Duke Defense and Special Teams: 2020 Outlook


Duke’s defense was the team’s strong point early in the season, but the Blue Devils’ D wore down as the year went on.

Duke had the fourth-best pass defense in the ACC, thanks in large part to a pass rush that was much improved over last year. The team’s offense struggled to stay on the field, however, often stringing together multiple three-and-out drives, which put pressure on the defense.

The run defense numbers show that clearly. In game five, Duke allowed a season-low 69 rushing yards to Georgia Tech. That brought the Blue Devils’ season rushing defense to 125.8 yards per game, 3.48 yards per rush. Alabama had rushed for 145 yards against Duke, a season high to that point.

In the final seven games, Duke allowed 153.8 yards per week, including four straight weeks of 200-plus, three of them over 285. The Blue Devils gave up 4.84 yards per rush, including three straight weeks with an average over 5.0.

The good news for Duke is that the Blue Devils’ young defense will enter year three together with very little changed. If the Blue Devils can gel and mature as much over this offseason as they did last year, they could be one of the conference’s toughest units.

Duke has one major replacement in the secondary, where safety Dylan Singleton departs. But the Blue Devils return four starters in safeties Michael Carter and Marquis Waters and corners Josh Blackwell and Leonard Johnson. Freshmen Jeremiah Lewis and Jalen Alexander also got significant playing time, so the unit should be much improved, and that’s not counting on the return of former all-conference corner Mark Gilbert, who missed all of this season recovering from injury. Should he choose to return, and be healthy enough to contribute, it would be another valuable piece.

The linebacking corps will miss Koby Quansah, who was the unit’s spiritual leader, but Brandon Hill and Shaka Heyward both got plenty of snaps next to him, and Xander Gagnon will be slotted in as Quansah’s replacement.

The front four returns ends Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph II, who were the team’s best pass-rushing weapons. Derrick Tangelo also returns in the middle. Duke needs to replace tackles Edgar Cerenord and Trevon McSwain, as well as end Tre Hornbuckle.

Still, Duke returns 22 of its 36 sacks from this season and 49.5 of its 80 tackles for loss.

On special teams, Duke must replace both specialists. Austin Parker, who was one of the best punters in school history, finished his senior year, while kicker A.J. Reed, who rebounded from a disastrous start to his college career with one of the most accurate seasons in school history, will graduate and leave with a year of eligibility remaining.

Duke has two freshmen who redshirted this year and will get the first look at stepping in. Charlie Ham appeared in a handful of games, handling some kickoffs. Punter Porter Wilson sat out the year. Duke also has punter Jackson Hubbard on hand, if Wilson needs more time.

The long snappers should return intact, and, after spending much of the season trying various candidates, Duke might have found its return man in Damond Philyaw-Johnson, who returned two kicks for scores against Wake. Josh Blackwell, Jake Bobo and Miles Hudzick, who all took turns returning punts, are also all scheduled to be back.