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 losing starting linebackers Ben Humphreys and Koby Quansah after the 2018 and 2019 seasons, respectively, Duke football's linebacking unit was seemingly entering a transitional period. And while adding depth on the recruiting trail is still a goal for the coaching staff, the emergence of the next crop of Duke linebackers—particularly Shaka Heyward—has eased some concerns. Let's go under the hood.
Key players lost: Rocky Shelton II, Christian Hood
Losing Shelton will sting early and often this season, as the St. Thomas Aquinas alum took a substantial leap last year, putting up 35 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception. However, the Florida native is not on the roster for this fall, vacating the Will spot that Stevens now likely steps into. The Blue Devils might be able to match Shelton's expected 2021 production with a combination of Stevens and Dorian Mausi, but that's a big if. With so much talent along the defensive line exiting to the pros, losing Shelton is a big blow to this defense.
Hood, also not with the team currently, was expected to back up Heyward at middle linebacker. In five outings last year, the Texan notched 16 tackles, as well as a forced fumble and subsequent recovery on the opening kickoff against Virginia. Losing Hood not only hurts from a linebacking perspective but also puts a dent in the Blue Devils' depth on special teams.
Projected Starters: Shaka Heyward, Sayyid Stevens
When it comes to this year's linebacking corps, Heyward is the guy that stands out. After sitting out his first year in the program, the redshirt junior has steadily progressed ever since, culminating in a team-leading 80 tackles from the Mike spot a season ago. Heyward has stepped into a leadership role after the departures of Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje, and his prototypical build and penchant for flying to the ball make the Georgia native a viable All-ACC candidate.
On the weak side, Sayyid Stevens is expected to take the reins, but his relative lack of experience is a concern. In 15 prior appearances, the redshirt sophomore has racked up just eight tackles and a combined total of zero sacks and tackles for loss. Despite that, Stevens is poised for more snaps this year, as he recorded six tackles in the final five contests in 2020. At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, the Georgia native is light enough to operate in space yet still possesses the frame to be a factor as a pass rusher.
Dark horse: Dorian Mausi
The most memorable moment of Mausi's 2020 was a punt block touchdown against N.C. State, but the Detroit native was impressive down the stretch of his freshman campaign. 29 tackles, 1.5 sacks and one quarterback pressure tell the story, as Mausi proved he was more than just a special teamer. Duke's base scheme is a 4-2-5, but Mausi's abilities as a pass rusher allow for some flexibility in obvious passing situations.
For the rest of our Duke preseason coverage, click here.
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Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.