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Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles details plans to replace Kelby Brown

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- Chuck Liddy
David Helton (47) will have to take on a bigger playmaking role in Kelby Brown's absence.

Duke’s theoretical replacement plan for first-team All-ACC linebacker Kelby Brown continues to evolve.

It’s theoretical, of course, because the Blue Devils haven’t tested any theories in a game. We will have much more concrete answers in the coming weeks.

Until then, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles addressed replacing Brown, who is out for the season with a torn ACL, in a teleconference Thursday morning.

Senior David Helton, who started 13 games next to Brown last year as the “Will” linebacker, will take Brown’s spot as the “Mike” linebacker in Duke’s 4-2-5 defense. The Mike linebacker is like the quarterback for the defense. He makes the calls for the front six players (defensive linemen and linebackers), and he has to have great instincts, knowing when he needs to come forward to stop a run (anticipating whatever blockers are coming at him, too) and also be able to recognize a pass, dropping into zone coverage.

As the system worked last year, Brown was way more aggressive than Helton – and part of the reason Brown could do that was because he knew Helton had his back. Helton led the ACC with 133 tackles and 9.5 tackles per game – he was a steady performer with minimal “flash” (four tackles for loss, one quarterback sack, two pass break-ups and two quarterback pressures). That’s not meant to be a knock on Helton. His job was to be steady and reliable, and he filled that role well.

Brown made more of the impact plays – 11.0 tackles for loss, eight quarterback pressures, and two interceptions, pass break-ups, caused fumbles and recovered fumbles apiece, along with 114 tackles (8.77 per game). He relied on his instincts to “take grass” – aggressively diagnose a play correctly and just go for it with reckless abandon.

As the new Mike linebacker, Helton will be asked to do things he hasn’t done. Can he go from old reliable to impact playmaker? Duke thinks so.

“David will step up, and he will assume that mantle, and he understands the defense and knows the calls,” Knowles said. “We’re going to be OK.”

The next most interesting part of the plan – or perhaps the most interesting – is the idea that safeties Jeremy Cash and Dwayne Norman will have special packages that feature them as the Will linebacker (the spot Helton vacated). Cash already plays a hybrid safety/linebacker, often playing significantly closer to the line of scrimmage than other defensive backs. Apparently that role will expand, and one could see the beginnings of that in Monday’s scrimmage. The challenge for Cash in an expanded linebacker role will be dealing with offensive linemen trying to block him. He will have to be strong enough to shed those blockers quickly to still make plays.

Norman, a junior, seemingly slips further down the depth chart every year. He started five games as a freshman and six more last year – but none after the Virginia game on Oct. 19. Part of that was because of an injury, and part of it was other freshmen (Bryon Fields, Breon Borders, Deondre Singleton and DeVon Edwards) moving in front of him. When Norman makes mistakes, they tend to be big mistakes that are easy to notice – he gave up big, long touchdowns on consecutive plays in last year’s 58-55 loss to Pittsburgh (67 yards to Devin Street and 69 yard to Tyler Boyd).

All of that is basically an elaborate way of saying, sure, why not try Norman as a hybrid Will linebacker. The coaches have liked his potential, propensity for big mistakes aside.

As for when these special Cash/Norman-as-linebacker packages could be used …

“Definitely third down, of course,” Knowles said, “but also spread sets, versus personnel groups that try to open up the field. You could easily see a Jeremy Cash or Dwayne Norman as a linebacker.”

So now the final question: Who is the more full-time replacement for Helton at the Will linebacker spot? Helton on Tuesday mentioned redshirt senior C.J. France, who started 10 games in 2012, and redshirt freshman Chris Holmes, who is a converted safety. Knowles also added true freshman Zavier Carmichael’s name to that mix.

In July, Brown (6-foot-2, 230) described Holmes (6-2, 215) as “almost as big as me and faster than me.” And unlike Carmichael, Holmes has had a year to become familiar with the defensive system.

“Extremely athletic, very rangy,” Knowles said of Holmes. “A natural pass rusher on blitzes that we haven’t really had at that position. Faster than all the linebackers. He struggled a little bit with play recognition – as you get closer to the line of scrimmage, it becomes more difficult. But he has all the tools, everything you would look for in a Will linebacker – the size to be able to play up there, but the DB characteristics as far as speed and athleticism.”

Holmes has been slowed in camp by a tweaked hamstring, so it might take him a bit to get up to speed. But if he could be ready to contribute in a major way by, say, the ACC opener at Miami in Week 5, that might be the best outcome for Duke.

When Brown went down, Duke lost its best defender. All of these various moving parts in his absence are a testament to the magnitude of his importance.

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley
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