With the 2020 season right around the corner, The Chronicle breaks down each of the eight major position groups for the Blue Devils: Quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, defensive backs, linebackers and specialists.
They say “the show must go on” and in the midst of a global pandemic and a stadium without fans, these words couldn’t ring truer for the linebackers hard at work on improving Duke’s defensive team for the 2020 season. Although the coaches appear positive about this season’s defensive talent, it is impossible to overlook the hole left by non-returning, experienced linebackers. However, with new players comes the potential for new talent. The Blue Devils’ first game against Notre Dame on September 12 will be a chance to showcase what the underclassmen have trained for all summer.
Key players lost: Koby Quansah, Brandon Hill
With four linebackers not returning to play under assistant coach Lanier Goethie, Duke’s now freshman-heavy defense will undeniably be faced with new challenges. One of these major losses includes graduated leading tackler Koby Quansah, who made 105 total tackles in the 2019 season and was named ACC Linebacker of the Week after his game-high 13 tackles against Virginia Tech. Combined with this is the loss of redshirt senior Brandon Hill--an expected starter who opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns over COVID-19. Hill started in six of his nine games last season and made 52 total tackles. The absence of these two experienced players adds to the already-criticized lack of depth in the Blue Devils’ linebacker core.
Projected starters: Shaka Heyward, Rocky Shelton II, Sayyid Stevens
As Duke’s only upperclassman linebacker did not see game action last season, the focus is on experienced redshirt sophomores Shaka Heyward and Rocky Shelton II. The top returning linebacker, Heyward started in six of his twelve games last season and finished fourth on the team with 68 tackles, easily putting him in this season’s leadership role. Head Coach Cutcliffe’s 4-2-5 defensive strategy only requires two linebackers on the field and Shelton is the next probable candidate after playing in 11 games and making three tackles last season. However, with four games of experience under the redshirt rule, redshirt freshman Sayyid Stevens will most likely compete against Shelton for starting snaps. These three players will lead the position while Duke’s newcomer linebackers adjust to the college football level.
Dark horse: Christian Hood
Hightower graduate Christian Hood has gained substantial attention due to his early enrollment in January which allowed him to attend three Spring practices and earn advanced experience as a Blue Devil linebacker. Cutcliffe spoke highly of the freshman’s physical capabilities and dedication to the sport. This praise is supported by high school stats which boast 210 career tackles, 17 career sacks, and three consecutive state playoff appearances. With his spirit and athleticism, it will not be surprising if Hood is used in various plays throughout the season.