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Third and goal: Duke's defense will need to step up in a big way to slow Virginia's offense

Leonard Johnson will make post up in the CB1 position tomorrow. Last year he had two picks, a forced fumble, and nine passes defended.
Leonard Johnson will make post up in the CB1 position tomorrow. Last year he had two picks, a forced fumble, and nine passes defended.

Cornerback vacancy

In one week, Duke’s secondary went from being one of the strengths of the team to the position group that is in dire need of help. In a press release Wednesday, the team announced starting cornerbacks Mark Gilbert and Josh Blackwell received surgery and will both be out indefinitely. 

With both cornerback spots open, Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall is going to take full advantage of the gaps in the Blue Devil secondary. Fortunately for Duke, Leonard Johnson started every game a season ago and his presence will help to replace the experience and leadership of Gilbert and Blackwell. 

The other cornerback spot is the most concerning because regardless of who gets the start, no one has significant playing time to draw from. Virginia has two wide receivers who put up solid numbers last year in Ra’shaun Henry and Terrell Jana so for Duke to win this game they are going to need a young cornerback to step up in a big way.

Stop the confidence

Mendenhall named redshirt sophomore Brennan Armstrong their starting quarterback, but he is not the only Cavalier who will be adjusting to a new offensive role. Virginia graduated a number of their key players who led them to the ACC championship game just a season ago, so there are going to be several players in unfamiliar roles. 

It’s time for Duke to take a page out of Boston College and Notre Dame’s book and make its opponent’s new players uncomfortable all game long. Defensive ends Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje need to introduce themselves to Armstrong early and continue all game. Duke’s safeties, particularly Marquis Waters and Michael Carter II, should use their experience to interrupt receivers’ routes and make Armstrong hesitate. 

Virginia is starting a new tight end transfer from Central Michigan, so Shaka Heyward and Rocky Shelton II should find opportunities to chip him off the line of scrimmage. Cavalier running back Wayne Taulapapa returns to the same role he had last year, but he won’t have the legs of Bryce Perkins to aid him in the run game so Heyward and Shelton can wear him down with physical play.

Spread the ball 

At this point, it is pretty clear that Duke quarterback Chase Brice’s favorite target is Noah Gray and understandably so. Gray presents a large catching radius and the two seem to have a level of chemistry above any of the other receivers. The downside of the success Gray has had early on is that Mendenhall and his staff are going to have a gameplan in action to make it difficult for Gray to get touches.

It’s going to be so important that junior Jake Bobo and sophomore Jalon Calhoun click with Brice this game. Both receivers seem to have found a groove with Brice at times but Calhoun and the quarterback only connected once last Saturday for three yards. The football needs to find its way into both of their hands but it will be crucial for Duke to get Calhoun going. He showed us last season that he can turn a bubble screen into a 50-yard touchdown and Brice needs to give him the opportunity to make those kinds of plays this weekend. 

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