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Duke football 2021 positional preview: Defensive line

Duke's defensive line will look quite different in 2021 after losing key starters Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph II to the NFL.
Duke's defensive line will look quite different in 2021 after losing key starters Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph II to the NFL.

With the 2021 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.

After Duke football's disappointing 2020 season, it’s easy to look back and find areas in which the Blue Devils really struggled. The defensive line, however, does not quite make that list. The unit had a rare combo of power and agility that made Duke’s pass rush one of the more fearsome groups in the conference. Heading into 2021, Duke is losing nearly every impact player and is seeking replacements.

Key players lost: Chris Rumph II, Victor Dimukeje, Drew Jordan, Derrick Tangelo

The experienced tandem of Rumph and Dimukeje combined for 15.5 sacks in 2020, and Dimukeje’s near-school sacks record push earned him his spot as a sixth-round draft choice by the Arizona Cardinals. Rumph, the most athletic of last season’s line, could play on the edge or even as an outside linebacker. He heads to the Los Angeles Chargers as a fourth-round selection. Meanwhile, Tangelo and Jordan took their talents to Penn State and Michigan State, respectively, for their fifth years of eligibility. 

The success of last year’s defense in terms of pro-level talent and on-field impact is unparalleled in recent Duke history, and Blue Devil fans should not take players like Rumph and Dimukeje for granted. Regardless, that’s enough dwelling in the past—on to this year.

Projected starters: Ben Frye, DeWayne Carter, Ja’Mion Franklin, R.J. Oben

To put it bluntly, the defensive line may not be the Blue Devils’ top asset this upcoming season. The projected starters are very inexperienced, returning only one starter from last year—redshirt senior Ben Frye. Including Frye, the four have 3.5 career sacks between them and will have to figure out how to pressure quarterbacks behind staunch offensive lines.

Frye, also a member of the Duke wrestling team, comes in as a veteran leader of the defensive front, though his size could be a concern against bigger opposing linemen. At 255 pounds, he believes he is just as strong as when he was bigger but gains speed and quickness in exchange. Only time will tell whether the trade-off in size proves to make a positive impact.

Redshirt sophomore DeWayne Carter played in all 11 games in 2020, tallying 12 tackles with three tackles for loss. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound tackle brings some of the interior force that the Blue Devils are missing without the likes of former nose tackle Tangelo. 

Somewhat of a mystery still is Ja’Mion Franklin and his role on the team, though there figures to be a spot on the line for a former three-star recruit who played, learned and practiced alongside Notre Dame’s top-notch defense for three seasons. With the immediate eligibility rule still in effect, head coach David Cutcliffe may rule in favor of Franklin's size and experience over a younger, more unproven player.

A weak-side defensive end, R.J. Oben certainly has the family lineage to prove he can succeed in college and beyond. His father was an offensive lineman at Louisville and played in the NFL, and the redshirt sophomore has thirteen games of collegiate experience already under his belt. Though he has never before been a starter, Oben can still prove himself and push for a starting spot before the season kicks off in September.

Overall, the defense is going to require some tinkering and the coaching staff may see many new faces take the field over the first several weeks before any player other than Frye secures a spot on the starting line.

Dark horse: Michael Reese

This is where Reese comes in. He has only played nine snaps since joining Duke, but Cutcliffe said after a scrimmage that he “saw Reese flash a lot and make plays.” The sophomore edge rusher also has “made a move in the right direction,” according to the 14th-year head coach. With the coach's faith on his side, Reese could get some action early in the non-conference slate, and with how dynamic the situation seems to be, he could definitely see some increased playing time throughout the entire year. 

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