Two years ago, when Duke won at Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils relied on four freshmen in the defensive backfield to lock down the victory. If that was the moment they realized they had arrived, this is the season the football world will arrive at the same realization.
Those four freshmen – cornerbacks Breon Borders and Bryon Fields, and safeties DeVon Edwards and Deondre Singleton – are juniors now, with 69 starts between them. And the fifth returning starter in that five-man secondary is all-ACC safety Jeremy Cash, an ACC defensive player of the year candidate. They have come a long way since that afternoon in Blacksburg.
“That was the first time we were all kind of put into the fire together, and we played the whole second half, and we all played well, and we won the game,” Borders said. “Right then and there, I knew we were going to be good. … That’s when it clicked in my mind that we were going to be a good – a great backfield.”
There was a time when Duke’s secondary was the football equivalent of old destroyers being towed out to sea for target practice, blown up by one quarterback after another, bombs away, over and over again.
In David Cutcliffe’s time at Duke, no position group has come farther than the secondary, which in this season of transition at quarterback, receiver, offensive and defensive line and linebacker, is Duke’s unquestioned strength – even after losing an occasional starter when Dwayne Norman was moved to linebacker.
Cash, who turned down the NFL to come back for his final season at Duke, and Edwards, who scored four return touchdowns as a freshman two years ago, get most of the attention. That may change this season as Fields, Borders and Singleton continue to emerge.
“I think we’re better athletically, but the productivity is pretty special,” Cutcliffe said.
Duke has often had an elite cornerback or safety, but rarely this kind of strength in numbers. It was the departure of one of those elite guys, cornerback Ross Cockrell, that helped spur this group to success. When Cockrell graduated in 2014 and became a fourth-round pick of the Buffalo Bills, Singleton said the young players Cockrell had mentored realized their time had come.
“I just think when he left, we just kind of came together as a whole,” Singleton said. “We said, ‘Look, we don’t have Ross here anymore, we have to do this on our own.’ We can learn from each other, learn from our mistakes, learn from what we’ve done in the past, and move into the future.”
Last season, Duke allowed 2,688 passing yards and an opposing passer rating of 115.20, down from 3,414 yards and 129.84 the year before and 3,474 yards and 151.55 in 2012. That will be a difficult progression to maintain – as Duke has improved, its opponents have thrown the ball more while playing from behind – but this group has the talent to do it.
Specifically, one area for improvement would be interceptions: Duke had only 11 last year, down from 18 in Cockrell’s senior season. Borders (seven picks in two seasons) and Fields (one) will have opportunities to improve those numbers this season with Duke more likely to leave them isolated in one-on-one outside coverage.
“People can say the secondary is the strongest part of the team, whatever,” Singleton said. “I just think our team is strong in general. It doesn’t matter what part of the team you’re talking about. Everybody is strong.”
But … aren’t you guys pretty good?
“Yeah, we are,” Singleton said, laughing.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947