NEW YORK—When Duke took the field Dec. 26 at Yankee Stadium, there was one notable absentee: linebacker Kelby Brown. But Brown’s presence on the field was not forgotten.
Brown’s college career came to an end in August, when Duke announced that the Matthews, N.C., native had suffered an ACL tear—the fourth knee injury of Brown’s Blue Devil career. Brown’s absence created a huge gap in the heart of the Blue Devil defense, which also lost linebacker David Helton from the 2014 squad.
Freshman Ben Humphreys filled in at middle linebacker during the Pinstripe Bowl Saturday, and the Santa Ana, Calif., native wore Brown’s No. 59 as a way to honor the sixth-year senior for all that he has meant to the Duke program.
“It came to my mind a couple of weeks ago that his number needs to be on the field,” Humphreys said. “His name needs to be on the field. I didn’t wear my last name on the back of the 59, it was his name. It proved to be the right thing to do.”
Replacing Brown was no easy task for Humphreys and the rest of the Blue Devil defense. Brown was an All-ACC linebacker, team captain and had played 1,888 career snaps on defense. To help make up for Brown’s loss, Duke moved up safety Dwayne Norman to linebacker and used a trio of Zavier Carmichael, Tinashe Bere and Humphreys at the position.
Although his on-field career came to a premature end, Brown maintained an active presence with the squad throughout the season, helping the defense prepare for every game this season.
“I want to say he put in over 200 hours of film work by himself, sending us film,” Humphreys said. “We had a young linebacker core. Zavier Carmichael, Tinashe Bare and myself were very, very young, and Dwayne Norman had only played the position for not even a year, so what he did for all of us was truly amazing. For me, just the amount of hours he spent with me, the meetings, film, just talking to me, he’s Kelby Brown. I don’t know what else to say. He’s Kelby Brown—he’s a great person.”
Although this was the first time Humphreys has worn Brown’s number during a game, the true freshman had been honoring Brown throughout the season in his own way.
“I’ve been doing it all season, actually,” Humphreys said. “I would write ‘59’ on the inside of my arm at the beginning of the year.”
Humphreys was also making the first start of his collegiate career during the Pinstripe Bowl. Bere and Carmichael had traded off starting alongside Norman at linebacker during the regular season, but Bere did not play Saturday.
Humphreys did his best to channel Brown in the game—he finished with 11 tackles, the second-most on the team—and delivered some big plays in overtime. On second down, he made a great read on a reverse to wide receiver Mitchell Paige, forcing him out of bounds after a gain of two yards. On the following play, Humphreys got into the backfield and forced Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld to throw the ball away. Those two plays meant the Hoosiers were forced to settle for a field goal, which went wide right to secure the win for Duke.
With his first start and first bowl win under his belt, Humphreys is ready to take his game to the next level and continue the legacy at middle linebacker that Brown created.
“I’m looking forward to becoming a leader of the defense and truly honing my game at middle linebacker and truly mastering this defense,” Humphreys said. “I’m going to miss Kelby. I’m going to miss that guy because he did so much for me, but I want to get going again.”