The Blue Devils ranked 87th out of 127 FBS teams in passing yards allowed last year, but after one practice in full pads came away feeling positive about their defense.
With quarterback Thomas Sirk still out of live action and freshman wide receiver Scott Bracey battling a hamstring injury, Duke's defense outperformed the offense in the team's first run-through of game situations, head coach David Cutcliffe said. The Blue Devil defense has been buoyed by the return of cornerback Bryon Fields, who missed last season due to a torn ACL.
Although there was talk before Duke opened fall camp that DeVon Edwards would move from his safety spot to cornerback, Cutcliffe said he will stay at safety because Fields, sophomore Jeremy McDuffie and freshman Mark Gilbert have stood out on the edge. The Blue Devils also return veteran cornerback Breon Borders.
"They were very aggressive," Cutcliffe said of the defense. "They took the ball away. They created better pressure on the quarterback than we’ve had.... They played with a little more confidence."
In addition to Sirk, who is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in February, and Bracey, guard Tanner Stone was held out Saturday as he continues to recover from back surgery in April.
Duke's running backs got the ground game going late in Saturday's scrimmage, Cutcliffe said, noting that freshman Brittain Brown stood out in addition to veterans Jela Duncan, Shaun Wilson and Joseph Ajeigbe.
"We started out kind of slow, but we eventually picked it up," Wilson said. "We sat the team down on the sideline and just talked and said we’ve got to pick it up."
Competition at skill positions like running back and wide receiver is a positive for a team facing questions about its explosiveness as its Sept. 3 season opener approaches.
And with Sirk "feeling better each day," the Blue Devils will look to build toward the N.C. Central game after hitting each other for the first time in full pads.
"We had some people at times makes some plays on offense, but that’s one of the things I’m looking for, the consistency at receiver and the consistency at running back," Cutcliffe said. "We’ve got to evaluate who our best playmakers are and do a great job of getting those folks the ball."
Another question facing Duke entering the season is how All-ACC kicker Ross Martin and All-ACC punter Will Monday will be replaced by freshman A.J. Reed and redshirt freshman Austin Parker. Cutcliffe said both performed well Saturday, with Reed connecting on all of his field goal attempts.
Now the Blue Devils will look to show improvement when they take the field for their second scrimmage Friday.
"We just have to watch this film and start there," Sirk said. "We’ve got to focus on the fundamentals.”
Hank Tucker contributed reporting.
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