Duke won a record 10 games and won the Coastal Division for the first time. North Carolina rallied from an abysmal start and beat Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. N.C. State, well – the Wolfpack went winless in the ACC, but optimists hope Dave Doeren set a foundation during his first season in Raleigh.
So there were some things – and in some cases a lot of things – to like about what the Triangle ACC teams accomplished last season. How the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Wolfpack played on defense, though, was often down on the list of positives.
The 2013 season wasn’t a great one, or even a very good one, for the defenses at Duke, UNC and N.C. State. None finished ranked higher than 61st nationally in total defense. Only the Tar Heels ranked among the top 40 in average yards per play allowed. And when it came to stopping the run, Duke, which ranked 71st, was the best of a bad bunch.
All three enter this season with greater expectations. Duke is hoping to repeat as Coastal champs, an accomplishment that would further legitimize its turnaround under coach David Cutcliffe. UNC is hoping to make a prophet out of coach Larry Fedora, who recently said “it’s time” for his team to take the next step. And with its schedule, a bowl game isn’t out of the question at N.C. State.
All three are likely to rely most on their offenses. But their defenses, ultimately, could decide their success – or lack thereof. Here’s a closer look at the defensive playmakers each school will most rely upon – safety Jeremy Cash at Duke, bandit Norkeithus Otis at UNC and safety Josh Jones at N.C. State.
Cash brings swag to ‘Duke Gang’
Before Cash played a snap for Duke, in the year he was forced to redshirt after transferring from Ohio State, observers could tell he had a different type of energy around him.
Younger kids call it swag – a high-energy air of confidence. And that’s how Cash played last year, earning first-team All-ACC honors and registering 121 tackles (8.64 per game), 9.5 tackles for loss, four pass break-ups, four interceptions and two caused fumbles, fumble recoveries and quarterback pressures apiece.
Cash’s teammates have naturally been drawn to him through his energy and high play. And in the past 12 months, Cash has stepped into more of a leadership role.
“This year, I’m just taking a whole different mentality,” he said. “Last year, I felt that there were instances in which I did more than I needed to. I tried to cover for other people, but I’ve learned to be able to trust my teammates, especially my other DBs.”
This was on display Monday, during Duke’s first preseason scrimmage – Cash moved forward to show a young cornerback where he should be lined up before dropping back to take care of his own responsibilities.
Cutcliffe said Cash is “home” now at Duke – he is no longer a transfer but a full member of the “Duke Gang” (a name the team has given themselves that frequently appears in Twitter posts as well).
Cash’s interest in leadership has come at a fortunate time for Duke, as the Blue Devils’ main defensive leader, Kelby Brown, is out for the season with a torn left ACL. Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said he is counting on Cash to fill the leadership void – and play a little linebacker, too. (Cash is almost a hybrid safety-linebacker in Duke’s 4-2-5 defense, playing closer to the line of scrimmage than a regular safety and regularly making plays in space.)
“He has now learned to be part of a team, in particular being part of Duke Gang,” Knowles said. “It’s not all about individual production. There is a greater purpose that we are all chasing.”
At UNC, Otis is the answer
After a season-and-a-half of allowing game-changing plays, something changed on the UNC defense midway through last season. Finally, the Tar Heels seemed to get it and seemed to better grasp the 4-2-5 scheme they’d seemed lost in so many times before.
UNC’s turnaround after a 1-5 start a season ago could be attributed to a lot of things – an easier second-half schedule, the emergence of Ryan Switzer, the job Marquise Williams did when he took over for Bryn Renner at quarterback. The difference on defense was noticeable, too.
If UNC is to pick up where it left off last season, then Otis, the senior bandit, likely will have a lot to do with it. The Tar Heels lost their best player in their front six from last season, defensive end Kareem Martin. Their most productive player in the secondary, safety Tre Boston, is also gone.
So who can UNC most count on entering this season? Fedora answered quickly.
“Norkeithus Otis,” he said. “He’s the answer. I mean, he’s the guy that makes it tick over there. And they all listen to him.”
Otis, who had 8.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss a season ago, is, by a wide margin, UNC’s most proven pass rusher. That’s hardly his only responsibility, though, at the bandit position – a hybrid position that is half defensive end and half linebacker.
Otis wasn’t recruited to play the position. He was already at UNC when Fedora arrived in 2012. Slowly, though, Otis has become what defensive coordinator Vic Koenning seeks in a bandit. It took time and some long sessions with Tommy Richardson, a graduate assistant who worked with Otis last season.
“It was just until last year that I really got it,” Otis said.
Years ago, the bandit position was among UNC’s greatest questions. Now, with Otis, the position is one of strength.
“You’re a pass rusher, you’re a guy that drops into coverage,” Otis said. “You’re a guy that has to help with run stop. You have to be a guy that’s willing to run to the ball each and every play, you’ve got to be a guy that’s just ready for it.”
Otis seems to be, and from what Fedora says, the Tar Heels’ defense will follow his lead.
Jones eager to ‘make a difference’ for Wolfpack
There’s a small part of redshirt freshman safety Jones that wishes he could have helped N.C. State’s defense last season, during a difficult 3-9 campaign.
But sometimes relying just on physical talent isn’t enough or smart for the development of young prospect.
“It was hard seeing us lose nine games,” Jones said. “It was hard watching the team suffer through that knowing that I redshirted and couldn’t help make a difference.”
But, as Jones is quick to point out: “I really didn’t think I was prepared mentally as a freshman.”
So Jones, who has a solid 6-foot-2 frame with 210 pounds, did his homework on the scout team to get ready for this season.
If N.C. State’s switch to a nickel defense, with an extra safety instead of a third linebacker, is going to work, it’s going to take a player with Jones’ talent, someone who can excel in pass coverage and provide run support.
“You’ve got to be able to do both,” Jones said.
Jones worked at linebacker last season on the scout team. He had a good reason, N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said.
“When you’re playing safety on the scout team, it’s pretty boring,” Doeren said. “You just kind of backpedal all day because you’re not allowed to hit the receivers.”
So Jones, who was versatile player in high school in Michigan on both sides of the ball and in kick returns, asked to play outside linebacker.
“We put him up there and I think it taught him how to play with his hands and he learned about run fits,” Doeren said.
Jones’ tackling ability could be a big plus for a Wolfpack defense that struggled to bring down runners, especially after starter Jarvis Byrd went down with an injury in mid-October.
“That’s the hardest thing about playing safety is that one-on-one tackle with nobody around,” Doeren said. “It takes a very skilled, patient guy to do it.”
The Wolfpack is banking on Jones being that guy. Jones does not lack for confidence. The redshirt season was the first step in Jones’ development. The first season as a starter is the next. By the time he’s a veteran, Jones can see himself on a path to being one of the best safeties in the ACC.
“I’m still learning and I’m still young, but I want to be one of the best in the ACC this year,” Jones said. “Just because I’m a redshirt freshman, doesn’t mean I can’t make a difference this year.”