Throughout 2016, as Duke put together its 2017 recruiting class, recruiting coordinator Matt Guerrieri looked ahead and saw great things from the defensive backs.
He just didn’t think they’d be asked to contribute so much just a year into their college careers.
Junior Mark Gilbert suffered a season-ending hip injury on Sept. 8 at Northwestern, altering Duke’s depth chart in the defensive backfield.
Sophomore Michael Carter and redshirt freshman Josh Blackwell will now be Duke’s starting cornerbacks for Saturday’s game at Baylor.
Sophomore Marquis Waters is starting at one safety position and redshirt freshman Leonard Johnson is starting at another, giving the Class of 2017 four of the five defensive backfield starting positions in Duke’s 4-2-5 alignment.
“It’s a really, really talented group,” Guerrieri, Duke’s safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator, said. “We knew they were young but they were going to be able to go out and play with anybody in the country. Those guys have a different mentality than a lot of young guys. They have a look in their eyes with a lot of confidence.”
It’s impossible to overstate Gilbert’s absence. He was a first-team, all-ACC player with six interceptions and 15 pass breakups for a school-record 21 passes defended last season. He made preseason all-ACC and all-American teams this season.
But the surgery to repair the hip injury that occurred in the first half of Duke’s 21-7 win at Northwestern will keep him from playing for the Blue Devils (2-0) again this season.
Blackwell was already starting at the cornerback position opposite Gilbert while Carter, who can play cornerback or safety, was inside at safety against Northwestern when he recorded his first career interception. When Gilbert’s injury occurred, Carter moved back out to cornerback with Blackwell.
Now they’ll be starting together. While respecting Gilbert’s ability and production, Duke coach David Cutcliffe is comfortable relying on the younger players.
“Michael Carter and Josh Blackwell have stepped up in a big way,” Cutcliffe said. “They are great athletes with a lot of speed. Josh Blackwell has got a lot of speed. That’s always a good place to start at corner.”
The 5-10, 180-pound Carter finds himself in a swing position among the defensive backs. With the ability to play safety or corner, he joins past Duke defensive backs like Ross Cockrell, DeVon Edwards and Alonzo Saxton who’ve played that versatile role.
“Now it’s Michael Carter,” Guerrieri said. “We always try to find one guy that we can train in multiple positions. Mike has done that tremendously. He’s special on and off the field. A really sharp guy and a great representative of this program.”
In the defensive back meeting room this week, there’s been plenty of chatter about being without Gilbert. The team knows the outside view is that Duke could be weak on the back end of the defense without it’s all-ACC player.
“We hear, I guess, the talk about, oh man we lost Mark so we might be in a bit of trouble,” Carter said. “But me and Josh, we are going to take on his role in full stride. We believe we can perform at a high level just like Mark did and just continue the way he played on the field. We have our own islands out there.”
At safety, Duke continues to play without senior Jeremy McDuffie, a third-team, all-ACC player a year ago whose recovery from the torn ACL he suffered last Nov. 18 has stalled.
Johnson started in his position at Northwestern, with Waters and junior Dylan Singleton starting at the other safety slots.
It’s a young group of defensive backs but, at the same time, one determined to play just as well without Gilbert.
“What it meant for all of us in the (defensive backs) room is, basically, we have to fill that void,” Carter said. “Mark won’t be with us unfortunately. We all have to step up and be a leader and take on that role that he carried so well. We are going to pick up where Mark left off with no drop off.”
Duke at Baylor
When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday