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Duke's defensive backs find their footing this spring

Bryon Fields is healthy and ready to once again be a leader in Duke's secondary. Don Kelly/AP

As the rest of the country revs up for spring practice, Duke is winding down, and one of the biggest question marks looming over the program — the secondary — has proven to be one of the highlights of the spring. We talked with David Cutcliffe about the work of the new-look DB corps.

Q. You’re replacing some longtime starters on the back of the defense, with DeVon Edwards, Breon Borders and Deondre Singleton all moving on. What have you seen from that group this spring?

A. We’ve got some new people, but we’ve got some talent, some real competition. I think Alonzo Saxton played incredibly well when he stepped in for DeVon after the Notre Dame game. He really became one of our most productive players. Mark Gilbert got some real experience with Breon getting hurt. We’re not maybe as young as everyone thinks. We’ve got Bryon [Fields] back at the other corner, and he’s finally healthy.

We’ve got some young people right now playing well, but Jeremy McDuffie, we moved him in to where Jeremy Cash played and Corbin McCarthy, both very productive players. Jeremy McDuffie may have had the best run of practices and the best spring practice of anybody on our team. I’m encouraged. I don’t think we have all the answers yet, but it’s one of the things that’s most encouraging about our team right now.

Q. There were certainly some good games mixed in there, but as a group, Duke allowed nearly 9 yards per attempt last year. As a coach, that’s a number that has to keep you up at night. What gets done this spring to turn that around?

A. It’s certainly a combination, but explosive plays are one of those things that if you give them up, you can’t win. That’s where those averages kick in. We gave up far too many. You do go back and study scheme and technique. It’s improving the pass rush. It’s a combination of different things from matchup standpoints. As we kept getting people hurt, you lose DeVon, you lose Breon -- DeVon’s the best football player on our team. It just took its toll. Bryon wasn’t back full speed. Yeah, it was part secondary, but it’s part defensive front. It’s part me. You have to look at schematically what you’re doing. What’s best for your talent? We have to minimize big plays, compete at a higher level. You’re hitting on a point of emphasis we’ve had all spring.

Q. How much of a difference can it make for the younger guys to know it’s their time now, as opposed to being thrust into a role last year?

A. Huge difference. That’s the same thing with Daniel Jones. The talent is there, but it’s a huge difference when it’s thrust upon you to play 70, 75 snaps a game when you were kind of blending in in anticipation of playing 15 or 20. It’s a difficult mental and physical transition.

Q. You mentioned the pass rush making a big difference on the back end, too. How has that group looked this spring?

A. Ben Albert, our D-line coach, is building a group by coaching and by recruiting that are going to be different. We’re going to look different as a Duke football team. That defensive front, I’m extremely excited to what I believe our potential is starting to become there. And the type of person and coach Ben Albert is, we’ll reach that potential. We’ve already had a better spring at rushing the passer. Albeit, one thing this team has to do is, we gave up more sacks than we have in a long time, and we have to protect the QB better. But we’re seeing a better pass rush than we had in the past.

Q. As much transition as there is in the secondary, having Bryon Fields back this year has to be a big bonus. How much of an impact can a healthy version of Bryon make for your team?

A. Obviously, it was tough to be injured and redshirt [in 2015], but he’s got his toughness and speed and his swag back. It’s hard to be a leader when your knee’s swelling up and to even feel just a portion of yourself. He’s really had a good offseason, a good spring, and I know he is, without question, a great leader. Some of the progress we’ve made in the secondary with some of our young people is because of Bryon. He’s extremely bright. It’s important to him. He wants everyone around him to have that same mentality. I’m praying we keep Bryon healthy and he can have the kind of year that I know he wants to have as a senior.