There is little doubt that one of the big priorities this spring in Durham, N.C., is to improve the defense.
For all the strides the Blue Devils made as a program last year, the defense lagged behind. That was most evident in the final five games of the season, when Duke gave up an average of 49.2 points per game. To be fair, two of those games came against Florida State and Clemson.
Still, there were opportunities to beat the other three teams -- Georgia Tech, Miami and Cincinnati -- but the defense had trouble coming up with stops. So during the course of offseason evaluation, the coaching staff has decided to go back to the basics.
The hope is to allow players to stop thinking so much and just play.
"We’ve worked out some of the kinks," defensive end Kenny Anunike said in a recent phone conversation. "Coach [Jim] Knowles has tried to simplify some of our play calling, especially for the defensive ends to take off some of the mental stresses we had. The offense is thinking about how to trick the defensive ends. If you can take advantage of a team’s defensive ends, you’ve got them in the run game. With Coach Knowles simplifying things, he's trying to help make us more successful when it comes to that."
And how has the plan gone over so far in practice?
"There has been a difference, and I think it’s working so far," Anunike said. "This game is a mental game and the more you can simplify things and slow things down, the better you’ll be able to play and the faster you’ll be able to play. Offenses have become more complex. By slowing down your mind and being able to take the call and work with your athleticism, that helps us a lot and allows us to not think as much."
Of course, players are still expected to stay within the scheme and the play call without freelancing. But this is a way to help players like Anunike use their athleticism to make plays.
"It almost takes you back to your high school days," he said.