both junior Deion Williams or redshirt senior C.J. France are listed as Brown’s backups and before his injury the duo was dueling to be Brown’s backup. Now both will most likely see ample playing time throughout the season.

The situation will almost feel like deja-vu for France, who has the most experience of the two. France stepped up in 2012 when Brown was recovering from knee surgery. France won the Vincent Rey Award for, given to the team’s top linebacker, for his 60 tackle, one interception performance during the Blue Devils’ historic 6-7 season that led to the team’s first bowl game in 19 years. Williams has started one game and played as a back-up in 2013, but seen the most playing time on special teams. However, he has been pushing France for the back-up job after registering four tackles, a sack and a PBU in the Spring Game back in March.

It will be interesting to see how Williams responds to the newfound spotlight, as he does not have the playing time experience of France and of course, Brown. The most likely scenario will be for both players to split playing time at the beginning of the season, with the better performer playing more meaningful minutes as Duke plays the heart of its ACC schedule in October and November.

Another player to look out for here is redshirt freshman Chris Holmes, who has yet to play a collegiate snap but has received rave reviews from his coaching staff and teammates in the offseason. Excelling in high school as a wide receiver and entering college as a safety, Holmes has the type of dynamic athleticism that could fit well into the center of Duke's defensive scheme in Brown's absence.

Can Duke win without him?

This is the big question everyone has been asking the past 24 hours, and it's a valid one. Taking away 114 tackles is one thing. Tackles—for the most part—can be replaced by the likes of tackling machine David Helton and a combination of Williams, France and the rest of the defense. It's Brown's intangibles that are going to hurt the Blue Devils the most, as he was an outspoken individual and the undisputed leader of the defense heading into his redshirt senior season. He had a knack for making the big plays when it mattered most— and head coach David Cutcliffe touched on this in his opening preseason press conference:

"Jeremy Cash and Kelby Brown deserve their attention and it’s because they make impact plays," Cutcliffe said. "That’s who they are. They’re going to have high-impact plays into a game."

Now Duke does not have a difficult schedule this year, with road trips to Miami and Pittsburgh as the toughest tests it will face in 2014-15—excluding a possible rematch with Florida State if the Blue Devils make it back to the ACC Championship Game. Brown's absence should not affect them through the first four games, as the team is strong enough to power past the likes of Elon, Troy, Kansas and Tulane. This should provide them with the necessary time to adjust to playing with out Brown. Duke's Sept. 27 matchup in Coral Gables, Fla. will be the first true test. The hope is that the Blue Devils have things figured out by then.

All-in-all, it's a bit early to speculate on how much success Duke can have without Brown patrolling the middle of the field, but it wouldn't be outlandish to say that this severely minimizes the Blue Devils chances of returning to Charlotte with the Coastal Crown.


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