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Duke football 2021 positional preview: Defensive backs

Redshirt senior Leonard Johnson will be one of the players anchoring a very experienced secondary.
Redshirt senior Leonard Johnson will be one of the players anchoring a very experienced secondary.

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. 

There were few groups on the Duke football team last year with more hype going into the season than the defensive backs. Unfortunately, this positional group also suffered countless injuries which diminished the overall performance of an otherwise talented group. This year’s unit looks to improve greatly on a season that saw opponent receivers dominate, with several battles ending in rival receivers making the ACC team of the week. A unit that carries the name "The Coalition" thanks to former coach Derek Jones possesses the talent necessary to improve, and, hopefully, these players can turn that talent into results. 

Key Players Lost: Michael Carter II, Mark Gilbert

In what was a very successful NFL draft for the Blue Devils, safety Michael Carter II was taken in the 5th round by the New York Jets. On top of being a team captain for the 2020 season, Carter was ranked ninth in the ACC for passes defended, and he pulled down two interceptions in games against North Carolina and Georgia Tech. Carter’s leadership and on-field ability will be greatly missed. As for Mark Gilbert, his Duke career was cut short by two season-ending injuries. However, the flashes of greatness he showed were enough to earn him an invite to the NFL combine, eventually signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent. Gilbert was impressive in the two games he played in 2020, grabbing an interception against Boston College. When healthy, he showed elite potential that will be missed in The Coalition. 

Projected Starters: Leonard Johnson, Nate Thompson, J’Marick Woods, Lummie Young IV, Josh Blackwell

This year’s group of players comes with tons of experience; not one of the starters is younger than a redshirt junior. Ideally, this should translate into results for the unit that was picked on at times by last year’s opponents. Players like Leonard Johnson and Josh Blackwell should be able to lead the unit given their years of experience both on the field and with the surrounding group. Graduate student J’Marick Woods also brings with him experience from his time at Michigan, where he played in 27 games over three years before transferring in January 2020. Woods should be able to build on his first season with the Blue Devils, in which he recorded a career-high nine tackles in the game against Virginia Tech. Young and Thompson round out the unit. Last year, Young suffered a season-ending injury which saw him replaced by his potential new partner, Nate Thompson. Hopefully, the two can build chemistry together to boost this group to the next level. 

Dark Horse: Jeremiah Lewis

A player who really shouldn’t be much of a dark horse to Blue Devil fanatics, Lewis was the starting corner for much of the 2020 season. He rose to this role after Josh Blackwell suffered his season-ending injury and could very well see himself back in that role by the time the season is underway. When he stepped in last season, he ended up being tied for first in the ACC in passes defended, totaling 12. While the return of Blackwell from injury could see him fall back to the bench, no matter where he ends up on the depth chart, Jeremiah Lewis will see plenty of snaps and be a great help to The Coalition. 

For the rest of our Duke preseason coverage, click here.


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