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.
After a disappointing 2021 season in which Duke ranked dead last in scoring defense in the ACC with 39.8 points allowed per game, the hiring of former Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko as head coach made it clear that a shakeup on defense was incoming. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the Blue Devil linebacker crew remains relatively unchanged heading into Elko’s debut season, with a few experienced players expected to marshall the 2 in Duke’s 4-2-5 defense.
Key players lost: Adam Fakih, Colby Campbell, Ryan Smith
The trio of Adam Fakih, Colby Campbell and Ryan Smith can hardly be considered key losses considering the infrequency with which each played in 2021. Fakih and Campbell were featured primarily on special teams across 2021, amassing just 262 snaps between them. Both have since moved on after spending their year of graduate eligibility at Duke following four-year spells at Michigan and Presbyterian, respectively.
Smith’s story is a bit different. The Acworth, Ga., native switched positions this spring from linebacker to defensive back, effectively putting him out of contention for a starting spot in place of either player listed below.
Projected starters: Shaka Heyward, Dorian Mausi
Though 2022 is expected to be a season of immense change for the Blue Devils, both on the field and the sidelines, one thing that looks to remain the same is Duke’s reliance on Shaka Heyward to anchor the defense. The redshirt senior started all 12 games last year, earned All-ACC Third Team honors and sat fifth in tackles in the conference with 98, all while logging the most snaps of any of his teammates with 1,019. Not only is Heyward one of the more experienced heads on this season’s Blue Devil secondary, he’s also one of its most capable and talented members, with the turbulence of years past hardly a roadblock to his personal accolades.
The other starting linebacker is likely to be 6-foot-2 junior Dorian Mausi, who started all but one game last season at the outside position. The University of Detroit Jesuit product finished fourth on the team in total tackles with 59 and has been a factor since his freshman year, playing in every game—albeit not always as a starter—to help add some depth to the special teams and defensive units. As Monday’s depth chart release confirmed, Elko sees Mausi’s future next to Heyward and at the center of his defensive plans. Time will tell if the junior can convert that faith into a lock-down defense.
Dark Horse: Tre Freeman
Duke is a little light on reinforcements at linebacker, but it does have a few freshmen—redshirt and true—to bet on this season if Heyward and Mausi can’t play. One such option is Freeman, a Durham native and projected outside backup under Mausi. At 6-feet-0 tall, Freeman is maybe a little diminutive compared to his teammates, but his 234-pound build gives him a physicality that's uncommon for his size. Inexperience and youth are often a coin toss as to whether raw athleticism and natural instinct will trump the skillsets of more trained players, but Freeman’s unique physical assets and a new coach could give him a chance to shine.
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.