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Gaining from loss: How Duke football's defense has improved even without key pieces

<p>Michael Carter II is day-to-day after suffering an injury at the hands of Baylor.</p>

Michael Carter II is day-to-day after suffering an injury at the hands of Baylor.

The first of many losses for Duke’s defense came all the way back in January. On the heels of a season in which the Blue Devils held opponents to barely more than 20 points per game, then-defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was hired away by Oklahoma State.

Head coach David Cutcliffe then made the unique decision to replace Knowles with not one, but two coaches, naming Ben Albert and Matt Guerrieri co-defensive coordinators. And not even two games into their tenure, Albert and Guerrieri lost arguably their best player when cornerback Mark Gilbert suffered a season-ending hip injury.

But a blow as big as any came Saturday morning, hours before Duke’s matchup with Baylor. Guerrieri’s father, Jim, died at the age of 60 following a battle with cancer.

“God bless the Guerrieri family. This is the most difficult time,” Cutcliffe said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “[The defense is] having FaceTime meetings and they’re using technology to send film and scripts back and forth. I don’t know when [Matt’s] finding time to do that, but he’s his daddy’s son—that’s how his dad went about working.”

Despite the many departures and changes, the Blue Devil defense has already shown that it may be better than last season’s group. 

Duke has surrendered just 48 points in the course of three wins, putting it on pace for the best season in terms of scoring defense in the Cutcliffe era. Although 382 yards per game is nearly 50 more than last season, it would still be an improvement compared to the seven seasons prior to 2017.

In any season, injuries are guaranteed. But these Blue Devils have been stung by the injury bug time and time again.

Safety Jeremy McDuffie still is not fully healed from an ACL injury late last year, and he along with defensive end Terrell Lucas didn’t travel to Texas this past weekend. Gilbert won’t play again in 2018, fellow cornerback Michael Carter II suffered an injury in the first quarter against the Bears and defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord is banged up and day-to-day.

All of this is added to a team that is playing without its starting quarterback in Daniel Jones, who remains sidelined indefinitely.

Yet the numbers tell the story of a team that has managed to gain from loss.

“We all practice like we’re starters,” cornerback Myles Hudzick said Tuesday. “Prior to the game starting, probably four times I told Michael Carter and Josh Blackwell, ‘I got your back. Regardless of what happens, I’ve got your back.’”

Seemingly, once Duke’s young defenders have stepped in between the lines, the ball has found them. At Northwestern, Carter’s interception stopped a Wildcat drive in its tracks. At Baylor, Leonard Johnson—a redshirt freshman making his first-ever start—took a pick of his own to the house, putting the game out of reach.

“Any young player...you’re right on the edge, you’re right on the edge,” Cutcliffe said. “When you finally make that play, everything changes.”

Guerreri missed the middle of last week, heading home to the Cleveland area after last Tuesday’s practice to be with his family. He rejoined the team Thursday night in Waco, but didn’t tell any players or coaches that his father had died until after the game was over.

Without half of their defensive coordinator pairing, the Blue Devils looked not only to other coaches, but also looked to veteran leaders like co-captains Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris as well as junior Dylan Singleton to pick up the slack.

“Coach Albert’s doing a great job doing everything he can,” Hudzick said. “We feel for Coach Guerreri and we’re not allowing it to hinder our team without him being there. We’re going to do everything to be successful for him.”

Duke’s defensive numbers will almost certainly improve this week. In the Blue Devils’ last three matchups with N.C. Central, the Eagles have scored a total of 13 points. That number includes a 2015 game when N.C. Central finished with less than 200 yards of total offense and just nine first downs.

As long as Jones is out, there will be questions as to whether Duke can put up enough points to compete and ultimately win games in ACC play. But if the Blue Devil defense keeps up its pace and can continue to find ways to overcome loss, the task for Duke’s offense may not be as steep.

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