As No. 16 Duke heads on the road to take on unbeaten No. 4 Florida State, the Blue Zone has a key player from each side to keep an eye on:
Duke: Brandon Johnson
If Duke wants to go down to Tallahassee, Fla., and escape with a signature win, it is going to have to scheme up a way to shut down Florida State’s elite passing arsenal.
The Seminoles have two of the nation’s best receivers in Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson, who both possess impressive frames and have terrorized defenses all season long. Add in South Carolina transfer tight end Jaheim Bell, and Florida State possesses one of the best troves of weapons in the nation. These stars are a tough task for any team, but the Blue Devils have one player who they will likely deploy all over the field in order to try to lock down the air.
Enter Brandon Johnson, the junior nickel who has been a swiss army knife for the past two seasons. Last week against N.C. State, the Newton, N.C., native was all over the field, breaking up several deep balls and racking up a sack and a tackle for loss. Last season, Johnson was similarly dominant, tied for the team lead in sacks and pass breakups with 5.5 and seven, respectively.
However, the versatile defender and the defense as a whole has not faced an offense quite as dangerous as Florida State’s yet. Defensive coordinator Tyler Santucci will likely line Johnson up all over the field, allowing him to utilize his unique skill set for whatever is the most pressing concern. If the junior can find a way to neutralize some of the superb Seminole receivers and possibly rack up a sack on his signature nickel blitz, Duke could be in good shape come the end of Saturday.
Florida State: Kalen DeLoach
While Florida State’s playmakers will get most of the attention, Duke has some of its own, especially if quarterback Riley Leonard makes his return from injury on Saturday.
The Blue Devils boast one of, if not the best, rushing attacks in the league, led by running backs Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore in addition to Leonard. Duke is 19th in the nation in rushing offense, racking up 198.5 yards per game on the ground and 17 touchdowns.
While the Seminoles’ defensive line is stout, the Blue Devils’ offensive line has shown an ability to create a push at the line of scrimmage, forcing teams to make tackles at the second level. Luckily for Florida State, it boasts one of the best linebackers in the ACC in Kalen DeLoach, and the senior will be tasked with stopping the Duke ground game.
So far this season, Savannah, Ga., native has been a standout for the Florida State defense, racking up 31 tackles and 3.5 sacks, including one strip sack that essentially won a game for the Seminoles against Clemson in Death Valley. He will likely be sent to Leonard or redshirt freshman Henry Belin IV often, as well as being expected to wrap up Waters and Moore near the line of scrimmage.
If DeLoach can make one big play like he did against the Tigers, that could be enough to turn the tide in favor of the home team.
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