Defense dominant for Duke football at season's halfway point

<p>Senior defensive tackle Carlos Wray has teamed with A.J. Wolf to anchor the Duke defense up front, with each lineman collecting 22 tackles through the first six games of the season.</p>

Senior defensive tackle Carlos Wray has teamed with A.J. Wolf to anchor the Duke defense up front, with each lineman collecting 22 tackles through the first six games of the season.

One word describes the Blue Devil defense this season—dominant.

Despite preseason worries that the losses of linebacker Kelby Brown and cornerback Bryon Fields to ACL injuries—as well as the departure of pivotal players such as David Helton—would damper any hopes of capturing the ACC Coastal Division title this season, Duke has proven itself on the defensive side of the ball at the season’s midseason mark. With six games in the rearview mirror, the Blue Devils are 5-1 with an undefeated conference record, and have nabbed a spot in the top 25 heading into their bye week.

“We’ve got one of the top defenses in the country,” defensive tackle Carlos Wray said. “I’ve actually seen some things on ESPN about it, but I think we just do [well] working together. I think we just have a lot of fun when we’re out on the field. It’s just us working together in practice to take it to Saturdays.”

Duke ranks fourth in total defense, allowing just 252.8 yards per game and 3.8 yards per play. Against two triple-option teams—Georgia Tech and Army—known for gashing opposing defenses on the ground, the Blue Devils held strong, allowing just 173 and 113 rushing yards, respectively.

The most imposing statistic may be the lack of chances that opposing offenses have had to score. Through six games, Duke has only allowed its opponents to travel into the red zone seven times, giving up just two touchdowns and three field goals in the process.

“It’s something that [defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and I] talked about and it’s something that we were looking forward to, even before camp,” Wray said. “Just even in the summer working together, we were like, ‘Wow, we can be great on defense.’”

Even though Wray returned as the only starter along the defensive front from a year ago, the defensive line has proven formidable in the trenches. The second defensive tackle, redshirt junior A.J. Wolf, has shown that he can be a force up front as well. Through the first half of the season, Wolf and Wray each have 22 total tackles and have combined for 1.5 sacks.

“A.J. has just turned the tide,” Wray said. “With years comes growth and he’s turned into a grown man, that’s all it is.... He’s done a great job developing into just a dominator.”

The most dominant player on Knowles’ defense remains safety Jeremy Cash. The redshirt senior has propelled the defense to another level this season, racking up 47 total tackles, three forced fumbles and seven quarterback hits. His 11.5 tackles for loss are tied for fifth most in the nation, and his ability to be in seemingly every place on the field at once has made him a terror for opposing offenses.

Redshirt junior DeVon Edwards has been nearly as terrifying in the secondary as well. The Covington, Ga., native has 40 total tackles, one sack and one interception alongside Cash. Edwards has also reminded the country why he was an All-American kickoff returner in 2013 and 2014, returning seven kicks for 278 yards and two touchdowns entering the bye week—tied for the most scores in the nation.

But the Duke defense is as hard on itself as it has been on its opponents.

“I’ve got to focus on my eyes and stuff, because I get caught in the backfield a lot looking at a quarterback rather than reading my keys,” Edwards said. “I could have done a lot better just by focusing on the little things. I’ve gotten away from that, and that’s just been my focus this past couple of games. Going against a wing-T, that’s helped me. That gets you back on your keys, focusing on the guy that you’re supposed to be watching.”

Even with the bye week approaching and more than a week before ACC play resumes, taking time to identify weaknesses on the field and working to fix them off the field is key for continued success down the road—even if it is just a few little improvements.

With Virginia Tech and Miami ahead on the schedule—two teams that already have a loss in conference play—Duke is looking to close out the season one game at a time and hopefully take a trip to Charlotte for the ACC championship for the second time in three seasons.

“I’m kind of a hard critic. I would give us an A- just because we haven’t gotten as many sacks as we wanted to, but we’re going to go get them. We’re not worried about that,” Wray said. “We knew during camp that this could be ‘that’ team.... There’s no telling where we’re going to go.”


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