Upon arriving at Duke from Boston College, Ben Albert had a simple message for his Blue Devils defensive linemen.
“The biggest thing is having those guys have a great sense of pride in our unit,” the Duke assistant said. “Making sure guys understand that the speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack, and we want to be the leaders of this football team.”
As Duke readies to face Heisman front-runner Lamar Jackson and travel to Louisville on a short week, Albert’s unit has set a rather surprising tone for the defense. It took the Blue Devils just four games to match last year’s sack total of 17, and their 20 sacks through a 3-3 start is tied for ninth nationally and third in the ACC, this despite not recording a single quarterback takedown in this past Saturday’s 13-6 win over Army.
A.J. Wolf, whose five sacks lead the team and are tied for fifth in the ACC, has attributed the makeover to a renewed bigger-picture approach in attacking the quarterback, with an emphasis on the unpredictable early downs rather than just passing situations.
“It’s a four-man pass-rush -- if someone gets a sack, all four guys did a good job,” the redshirt senior tackle said. “I think I’ve had some success this year so far because the other three guys on the line did their job, whether containing the quarterback or guys stepped up or it was a scramble and I was there right at the scramble. Just stuff like that I think really goes a long way.”
Albert came aboard from BC after the previous coach at the position, Jim Collins, transitioned into a special assistant role to head coach David Cutcliffe. The Eagles had the nation’s No. 1 defense last season and notched 34 sacks, fourth most in the league.
“I think it’s a team effort, and to me it’s like, regardless of who gets the sack, everybody has a target,” Albert said. “It’s all tied in. Great coverage leads to sacks and great pressure leads to interceptions. It all works together. Yes, I did try to emphasize defensive ownership and the fact that it’s up to us to beat people, but [I] also emphasize the fact that everybody has a high sense of responsibility to get the job done.”
Duke ranked 13th in the ACC last year in sacks. Its sack leader then, safety Jeremy Cash, tallied 2.5 sacks in all of 2015. Wolf accumulated three sacks alone in this season’s opener.
“The fact of the matter is, rushing the passer is two different philosophies and two different aspects,” Albert said. “For example, first- and second-down sack production is different from third-down sack production, because you’re dealing with different elements. In a 50-50 run-pass situation, you’ve got to be great at recognizing pass and you’ve got to have guys that can flat-out beat people. And then when you get to third down you obviously can do things schematically because there’s a higher likelihood of seeing pass, so you can attack protections and so forth.”
Five of the 11 Duke players to get sacks so far this season are defensive linemen. For all of the improvements the program had made since 2012 -- the first year of its current run of four straight bowl games -- the pass rush was always the biggest question mark, never finishing better than seventh in the ACC in sacks.
Of course, Jackson will test all of these first-half philosophies Friday night, as Louisville comes off a bye that followed its first loss of the season. The Cardinals quarterback has made several defenses look foolish this season, even when the opposition has executed its fundamentals and placement to a T.
“Earlier this season it’s been a lot about just getting to the quarterback as best you can and just really trying to get there quick, and I think more since everyone knows he’s a big scramble guy and he’s really athletic, I think it’s going to be a lot of contain and making sure everyone has their scramble lanes covered,” Wolf said. “Because if one guy can get back to him, we can’t allow him to escape.”