As the 2022 season rapidly approaches, the Blue Zone takes a look at each of the eight major position groups on this Duke roster: Specialists, defensive line, offensive line, linebackers, defensive backs, receivers, running backs and quarterbacks.
Shiny paint on a car is great, but its coloring means nothing without the engine, gas, wheels and other machinery that make it run.
It’s somewhat of a stretched metaphor, but the defensive line is one such component. Without an effective, efficient and commanding set of pass rushers and sackers, a defense—and the whole team—can easily crumble. Duke wasn’t the worst defense in the ACC last year, but it was far from an imperious one, and much of that can be traced to substantial shake ups in the defensive line. It doesn’t seem like turnover will be as big of a factor this year, but there are still questions as to who fills in head coach Mike Elko’s lineup.
Key players lost: Ben Frye, Caleb Oppan, Gary Smith III
Duke essentially replaced its entire defensive line last season. On the plus side, that’s not the case this year, but what it is losing hasn’t really been replaced.
The most obvious and impactful departure will be Frye, who started 21 of a possible 23 games across his last two years in Durham. With him leaves one of the program’s strongest and most reliable voices, a witness to the bowl-winning “glory year” of 2018 and a stalwart on 1,305 career snaps. He was a guaranteed starter on the defensive line last year, and as a result this edition must learn to adapt without its general.
Smith was somewhat of a surprise package in 2021, and his recent transfer to UCLA proves that. The then-sophomore started all nine of the games he played in and registered 24 tackles across them, a figure that would certainly help Elko decide who to include in his current lineup. Unfortunately for Duke fans, Chip Kelly and the sunny skies of Southern California came calling, so Smith is no longer an option.
Oppan, expected to compete for a starting spot at the beginning of last season, announced this spring that he would be medically retiring from football, removing yet another weapon from Elko’s arsenal.
Projected starters: R.J. Oben, DeWayne Carter, Ja’Mion Franklin, Vincent Anthony Jr.
Where 2021 was a year of departure, 2022 is a year of maintenance. Granted, the Blue Devils have a massive hole to fill in the shape of the recently-departed Frye, but the vast majority of Duke’s starting unit is projected to return this fall and will attempt to improve on a defense that ranked just 11th in the ACC in sacks last season.
The standout should be Carter. After finishing first in the ACC and 11th nationally in forced fumbles last fall, he earned a place on the All-ACC Third Team, won the Mike McGee award for Duke’s best defensive lineman and was named captain; Carter brings quality and leadership to a heretofore shaky unit.
Oben and Franklin return from the Cutcliffe era as well, with a combined 39 tackles between them in 2021. Both saw action in all 12 games last season—Oben started 10 of them—and are some of Elko’s most experienced options. As a result, they’re probably also his most ready-made choices. Of course, freshmen and sophomores could see some time, especially in a rebuilding program with a new coach, but as it stands, it seems like older blood will be required to help bed in the new.
One notable exception to this is Vincent Anthony Jr., a 6-foot-6, 240-pound true freshman. The Durham native is one of the more exciting additions to this Duke roster, mostly due to his 127 tackles and 19 sacks across his high school career. Anthony is coming off an All-American Bowl appearance in January and was recently named to start in Elko’s premier depth chart as well.
Dark horse: Anthony Nelson
This one is interesting. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine an Ivy League defensive end bossing an ACC secondary, but on the other, some experience may be just what this Duke team needs. Carter looks locked in to start, but that other defensive end spot is in limbo. While it seems more likely for Elko to use returning players to build the program, a one-year stop gap with bunches of experience may prove a smart acquisition. Who knows if, or how much, Nelson will play, but there’s a chance that the final spot on this defensive line goes to a transfer, especially considering the other, more inexperienced options Elko has at his disposal.
For the rest of our Duke football preseason coverage, click here.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.