After years of futility, Duke defense is now one of nation's best under coordinator Jim Knowles
The sight of Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles smoking a cigar is always welcomed for the Blue Devils. That's because when they win, Knowles lights up afterward. It's a tradition he started in the latter part of last season, one that's caught on so much that his defensive players proudly supply him with cigars.
"It's a symbol of a victory," Knowles tells The Inside Read.
This season Knowles has had a cigar after all but one of No. 23 Duke's games, thanks in large part to his stifling 4-2-5 defense that's among the best in the FBS. The Blue Devils (5-1, 2-0 in ACC) are No. 1 in the nation in points allowed (56), fourth in total defense (252.8 yards per game) and second in passing yards allowed (131.2 yards per game).
"We're still piecing it together," Knowles says. "There are still a lot of holes that I see, but the smoke machine is still in full force, baby."
With a win Saturday at Virginia Tech (3-4, 1-2), Duke would continue to control its fate in the ACC's Coastal Division and be bowl-eligible for a fourth straight season. That's an amazing turnaround for a program that won just four games in four seasons prior to hiring coach David Cutcliffe in late 2007.
"Our guys are believing," Knowles says. "That's what's fun."
Entering this season, Knowles knew his aggressive, physical defense would have to step up to help first-year starting quarterback Thomas Sirk, who has thrown for 1,260 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
"The defense was going to have to win some games," Knowles says. "When you have a new quarterback, they're going to need time to gel. We've been working around here to have a situation where everyone could be confident in the defense. Now was really the time where we could take that onus on ourselves."
It's a challenge that's been embraced by star redshirt senior safety Jeremy Cash and senior linebacker Dwayne Norman, both heavy-hitters. The 6'2", 210-pound Cash is tied for fifth in the FBS in tackles for loss (11.5) and is second on the team in total tackles (47). Cash also leads Duke in sacks (1.5) and quarterback hurries (seven). He played his freshman year in 2011 at Ohio State before transferring to Durham and was a second-team All-America pick both last season and in 2013 by different publications.
"He was already great, but he took the next step to be dominant." Knowles says of Cash. "He's really come into his own. He's playing a lot more physical even than he ever did at the line of scrimmage. Not only is he doing things on the perimeter, he's mixing it up inside."
The 6'1", 215-pound Norman leads the Blue Devils in tackles with 51 this season, his first playing linebacker. He had previously started intermittently at safety. Cash and Norman's playmaking ability near the line of scrimmage has been instrumental for Knowles.
"They know the system," Knowles says. "I can call things and then change calls and we're all on the same page. There's tremendous flexibility."
One of the biggest keys to Duke's defensive success this season has been its ability to stop the run. The Blue Devils are 29th in the FBS in rushing defense (121.7 yards per game), a year after being ranked 92nd in that category (192.9 yards per game). That's happened because of the deep defensive tackle rotation highlighted by redshirt junior A.J. Wolf and senior defensive tackle Carlos Wray.
"Duke has never had depth there," Knowles says of the defensive tackle position. "That's huge."
It showed in Duke's 34-20 upset of Georgia Tech last month when the Yellow Jackets had just 173 yards rushing. That snapped their streak of 17 straight games with at least 200 yards rushing, which had been the nation's longest.
"I could see the look in their eyes that they were not going to fail," Knowles says of his defense. "They were going to complete the mission. Overachieving, whatever it is, they believe right now and we want to keep them that way."
Yet as well as Duke has played defensively, it hasn't always been that way recently. When the Blue Devils made their first bowl in nearly two decades in 2012, they gave up an average of 49.2 points per game in five straight losses to close that season.
"For being a program that had a breakthrough year, those five games, we just didn't have anything," Knowles says. "We were getting overwhelmed across the board. We had literally scrapped and pieced it together and believed in the program to get to six, but we couldn't hang on defensively. We had some really tough games and some low moments. It was hard."
Knowles's defense has improved in points allowed every year since , but Duke still hasn't won a bowl game since 1961. That's in part because the Blue Devils have surrendered an average of 45.3 points per game in their bowl losses the last three seasons.
Because of that Knowles is cautious about giving too much credit to his defense with half of the regular season still to be played. "You want to keep looking ahead," Knowles says. "You want to keep the blinders on, keep pushing the sled and not let anybody get comfortable. I know where we came from, but a lot of these guys don't necessarily know that."
What the Blue Devils defense does know, though, is that it wants Knowles to keep lighting up.
A look at Trinity Valley College's record-breaking offense
Trinity Valley Community College coach Brad Smiley watched the minutes tick off the clock while the home crowd chanted, "We want 100!" Smiley's 14th-ranked junior college team was beating Texas A&T 93-7 with seven minutes remaining last month and game officials had implemented a running clock after halftime. So he let five minutes go by before he finally allowed his team to kick off.
