The sadness was palpable Monday night in Duke’s locker room as the realization set in that the defense had lost its best player. By Tuesday morning, it was official: First-team All-ACC linebacker Kelby Brown was out for the year with a torn ACL in his left knee. His surgery is scheduled for Wednesday – the second ACL surgery that has wiped out an entire year of his career.
“It’s definitely a big hit for us,” said David Helton, Duke’s other starting linebacker. “He was an unbelievable player.”
Brown rushed the quarterback on the second play of the Blue Devils’ scrimmage, and he went down and stayed down. Instantly he screamed, “No!” slamming the turf with his fist and grabbing his left knee. Brown – who has torn his right ACL twice while at Duke – knew right away.
The heart and soul of the defense, Brown will be hard to replace from a physical and emotional standpoint. Focusing on the concrete, though, last year Brown recorded 114 total tackles (third in the ACC behind teammates Helton and Jeremy Cash), 8.77 tackles per game (2nd), 11 tackles for loss, eight quarterback hurries, and two pass break-ups, interceptions, caused fumbles and recovered fumbles apiece. He was voted to the preseason All-ACC team, too.
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Brown’s 11 tackles for loss were the most of any returning Duke player. The Blue Devils had their ACC Coastal Division championship season last year in spite of their trouble getting into the opposing backfield – just five teams from the Power 5 conferences averaged fewer tackles for loss per game (Kentucky, Purdue, Miami, Wisconsin and Notre Dame). The Blue Devils surrendered an average of 418 yards per game, 12th in the 14-team ACC.
But Duke has no choice other than to band together and see what’s next, as Helton put it. As a senior who started 13 of 14 games last year, Helton will try to be more vocal, he said, attempting to fill some of Brown’s leadership void.
“It’s his leadership ability out there that will probably be missed the most,” Helton said.
Coach David Cutcliffe refused to speculate who would take Brown’s spot after Monday night’s scrimmage, but Helton singled out redshirt senior C.J. France and redshirt freshman Chris Holmes.
France, who started 10 games in 2012 when Brown was out, has plenty of experience, recording 103 career tackles. Holmes is a converted safety, making the switch to linebacker during the spring.
“He’s almost as big as me and faster than me, no doubt,” Brown said of Holmes last month.
Helton, too, spoke highly of Holmes’ athletic ability – but he is limited by a tweaked hamstring.
Deion Williams, a junior with 21 career tackles, took Brown’s place during the scrimmage.
While he won’t be on the field, Brown won’t be gone. Unfortunately for him, he has plenty of experience contributing from the sidelines and helping linebackers in the film room. He’ll continue to do that, he told his teammates during a Tuesday morning meeting.
“He’s in really great spirits, and that helps,” Helton said. “It’s unbelievable for him to be in good spirits at this time, but, honestly, it helps us, whether it’s emotionally or psychologically.”