Duke preview: Offensive turnover will limit Blue Devils’ upset chances

DEFENSE

Alabama’s 3-4 over/under defensive scheme continues to get faster, but the trend of getting lighter may have been put on hold, as there appears to be more beef in the middle of the defense overall. Duke employs a 4-2-5 base scheme, and while Duke was solid against the pass last year, the Blue Devils ranked a horrid 105th against the run. Better results are expected – all starters but one have some level of experience this time around – but Duke will still be out-gunned by the Alabama players it lines up against.

DEFENSIVE LINE
This is the unit the Duke coaches are excited about heading into 2019. Three seniors and a junior start. Derrick Tangelo and Edgar Cerenord, both seniors, return at tackle, while the ends are Tre Hornbuckle and Victor Dimukeje. There’s good depth throughout, as Trevon McSwain and Tahj Rice have experience inside and Chris Rumph II and Drew Jordan were both pushing for starting spots at end before landing as reserves. Dimukeje is the bellcow of the bunch; he’s started every game of his career and he’s got explosive power to go with a compact base. Rumph has the look of a typical speed-edge rusher. Improvement across the board is needed, as Duke finished just 88th in sacks and 67th in tackles for loss to go along with that 105th-ranked rush defense, but the potential is there.

Alabama comes into this game a bit banged up. True freshman sensation Justin Eboigbe will miss this game and probably at least one other. Two starters – tackle/end LaBryan Ray and noseguard D.J. Dale – and reserve Stephon Wynn Jr. have all been nicked up lately. There is cautious optimism for this group anyway, as experience is at a premium. Senior Raekwon Davis returns at strongside end, and his backup is listed as Phidarian Mathis, who will probably rotate between strongside end and tackle. Dale, a true freshman, blew away everyone in the spring to grab Quinnen Williams’ old spot in the middle.

With Wynn hobbled a bit, JUCO transfer Tevita Musika, who struggled in his first year at Alabama, made a big move up in fall camp and could wind up with substantial playing time in this game. With Eboigbe out, true freshman Byron Young will back up Ray, with two other freshmen, Antonio Alfano and redshirt Christian Barmore, gunning for snaps.

This is the deepest line Alabama has had in awhile, but it needs to prove it’s as good as pundits think. Duke has the clear edge in experience here, but Alabama is clearly more talented. A close call until Bama establishes itself. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
The tragedy of 2019 fall camp was when WLB Josh McMillon, a popular fifth-year senior who had so patiently waited for his moment in the sun, went down with a knee injury that will likely end his career. The loss of the intelligent McMillon also set off a mad scramble for a suitable replacement, and eventually ended up with brick-built true freshman Christian Harris holding the spot at camp’s end.

Dylan Moses moves to the middle full-time in 2019. While the raw talent here is off the charts, Alabama was going to lean on McMillon to set the defense, and that job now falls to Moses, who struggled with the task in his first two years on campus.

It doesn’t help that the depth chart behind them is wildly unsettled. True freshman Shane Lee is probably the next guy up if either Harris or Moses struggles, while sophomores Jalen Moody, Brandon Ale Kaho and Markail Benton each rose and fell depending on the day once fall camp got rolling. It’s not totally out of the realm of possibility to see walk-on Wes Baumhower get some trash snaps at some point, given his spring performance.

The situation at outside linebacker is much better. Anfernee Jennings returns at Jack linebacker, while Terrell Lewis, who has lost almost two full seasons to major injuries, finally gets the call at strongside. You’ll have to wait a half to see him, though, as Lewis was part of the group caught playing hooky from a team movie. With him out, Ben Davis may actually get the start at Sam, although Duke won’t run many plays that will require Bama to be in base alignment.

If it’s not Davis, true freshman King Mwituka, who was the story of fall camp, will start there. Christopher Allen could also move over from Jack. As for Duke, the Blue Devils’ lone freshman starter on defense will be Shaka Heyward at weakside linebacker. Senior Koby Quansah is expected to be a stalwart at middle linebacker and was listed atop the depth chart by Duke on Tuesday, but is also listed as out with a thumb injury by other sources. If he can’t go, Xander Gagnon will start there. One thing is certain: Duke won’t be physically intimidated. The top four inside linebackers on the Blue Devil team average 6’3”, 233. Overall, though, Bama is just better. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Duke can’t complain about a unit that ranked 33rd in pass efficiency defense and 36th in raw pass defense in 2018. Those are good numbers for a school like Duke in a conference like the ACC, especially given how quickly the Blue Devil offense could score and hand the ball back over to the opposition. The safety trio of Marquis Waters, Michael Carter and Dylan Singleton are all upperclassmen. Carter is the lone new starter of the bunch.

The cornerbacks were freshmen a year ago, Leonard Johnson and Josh Blackwell. Blackwell is stepping up into a full-time starting role and needs to make more plays. Playmaking, though, was not an issue for Johnson, who finished fifth on the team in tackles despite his inexperience, recorded 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, a 53-yard interception return, 2 QB hurries and a forced fumble. His passes defended and broken up, though, were on the low side, and he’ll have his hands full with Alabama’s veteran receivers.

The Crimson Tide is still experimenting in the safety group as game week approaches; Xavier McKinney has free safety locked down, but Shyheim Carter, Jared Mayden and Daniel Wright are all looking for roles at strong safety, Star and dimeback. The corner duo of Patrick Surtain II and Trevon Diggs could be the best in the country if Diggs stays healthy, and Josh Jobe has pushed so intently for playing time this spring and fall that he’s probably going to force Surtain into the Star role when Bama goes nickel.

Both units are quality, but Alabama has better athleticism and makes more plays. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
Duke returns a solid punter, Austin Parker, but the placekicking is unsettled. A.J. Reed, last year’s kickoff man, will replace Collin Wareham at the spot. Duke didn’t make a kick of more than 35 yards in length in 2018, so this will be watched closely. Also, this was one of the worst return teams in the country, and coverage ability wasn’t anything to write home about, either.

Overall, other than the punter Parker, this is just a poor special teams outfit in general. Alabama is expected to be much improved in this category, as true freshman Will Reichard beat out incumbent starter Joseph Bulovas at placekicker, and may have unseated punter Skyler DeLong as well. Reichard has been hitting just about everything in fall camp. Bama’s return and return coverage teams are also solid. This category isn’t particularly close. Advantage: Alabama

OVERALL

It’s a straight-eight right out of the gate. Alabama leads everywhere, although the suspensions mean Duke pulls close in running backs for half a game. And the Duke secondary and defensive line are far from terrible.

At first blush, this would seem to feel like a game that is close for the first half and then gets ripped apart after halftime, but it’s highly unlikely Duke is prepared for Alabama’s speed, particularly in the receiver corps. The key matchup here is that of Bama’s wide receivers against the Duke secondary, because if Alabama can open up the passing game early, Duke won’t be able to commit additional resources to improve its rush defense.

Defensively, Alabama must contain Harris at quarterback, because if there’s anything about Duke that is a dead-lock certainty, it’s that David Cutcliffe will figure out how to get the most from Harris by matching him up in ways that give him the best chance for success. This may end up being the most schematically sound opponent Alabama faces until it lines up against Texas A&M on Oct. 12.

So don’t fret if more points are scored here than one would think. Duke will get its chances. But Bama will get far more, and barring unforeseen injuries, will do more with them as the talent asserts itself.

Alabama 44
Duke 20

READ MORE:  Offense


Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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