By Steve Wiseman
A position of strength throughout Duke’s rise from football oblivion, the defensive backfield offers interesting subplots as preseason camp progresses.
Duke returns one of the top defensive players in the ACC in Mark Gilbert, a first-team all-conference cornerback last season.
The Blue Devils, though, are looking for a starting cornerback on the opposite side of Gilbert. Here’s where the first twist lies.
Redshirt sophomore Myles Hudzick exited spring practice listed No. 1 on the depth chart with redshirt freshman Josh Blackwell behind him. But Duke’s coaches have since moved Michael Carter from safety to cornerback, where he’s impressed while working with the second team during the team’s first five practices this month.
“I’m going to tell you after five days, I’m convinced we’ve made a good decision,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Monday. “He had an excellent day today. He continues to grow. It gives us a physical presence at corner.”
A sophomore, the 5-10, 180-pound Carter played in 12 games, starting two, as a safety during Duke’s 7-6 season a year ago. Though playing as a true freshman, he proved to be an impact player by recording has 18 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for losses with a sack, as well as two pass breakups, one forced fumble and one quarterback pressure.
He’s liking the transition to going one-on-one with wide receivers.
“You are out there on an island,” Carter said. “You’ve got to be mentally tough. You are out there by yourself. You really don’t have any help. You have got to expect to make every play. That’s the mentality you have to play with.”
The move is a bit easier for Carter because, even while at safety last year, he guarded slot receivers rather than tight ends or running backs.
It’s making for an interesting camp battle with Hudzick for the starting job. Hudzick earned the No. 1 slot on the depth chart with a strong spring where Duke’s coaches named one of three most improved player award winners on defense.
Though a year older than Carter, the 5-10, 170-pound Hudzick trails in game experience. Carter played in 387 snaps last season while Hudzick was on the field for 145.
Cutcliffe likes the team’s depth at cornerback.
“Myles is doing a good job,” Cutcliffe said. “Obviously we believe in Mark. We’ve got Josh Blackwell that’s making a move. So what we’ve got is a little bit of flexibility.”
With Carter out of the mix at safety, for now, Duke has senior Jeremy McDuffie, junior Dylan Singleton and sophomore Marquis Waters as its starters. Though playing with a sore hamstring, redshirt freshman Leonard Johnson is in the mix as well along with redshirt junior Jordan Hayes.
McDuffie is practicing after recovering well from a torn ACL he suffered last Nov. 18 in a game against Georgia Tech. His health appeared to be a question mark entering camp, but Cutcliffe said everything is progressing correctly so far.
The defensive backfield is annually a strength for Duke. While going to bowl games in five of the last six seasons, Duke has sent cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and Breon Borders and safeties Matt Daniels and Jeremy Cash to the NFL. Cash was the ACC’s defensive player of the year in 2015.
Carter is well aware of the high expectations for the defensive backs, guys who man the last line of defense in Dukes 4-2-5 alignment.
“The expectation is you are going to play every snap,” Carter said. “That’s what they expect of you, especially if you are a starter. You have to play every snap. If you get beat, shrug it off and keep going. It’s a mental game. Every day the coaches are out here yelling and trying to test your mentals. That’s what it’s all about. You have to stay mentally tough to play all day.”