Smiley stalled so offensive coordinator Clay Patterson and his scoreboard-busting spread offense wouldn't have the chance to fulfill the crowd's wish.
"He wouldn't let us score 100," Patterson says of Smiley with a laugh. "He was worried about the negative publicity about it, but I tried to tell him that in today's game it's not going to be negative. It's going to be positive. People are going to be like, 'Wow.'"
That's usually the reaction to the video game-like offensive stats of Trinity Valley, which is located in Athens, Texas. The Cardinals lead junior college programs in scoring (63 points per game), total offense (687.4 yards per game) and passing yards (463.6 yards per game). That's even more remarkable considering they are a run-based team.
"It's pretty shocking," Patterson says. "It's very humbling to see our kids have this much success, and we've still got more to go. That's the scary part."
It's been a winding path for the 34-year-old Patterson, who is now one of college football's brightest young offensive minds. A native of Morriss, Okla., Patterson spent his freshman year at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M as a backup tight end to Jeremy Shockey.
Patterson later finished his career as a wide receiver at Southeastern Oklahoma State, where he got his start as a part-time assistant coaching wide receivers in 2003. After three seasons, he took the same job at Tarleton State for a season before becoming Texas A&M-Kingsville's offensive coordinator the next year at age 25.
With a freshman quarterback who didn't even play the position his senior year of high school, Patterson's offense scored just three points in his first game as a play-caller in 2007. "It's kind of funny to think about now," Patterson says.
By the end of his first year as offensive coordinator, he had opened up his offense to a spread, no-huddle attack. By the time Patterson left Texas A&M-Kingsville after the 2012 season, his high-powered attack had broken 28 individual and 17 team offensive records.
But Patterson couldn't find a job and was down to a week's worth of money in early 2013 when then-newly hired Trinity Valley offensive coordinator Frank Scelfo abruptly left to become quarterbacks coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
That paved the way for Patterson's current job. "It was crazy," Patterson says.
Patterson and Smiley wanted to implement an up-tempo, spread offense in which there was also a pass option on every running play. So that spring they visited Baylor, which has a similar scheme. The two men were let in by Bears assistant Jeff Lebby and watched film until their eyes hurt, even though they didn't get to talk with any of the Big 12 school's coaches.
"I don't know that any of those guys at Baylor would know who I am," Patterson says with a laugh.
After the visit to Waco, Patterson and Smiley realized it wasn't crazy to install the run-pass option offense they wanted. "All the quarterback has to do is look at the box for the run and see if there's something uncovered for the pass," Patterson says. "If they're going to give you gifts, you take it every play."
Since Patterson's arrival at Trinity Valley, the Cardinals have shattered offensive records. Last year, the Cardinals set the junior college record and what is believed to be an all-level record for total offense in a season (7,778 yards). The only team averaging more offensive yards per game than Trinity Valley (687.4) this year is Baylor (719.7).
It's helped that Patterson has star quarterback Jérod Evans and four other offensive players with FBS scholarship offers. The 6'4", 225-pound Evans transferred to Trinity Valley last year after he tore his ACL as freshman at Air Force in 2013 following a year in prep school. Less than a year after undergoing surgery, the sophomore was the Cardinals' backup quarterback last season until the playoffs, where he tied a then-school-record with six touchdown passes in his first start.
It's been an impressive transformation for Evans to Patterson's offense after playing in the triple-option at Air Force and a pro-style scheme at Mansfield (Texas) High. This season he's completed 179 of his 287 passes for 3,164 yards with 38 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
That included a school-record eight touchdown passes in last Saturday's 63-17 blowout of Arkansas Baptist, the second time a running clock was implemented in one of Trinity Valley's games. "He's a special kid," Patterson says of Evans. "Arm talent-wise, there's not a throw he can't make. He's listed as a dual-threat guy, but I think he's one of the best pocket-passers in the country."
California and Auburn are considered Evans's top suitors, and he has official visits scheduled for both after the season. Memphis could also be a player for him.
"In the next four weeks, there's no telling who else is going to come around," Patterson says. "He's got his sights set on some big dogs. If Oregon or Florida don't feel really good about their quarterback situations, we're trying to see what happens with those schools."
After last season, Patterson had opportunities to move up himself but opted not to take either junior college head-coaching job he was offered or an FCS quarterbacks coach position. His goal is to someday be an FBS offensive coordinator, but for now he's focused on his offense continuing its mantra to "Eat Greedy."
E-A-T stands for effort, attitude and tempo. And Patterson and his unit want to do what Smiley wouldn't let them earlier this season.
"He says we can score 100," Patterson says, "but it's got to be against one of the teams in our conference."
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